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Zadie Smith’s False Teeth: The Marketing of Multiculturalism

Susie Thomas

Picasso once said that he did the hard work and someone else came along and prettied it up. Zadie Smith’s vivacious lit-lite idiom and the way she has been marketed as the cover girl of the ‘Multicultural Novel,’ have turned her into a contemporary icon. In the process she has temporarily eclipsed the more enduring work of writers who came before her. Reviewers hailed White Teeth (2000) as an almost immaculate conception, as if it had burst onto the scene without precedent or precursors. Although Smith herself denied these claims, the literary Establishment continues to praise it as new, fresh and original.

In an interview with Aida Edemariam in The Guardian (3 September 2005), Zadie Smith distinguished between two kinds of criticism: one ‘is just writing a beautiful thing as a partner to another beautiful thing’. Her essay on Kafka is an excellent example of beautiful writing that genuinely contributes to the understanding of an author. Although Smith is only interested in ‘greatness, not mediocreness,’ she accepts the value of a second kind of criticism that ‘tear[s] apart’ and ‘separate[s] the good from the bad; I don’t believe in relativist criticism.’

Indeed Zadie Smith has been the best critic, in the second sense, of her own work, providing a meticulous deconstruction of its mediocrity. She attacked the precocity of her first novel, White Teeth, which was published when she was 24, as ‘the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.’ She confessed that, as a bookish kid with little experience of life at the time of its composition, it was bound to be derivative: ‘In short, I was perfectly equipped to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only vicariously. Welcome to the house that books built: wallpapered with other people’s words, through which one moves like a tourist through an English country manor — somewhat impressed, but uncertain whether anybody really lives there.’

Her second best critic has been James Wood, who coined the term ‘hysterical realism’ to convey the falsity and the fury of endlessly proliferating plots which cannot conceal the hollowness at the heart of much contemporary fiction. Wood argued that the novel is facing a ‘crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction.’ Along with Rushdie and Smith he indicted DeLillo, Wolfe, Eggers, and Foster Wallace: ‘Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation’ in novels where ‘information has become the new character.’ According to Wood, hysterical realism acquired a new irrelevance after 9/11; it was time it died. With considerable good grace Smith herself has conceded that hysterical realism is ‘a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like White Teeth,’ although she still wants to defend the general principle of bringing information on contemporary life to the reader.

If, in Smith’s own critical estimation, White Teeth had so little to recommend it—hysterical, jejune, derivative—the question is: why were publishers falling over themselves to get hold of it? With only one hundred completed pages, Smith secured the services of a prestigious agent and a reported £250, 000 advance from Hamish Hamilton. According to her editor, Simon Prosser, the answer is easy. Smith is the best of British novelists rolled into one: ‘the comic brilliance of Amis, the seriousness of McEwan, the playfulness of some of Barnes’s work, the concern with ordinary Englishness.’ Not only this, Smith has picked up the baton and run with it: ‘she has taken their project … and moved it on, made it fresh. I think of her as an incredibly British writer—and the Britishness that she embodies, both as a writer and as a person, is a very real form of Britishness, which is multi-faith, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural.’ White Teeth became the most lavishly promoted debut novel of recent years, which in part explains why it has gone on to sell over a million copies: massive advance publicity is a law of increasing returns. Reviewers all sang from the same hymn sheet, calling Smith ‘the George Eliot of multiculturalism,’ ‘the Lauryn Hill of London Literature,’ literature’s ‘great black hope.’

White Teeth appeared at just the right time, when Smith’s brand of undemanding multiculturalism could serve as an anthem for the complacent self image of London as the harmonious melting pot. If 9/11 made hysterical realism as a genre irrelevant, 7/7 has exposed the fatuousness of Smith’s cute celebration of cultural hybridity: ‘you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best—less trouble)’ (White Teeth 282). Moreover, Smith certainly cannot be either accused or credited with ‘bringing us the information’ on Islamic extremism. Although this is a major preoccupation of the novel, it is reduced to a Carry on up the Khyber farce as Millat joins the ‘Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation’ (White Teeth254). But now that KEVIN has come to King’s Cross with his backpack, Smith’s insight and understanding of contemporary issues seems hopelessly inadequate.

Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man (2002) was less favourably received than White Teeth. In The Guardian interview, Smith attributes this to an envious backlash against her success: ‘Groupies hate musicians. Movie-goers hate movie stars. … We love our gods. But do not love our subjection’. But the backlash may also be attributable to the over-selling of her work, which has inevitably led to disappointment.

Smith’s publicity machine has not only made inflated claims on her behalf, it has papered over the books that actually built White Teeth. Prosser’s account of her brilliance — Barnes, Amis, McEwan with the added bonus of multi-ethnic Britishness — obscures her real debt to Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. Did anyone read White Teeth and think: its seriousness is reminiscent of McEwan and it is also as playful as Barnes? Smith’s predilection for comic repetition and italics may be attributable to Amis, but those are also stylistic tics of Rushdie’s. White Teeth’s self-conscious and intrusive narrator, its contrasting twins, one Anglophile and one Anglophobe, overwhelmingly suggest that little Sadie spent too long reading Rushdie under the covers by torchlight. The amnesia that afflicts Prosser is also evident in Hari Kunzru’s assessment of Smith’s originality: ‘[I]n its blithe jumbling of colours and creeds White Teeth also did something new among books about minority experience,’ says Kunzru; ‘she wrote “about being already here. She did it very easily and naturally’ (quoted in The Guardian 3 September 2005).

But Hanif Kureishi was already here already. Has Kunzru not even read the opening line of The Buddha of Suburbia: ‘My name is Karim Amir and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost’? Kureishi was the first to take the English picaresque and give a central role to immigrants from India and to their British-born and ‘mixed race’ offspring. The ‘ease’ with which Smith has tackled immigration, class and growing up as a ‘mixed race’ child rests squarely on the territory that Kureishi opened up in the most significant body of work by a post-war British writer: screenplays such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1988) and My Son the Fanatic (1997); novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and The Black Album (1995); and a succession of lucid essays, most notably ‘The Rainbow Sign’, which interrogated monocultural definitions of national identity and called for new ways of being British. As Sukhdev Sandhu has argued in his wide-ranging and erudite study, London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (2003):

If there is one figure who is responsible for dragging Asians in England into the spotlight it is Hanif Kureishi. Through a series of plays, films and novels -— from the end of the 1970s to the present day -— he has represented their lives to mainstream audiences with unrivalled wit and candour. Not only did he show that their lives were worthy of public attention, but he did so in a manner of that eschewed worthiness. He managed to leapfrog that turgid stage so familiar to students of minority literatures in which ethnic writers spend years churning out angry, joyless polemics which counter-productively enjoin “society” to respect and reimburse the communities they oppress. (London Calling 230)

It seems extraordinary that Smith’s debt to Kureishi has gone unnoticed. There are signs, however, that the wallpaper is beginning to peel and the bricks are being exposed. Helen Rumbelow has pointed out that the central theme of White Teeth draws on ‘an uncannily similar conflict’ between father and son in Kureishi’s film, My Son the Fanatic, written seven years earlier: ‘[Smith’s] Samad, a Bangladeshi immigrant working in an Indian restaurant is, like [Kureishi’s] Parvez, slightly cowed as well as uncomprehending of his son Millat’s conversion to an extremist Muslim sect. … When Millat travels to central London determined to kill someone, he steels himself by dwelling on how humiliated he is by his father’s lowly job in a land of plenty’ (The Times, 30 July 2005). He is on exactly the same path as Parvez’s son Ali who is contemptuous and ashamed of what he sees as his father’s failure and subservient attitude to authority. But there is a crucial difference between Smith and Kureishi: his work has never ducked the painful and complex questions about what kind of society we want to live in, nor resorted to either the farce of KEVIN or the catchy anthems of multiculturalism that have made Smith’s work so popular.

