Yes, Zadie Smith is a bit pretentious and very overrated, but does she deserve this? Peter Conrad, a goblin in the Guardian, sinks his white teeth into her latest book. Then rolls it around on his tongue, slurps, gasps, smacks his lips and burps:
For Zadie Smith, criticism is a bodily pleasure, not an abstracted mental operation. Reading, like eating, caters to her ravenous but discriminating appetite: she finds the essence of Kafka in a sliver of words from his diary, carved, she says, as thin as Parma ham and containing the creator's "marbled mark". She doesn't need a snack when watching a film, because her eyes are feeding on the images: Brief Encounter is, for her, a chunk of Wensleydale cheese, inimitably English. The critical arguments in which Smith engages are as vital and as potentially violent as sexual wrestling matches, and in an essay on Katharine Hepburn she recalls that she ejected two lovers from her bed – on separate occasions, I should explain – because they disagreed with her about the relationship between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib.
Smith consumes books and films, by which I mean that she absorbs them, seizing on them with all her acute, avid senses. When she was 14, her mother gave her Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God to read. The aim was to raise Zadie's biracial consciousness, though the result, vividly described in the first essay in this volume, was more intense and more transformative. "I inhaled that book," Smith recalls (like an oenophile, she reads through her nostrils). It took her three hours to finish the volume and she expressed her critical judgment on it in a fit of grateful, ecstatic tears. When her mother called her to dinner, she took the book to the table, not because she intended to discuss it but because it was in itself a meal, offering her communion with the nutritious blood and body of its author.
Flattery or flatulence? Either way, don't get downwind of a Zadie Smith fan.