[OT] Touching up Zadie Smith
Touching up Zadie Smith
By Zadie Smith
June 28 2003
Contrary to the ideas of your average male Master of Fine Arts student,
fiction writing is not really about power. Properly executed it becomes
the exact opposite of worldly power. It neither hurts nor heals in any
material sense; no phalanx of soldiers will broach borders for it, no one
will lose or gain employment as a result, and no babies will be birthed.
Its sublime bloody uselessness - here lies its attraction for this
particular novelist. For even if I am very bad at it, nothing too bad will
come of it. I am a bit like my Archie Jones that way; the less practical
effect I have in this world, the happier it makes me.
I tell you this to give you some idea of what it was like to discover, one
glacial November morning in West London, about 500 people freezing to
death in various extremes of 1970s costumery (hot pants, halter necks,
wind-sock caftans), as a direct result of my first novel, _White Teeth_.
With a clutch of school friends, I had turned up to be an extra, to play
one of those people who pass through the novel without comment or
dialogue, and I was appropriately dumbstruck. Look at all this! Twenty
lofty white vans lined the suburban street like a snow bank; people were
filling in pay slips, searching for the pair of their platform shoe,
enviously counting one anothers lines. Somehow, all this was my fault.
And pinned up on a wall were photographs of all my characters, but this
time with unscripted, real faces that were nobodys but their own. I think
this is what is called, among young Americans, "a trip".
We noticed immediately how good-looking all these actors were in
comparison with their semi-biographical originals. The past had been
upgraded, made taller and thinner and given the most glorious hair.
"Thats telly for you," my friend Hannah said as we glumly studied one of
the main actresses, the sort a cannibal would reject as a stingy hors
doeuvre. Yes, that and much more is telly. Most noticeably, telly takes
forever. Telly is waiting around in buses for hours listening to people
talk about the telly theyve done before. Telly is watching a creative
idea make its excruciatingly slow progress from scriptwriter to producer
to actor to third and second assistant directors to the director himself
to the cameraman, to that poor maligned fellow who must hold the huge,
furry gray Q-tip up in the air if anything is to be heard by anyone. Telly
is group responsibility. But having not written the script, not
participated in the production and not shared my vision with the director
(I had no vision), I was free of responsibility and so repaired to a pub
until officially required.
In the pub, my friends asked me the questions I should be answering in
this article. Didnt I want to be involved? Wasnt I worried what they
might instructed them not to touch and if they touched my bits, would I
mind? The answers to which are, no, no, no and no. Why shouldnt my bits
be touched, and often? I have needs, too - just like anybody.
Besides, by this point I had come to realise that my White Teeth was about
a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous ending, dragging
at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth is, it could do with
some touching up. If it were a perfect piece of statuary, then no, one
wouldnt want anybodys grubby fingers upon it. But its not; its more
like a fat, messy kid who needs help. This is what I said to my friends
and they did not believe me. This is what I had said to Nick Brown, the
producer, four months earlier, and he didnt believe me either.
He came to see me in Kilburn in the dazzling summer; I remember we sat
outside of one of the Irish bakeries; he was very charming and dressed in
the Englishmans July wardrobe of white shirt and khakis, as if
accompanying Dr Livingston. In fact, the first 10 minutes of our
conversation were strongly reminiscent of an Englishmans encounter with a
new tribe. He seemed uncertain whether I was going to offer him some
rolling tobacco or shoot him with a poison dart. This gave me some idea of
the writers who had come before me and Nick was generous with his horror
stories. It seems that in the business of adapting a novel for the screen,
there might even be a saying: When going to see the writer, carry a
For they come in many forms: the writer who must be obeyed; the writer who
must have a speaking part; the writer who thinks she understands
cinematography; the writer whose record collection is perfect for the
soundtrack; and, of course, the writer who likes to talk to good-looking
actors. For hours. On set. When theyre needed elsewhere. Of these crimes
against film, I was most tempted by the idea that Britain needed to hear
my early-90s collection of seven-inch trip-hop records, broadcast on
national television with supplementary moving pictures. I remember Nick
dutifully making a list of the titles I gave him and I remember none of
them appearing in the final product, which is a mercy to all involved.
By the end of our tea, Nick had laid his 10-foot pole on the floor, and we
were beginning to enjoy ourselves. I felt that I could, without fear of
seeming unreasonable, make my one demand. It was not a big thing, but I
realised I felt it with a ferocity that signified I must, after all, have
written the book and that I did still care for it. Simply, I wanted
Willesden Green, the north London suburb, in there.