The gaze of the British press, including the broadsheets, is always on the latest craze — a tendency which results in a startling myopia. After the shock of 7/7, cultural pundits looked to literature to help explain the seemingly irrational and unforeseen hatred that had caused the bombings. Salil Tripathi was so amazed that British critics kept looking in all the wrong places, that he wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal entitled, ‘Fanaticism in Fiction: London terrorists’ mindset is an open book’:

LONDON–Shahid Hasan was born of Muslim parents from Pakistan in Kent near London; he immersed himself in rock music and postcolonial literature at a young age. He went to study in London, where he drifted into an affair with his lecturer DeeDee Osgood, who also introduced him to the sensual experiences of drug-induced hallucinations. His trance-like universe of moral relativism was disturbed when he met a group of his coreligionists who promised him answers and certainties, if only he renounced his wayward path and became a true believer. Shahid felt their austerity was more virtuous than the shameless hedonism that DeeDee pursued. London was Jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic city of ignorance and decadence; the clarity of the Book would wipe away those cobwebs, he thought.

Farid, born in Bradford in northern England, surprised his family by suddenly giving up his passions — cricket, pop music and designer labels. He then broke off his engagement with Madelaine Fingerhut, the white daughter of a senior police officer, much to the disappointment of his Pakistani father, a taxi driver called Parvez, for whom the imminent wedding was like winning the lottery. Farid told his father: “In the end, our cultures cannot be mixed. … They say, integrate, but they live in pornography and filth, and tell us how backward we are.” Like many other British Muslims of the second generation, feeling estranged from their parents, he found the polite sermons of older imams dull. He preferred the radical messages of a conservative imam from Pakistan who had moved to Bradford. Encouraged by these words, Farid campaigned against prostitution. When Parvez confronted him, Farid left home — with a backpack.

The experiences of Shahid and Farid—particularly the eerie departure with a backpack—are remarkably similar to the transformations in the lives of Shehzad Tanveer, Hasib Hussain and Siddique Khan, three of the four bombers who killed 56 people, including themselves, in the London bomb blasts of July 7. But there is one key difference: Shahid and Farid are fictional. They are characters the British author Hanif Kureishi created.’ (16 August 2005)

Shahid appears in The Black Album and Farid in My Son the Fanatic (directed by Udayan Prasad). Tripathi goes on to argue that if Kureishi’s work, along with Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003) and Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), had been ‘read carefully, then the composite picture that emerges today — of disaffected youth finding a new meaning through faith, joining religious groups and following foreign-born preachers, as well as of subterranean misogyny and ostracizing, and even killing those who leave the community by marrying outside the faith — should not have surprised anyone’.

In The Black Album, Kureishi ‘brought us the information,’ not with a mini essay on Islam, but by allowing readers to understand ‘people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us,’ which is what Zadie Smith, echoing George Eliot, says the novel should do. And, even more challenging, The Black Album and My Son the Fanatic allowed readers to step inside the shoes of people who are dangerously certain that they have the truth, and who have good reasons for not liking us, and to see the world through their eyes.

But instead of turning to Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali or Nadeem Aslam, British critics had recourse to KEVIN and to Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, Saturday (2005). According to Jason Cowley, writing in The Observer, the age of terror has given a new lease of life to the novel and ‘Saturday certainly offers the most complete fictional response so far to the murderous attacks on New York and Washington and how they have altered the way we think, act and remember’ (7 August, 2005). McEwan’s London novel recounts a day in the life of Perowne, an ordinary man whose family is threatened by the irrational aggression of a stranger. The outsider is not a Muslim with a backpack but, in a clever sleight-of-hand, the novel begins with a plane crash, thus establishing a parallel between terrorism and Perowne’s attacker. Despite being a slim novel, McEwan lards his text with (Reader’s Digest) information on neuroscience, but what does he have to tell us about hatred, the causes of it, and the proper response? With the seriousness for which he is noted, McEwan offers us the redemptive power of literature. When the family (and by extension the nation) is attacked in its own home by the psychopath, Perowne’s daughter recites Mathew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’: Ah love let us be true to one another and the nasty man will go away!

