Eight months ago an essay in NYROB stopped us cold. It compared two recent novels, challenging them—like an emperor commanding two subjects to fight to the death—to prove they could be the standard-bearer for the future of literature. Good novels, being examined like manifestos, in a head-to-head competition. Is there anything cooler than that? So we vowed to read the books, and follow the essay like a map, to see if we had truly discovered the most awesome thing ever.
“Two Paths for the Novel” is an unusual essay for NYROB because it revisits two books that had already been reviewed, separately, in earlier issues. It’s also remarkable in that its author is Zadie Smith, herself a well-known fiction author. Our spy in the NYROB office says that Bob Silvers, the editor, is very taken with Smith’s abilities as a literary critic and has encouraged her to publish in NYROB despite her relative youth and her less-than-eminent standing as a scholar. Which is fortunate for Smith, since, after being anointed the standard bearer for the future of literature herself, just a few years ago, she has now renounced some of her best work, deliberately reined in her fiction along more classical lines, and seemingly retreated to a more private, academic place. (Her forthcoming book will be titled, aptly, Changing My Mind.) All of which makes “Two Paths for the Novel” a kind of moving target—an essay in which the books under review, their relationship to each other, and the motivations of the essayist are all open to interpretation.
The books in this fight, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, stepped into the ring with their reputations almost in place. Netherland had already been deified by Michiko Kakutani and others as the heir to The Great Gatsby. Remainder had piqued the interest of a few bold critics, but the consensus seemed to be that it was a bit “out there.”
Smith’s take on Netherland—that it’s too well-written, too gratifying—is a surprising and rather brilliant way to sabotage a universally acclaimed book. It’s an attack you could never make in a traditional book review, where the operant question is essentially, “How good is this book?” The conceit of Smith’s essay—and probably the reason Bob Silvers let her comment on two books that NYROB had already pronounced upon—is the moral approach she takes. Not, “How good is this book,” but, “How good for us is this book?” The latter question, so rarely addressed in book reviews and media coverage, is perpetually on our minds here at The Fiction Advocate.
Judging by the comments we got from people afterward, our review of Netherland came across as more endearing than we intended. And Remainder simultaneously confounded us and took our breath away—we underlined practically the whole book. Our one criticism of Smith’s essay is that she frames this battle royale as a struggle between the venerable forces of realism and postmodernism. If we’re looking for a new champion, we should probably start by banishing those old categories.
At the end of this little experiment, we’re reminded, above all, of how susceptible we are to a good review: many of our ideas about these books were inadvertently stolen from Smith’s essay, which we read first. But there’s no such thing as spoilers in literature. Having Smith’s criticisms in our head as we read Netherland and Remainder only improved the experience. The quality of the essay and the story behind its author are two compelling reasons for you to ignore us, and read Smith’s essay—and, clearly, these two novels—instead.