I wanted it in all its glory, lit with kindness and photographed with
love. The clunky unlovable postwar architecture, the mile-long strip of
back-to-back kebab and fried chicken takeaways, the halal butchers and
grocers. The two imperious, turreted Muslim schools in Queens Park (from
which, at 3.30 every afternoon, a thousand Muslim children in traditional
dress pour out into the street and pack into the sweetshops, queuing for
ice-pops and candy), the psychedelic, multicoloured Hindu temple, the
crumbling nunnery at the end of my street, all the schools that look like
Victorian prisons (especially the one I went to), the grubby poolhouses on
the Finchley Road and beautiful St Gabriel's church, a remnant of the
country parish Willesden once was, and a church I visited devotedly
throughout my childhood, though only to smoke fags around the back of it.
Nick, whom I discovered had once lived in the area, was 100 per cent
behind me on this. He told me he was 100 per cent behind me and I told him
I was 100 per cent behind him, but I'm certain that both of us had that
feeling that infects all negotiations concerning television and cinema:
that no matter who was behind whom, the thing was never going to happen
anyhow. Not in a month of Sundays. I certainly didn't believe it until I
was on the set - and *in* it, as it were.
The scene they put me in occurs at the beginning of the book, the moment
when Clara Bowden meets Archie Jones. It is 1975 and they are at a huge
party. He is old and white and unhappy, and she is young and black and
unhappy. She is also excessively beautiful. She comes down the stairs, he
sees her. Some time later they marry. This story was a highly bastardised
account of the day my parents met, as given to me by my half-sister,
Diana, who happened to mention it casually one day, ending 20 years of
fervid speculation on my part.
This was the initial creative spark of _White Teeth_. It took her about 30
seconds to tell the story and it took me about two years to write it. And
now, with four friends I had known since I was 11, I was *in* the party
where my parents met, surrounded by fake hippies and fake dope and fake
red wine, and a dancing Chinese girl with no top on and a conga line of
four pretty black girls bouncing through the hall.
I was caught in that 30-second sequence - at the very moment my mother
walked down the stairs to meet my father - again and again and again, all
afternoon. The Chinese girl kept on dancing, the black girls went back to
their starting positions, my fake red wine was infinitely replenished, the
same song played and my mother came down the stairs to meet my father once
To tell you the truth, it was sort of a spiritual experience. As a rule, I
try to avoid those, but this one smacked so insistently of the eternal
return (they made me and then I made the book and then I made them and
then they made me), and of the generative power of the creative act, that
goddamn it if I wasn't crying by the end of the 27th take.
Possibly this is the reason they cut me out. In the final version, my
mother claims you can see the top of my head for a second, but this is
only visible to the attuned maternal eye - normal sight is insufficient.
You can, however, see many members of my family, all of whom I instructed
not to go near the production, only to find them peering out at me from my
telly nine months later.
Highlights include my Uncle Andrew, who is the Rastafarian young man in
the Jehovah's Witness prayer circle scenes (he had to tie his dreads back
for obvious reasons). Also, my 18-year-old brother, Luke, plays one of the
KEVIN brothers. He would have me tell you that he is the especially
handsome one. An ex-boyfriend, a girl I went to college with, a girl who
went out with my friend's brother - it took all sorts of Willesdeners to
make _White Teeth_ the novel, and all sorts turned out for the auditions
Many of them got the parts. And so when I watch the show, its personal
nature is far more intense than the novel has ever seemed to me. Real
people and places I have loved are everywhere. I don't mind being cut out
because so much was left in - particularly Willesden, as promised.
Willesden never looked so good. Honestly, it looks so damn good you would
be forgiven for thinking it isn't Willesden, and in places it isn't -
South London was used often. But it was hard to get mad about this
ultimate betrayal when somehow they found streets that seemed more
Willesden than Willesden, if you see what I mean.
As for the film itself as artwork, it is readers who have occasionally
complained to *me* about the lack of fidelity to this or that bit of the
novel - I have been told off by those who think I should have exercised a
little more of the power I spoke of earlier. But to me the cuts were
necessary to make the fat and messy kid presentable, and at least one of
the changes is inspired. The attentive viewer will note a difference in
the manner in which Samad sends one of his sons to live in Bangladesh. A
cut has been made; a motivation inserted and an artistic clarity is the
result. The moment I saw it, I gasped - this section of the novel would
have been so improved had I thought of the same strategy.