Cowley also praises Julian Barnes’s new novel, Arthur and George (2005), in which Barnes ventures out of his exclusively white fictional world for the first time, as if following Rushdie’s famous injunction to novelists: ‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!’ -– a line that is directly echoed on page 265 of Arthur and George. With an audible squeak of the hinges, Barnes tackles questions of identity, nationality and racism but only, one suspects, because the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s investigation into the wrongful imprisonment of the ‘half-caste’ George Edalji is safely historical and documented. No doubt readers of British broadsheets can look forward to being referred to Barnes during the continuing debate about multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith Britain. In the meantime, literature lovers and those who value the prescience and insight that great writers can offer, might do better to turn to The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, or rent a copy of My Son the Fanatic.

Given the literary apartheid of post-war British literature, in which the questions raised by immigration have almost exclusively been the brown man’s burden (taken up by Sam Selvon, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie), it is not surprising that reviewers have been so ready to trumpet the fact that England’s Three White Men are beginning to open their eyes to the fact that something new is going on.1 Nor is it surprising that there would be an attempt to construct a contemporary canon of Barnes, McEwan, Amis, now crowned by Zadie Smith, which elides the more edgy and challenging work of Hanif Kureishi, Caryl Phillips and David Dabydeen. In the recent debate on the school curriculum, Andrew Motion called for greater diversity in the literature studied in schools. Along with classic authors such as Milton and Joyce he suggested Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth as additions to the English canon. He said Britain had changed in the past 10 years and was now ‘more of an archipelago’ and that a wider range of authors should be studied to reflect this change (Sunday Times 19 March 2006). Crucially, Motion also insisted that poems and novels should not be studied just to fit in with other parts of the curriculum, such as citizenship, but first and foremost because they were well written.

The significance of the novel to English national culture is undeniable. Indeed the extent to which writers of fiction have shaped the idea of Englishness has recently been explored in Patrick Parrinder’s study, Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day (2006), which concludes not only that ‘the novel of immigration [is] now recognised as the most vital form of English fiction at the beginning of the twenty-first century’ (Parrinder, 2006, 380), but also that there is now ‘a century-old tradition of novels about immigration to London’. It is time that both British reviewers and the national curriculum caught up with it. But it would be a great pity if, flushed with our eagerness to be politically correct, students were offered a dumbed-down and derivative example of the tradition. Moreover, despite its London setting, James Wood is right to connect Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to WoIfe, Eggers, Foster Wallace and Rushdie; in other words to a postmodern, transatlantic literature. White Teeth, like Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), has very little of that most English of literary qualities, a sense of place; relying instead on the theoretical and allegorical possibilities of hybrid spaces. Rushdie’s ‘Brickhall’ is neither quite Brick Lane nor yet Southall and he is at his best in rendering London as the film set of a stage version of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Smith is not a magical realist but neither is she much of a realist. She has a predilection for chapters titles such as ‘The End of History versus The Last Man’, ‘The Final Space’ and ‘Of Mice and Memory’. There are Root Canals and Migratory Routes,but it is difficult to think of an atmospheric description of a single specific locality. In contrast, Kureishi has produced some of the most vivid, concretely realised evocations of London since Dickens and The Buddha of Suburbia can lay claim to being the most significant English picaresque since Great Expectations.


[1] See my ‘Literary apartheid in the post-war London novel: finding the middle ground’ in Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, vol. 12, no 2 (August 2005), pp. 253-263.

To Cite This Article:

Susie Thomas, ‘Zadie Smith’s False Teeth: The Marketing of Multiculturalism’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 1 (March 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access].