It is this kind of cutting and pasting in the film that I most enjoyed; it
taught me a lesson. In a novel, one scrabbles in the dirt for motivation
or stretches for decorative language to hide the lack of it. In film, no
such disguise will be tolerated by the viewer. When we watch a man do
something on screen, our guts much more than our brains tell us the truth
of the gesture, the action. It cannot be fudged. Fiction can learn from
film here, or at least, mine can.
I'm pretty much finished now, but I'd like to say a quick rapturous word
concerning something else that my fiction cannot do and film can: faces.
Nothing disappoints more in fiction than the description of people's heads
and faces - their shocks of red hair and tediously broad foreheads, their
wide even teeth or small pointy ones, their large noses, furrowed brows,
dimpled smiles and on and on.
Good facial description is too rare. Although Dickens left you in no doubt
concerning Mr Gradgrind's visage and Nabokov's Pnin and his Lolita possess
two of the only faces in modern fiction that I remember, what of the other
great characters? Anna Karenina, Elizabeth Bennet, JosephK, Janie
Crawford, Rabbit Angstrom - what do they look like? Having absolutely no
visual sense, my Archie and Samad were completely blank from the neck up
in my mind. I knew everything they thought, but nothing of how they
looked. Here the TV show gave me something remarkable, made me exquisitely
powerless and grateful. I could write another 2000 words on the faces of
Om Puri (Samad) and Phil Davies (Archie). The terrific, deeply ridged
apple-pathways and pockmarks of Puri's ennobling beauty (he makes things
around him become beautiful). And Davies' exemplary Englishness: an open,
plain, unassuming face that releases devastating emotion on a drip feed.
I'm glad I had neither of their faces in mind when I wrote; they are so
*there* I would have lost all the power I have, which is to do a little
scribbling about what is *not* there, and never will be, unless I make it
- New York Times
- --- In SciFiNoir_Lit@yahoogroups.com, "Brent Wodehouse"
> http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/06/27/1056683898453.htmlwas about a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous
> Besides, by this point I had come to realise that my White Teeth
ending, dragging at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth
is, it could do with some touching up. If it were a perfect piece of
statuary, then no, one wouldn't want anybody's grubby fingers upon
it. But it's not; it's more like a fat, messy kid who needs help.
This is what I said to my friends and they did not believe me. This
is what I had said to Nick Brown, the producer, four months earlier,
and he didn't believe me either.>>
I believe her. This was my impression when I first read the novel
and I told everybody I knew (who read) what a bloody mess of a novel
I thought "White Teeth" was. I am still astounded that Smith was
able to get it published and, more so, that it was the international
success it was. Don't get me wrong. The girl has talent. She can
write. She just can't edit to save her life. And still, the amazing
thing is NOBODY ELSE seemed to want to edit the bloody thing, either!
The Black Prince. The Black Church. A State of Mind.
- "ravenadal" <ravenadal@...> writes:
>--- In SciFiNoir_Lit@yahoogroups.com, "Brent Wodehouse"This was the strongest single impression, I believe, left in the minds of
>> Besides, by this point I had come to realise that my White Teeth
>was about a hundred pages too long and suffered from a calamitous
>ending, dragging at the rear like all unnecessary tails. The truth
>is, it could do with some touching up. If it were a perfect piece of
>statuary, then no, one wouldn't want anybody's grubby fingers upon
>it. But it's not; it's more like a fat, messy kid who needs help.
>This is what I said to my friends and they did not believe me. This
>is what I had said to Nick Brown, the producer, four months earlier,
>and he didn't believe me either.>>
>I believe her. This was my impression when I first read the novel
>and I told everybody I knew (who read) what a bloody mess of a novel
>I thought "White Teeth" was. I am still astounded that Smith was
>able to get it published and, more so, that it was the international
>success it was. Don't get me wrong. The girl has talent. She can
>write. She just can't edit to save her life. And still, the amazing
>thing is NOBODY ELSE seemed to want to edit the bloody thing, either!
most readers this side of the Pond after reaching the novel's end as I
gather from print and my family's reviews - like you say, loads of writing
talent but not a lick of editorial ability. 'Rambling' my younger sister
describes it. One older sister was much more impressed by the PBS
production, and re-read it again for detail, and not so much for fun. But
we all enjoyed the story itself, behind the words, and wanted to like it
so - desperate to give her the benefit of the doubt no matter what - her
first novel, definite promise in the telling, Black Brit, etc. - and
apparently, her editing fellow countrymen felt rather the same way. So now
she has to really make up, bowl us all over with less, as it were. But
don't let this put anyone off the novel. Buy the book, read it, then watch
the screen rendition, and come to your own final analysis.