In 2008, Zadie Smith somewhat unexpectedly seemed to declare herself partial to the experimental impulse in fiction (as represented by Tom McCarthy), as opposed to "traditional" realism ("Two Paths for the Novel"). This was unexpected because, while some critics had mistakenly identified White Teeth, Smith's first novel, as somehow "postmodern," both it and Smith's two subsequent novels, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, were quite obviously themselves in the realist tradition, even recalling the very early stage of that tradition in 19th century novelists such as Dickens. Smith in her essay acknowledges her work's commitment to realism, affirming that it belongs to the version she calls "lyrical realism."
Nevertheless, readers might reasonably have expected Smith's fiction subsequent to this essay to show the influence of her new thinking (if that is what it is) about both the present and the future of fiction. And, indeed, it would be hard to call her recent novel, NW, a work of lyrical realism. At the same time, it could hardly be called "experimental," if genuinely experimental fiction should be expected to do more than simply imitate a mode of fiction that was at one time experimental, as NW in fact does in assuming the form of the modernist psychological novel, at times invoking specifically the stream-of-consciousness method associated with Joyce and Woolf. 90 years ago, this was indeed a new approach to the art of fiction, especially when applied as radically (and effectively) as we find it in Joyce and Woolf, but it hardly counts today as an innovation, however much it might show Zadie Smith moving from the surface realism and loosely structured Dickensian narrative of her first three books to the more tightly controlled interior monologues dominating NW.
The use of such monologues is not, of course, really a departure from "realism" at all. Although the modernists' use of this technique was certainly disruptive enough when books like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses appeared, these novels were at least as much an effort to enhance realism by adding the subjective perception of reality (analogous to our own experience of it) as an important factor in convincingly representing the world in works of fiction. It is in fact this brand of realism that is the favored mode of a critic such as James Wood, for whom the capturing of "Mind" is the supreme ambition both of fiction and of literature itself. Indeed, it is telling that Wood included NW as one of his "books of the year," finding that it reveals a "steady, clear, realistic genius" that made him read it "with mounting excitement." Of course, Wood had previously (and infamously) labeled Zadie Smith's work as a prominent example of "hysterical realism," a designation Wood based on the perception that the kind of realism to be found in her earlier books was undisciplined and directed toward external actions and appearances. His newfound enthusiasm for her fiction can only now be based on an altered perception that the realism of NW has gone inward, validating the triumph of the "free indirect style" pioneered by Joyce and Woolf (and earlier Henry James) that Wood believes is the supreme expression of fiction's potential as a literary form.
It seems to me that NW is not an effort to integrate new thinking about experimentation in fction but to gain the approval of James Wood, to escape his declaration of her work as exhibit one in the case against hysterical realism. Among the criticisms Wood made of this purported practice as exemplified in Smith's fiction (specifically White Teeth) was that it valued a superficial "liveliness" over psychological depth. If indeed Smith wanted to address this criticism by removing all such liveliness from NW, she has certainly succeeded. I have not recently read a less lively book. Although it incorporates a few equally superficial formal flourishes (alterations in font size, dialogue without quotation marks, irregular indentation, captioned fragments in the novel's longest section), they are entirely random and do nothing to compensate for the slow slog we must make through the perfunctory passages of free indirect discourse, as well as for the unengaging characters and uninspired narrative structure. If NW does represent an attempt on Zadie Smith's part to be more "experimental," it's the sort of experiment that ultimately gives experimentation in fiction a bad name by being so utterly boring.
I would myself resist James Wood's critique of hysterical realism in Smith's earlier work because I don't find those books to be particularly "lively," either. NW shares with White Teeth and The Autograph Man its setting in the northwest of London, the comprehensive portrayal of which is clearly an important part of Smith's literary project. Like those two books, NW focuses in particular on the multicultural diversity of this section of London, and as a consequence Zadie Smith has been celebrated as a kind of urban-based local colorist bringing attention to London's multicultural character (especially for American readers). While it certainly makes sense that if one of your primary goals as a writer is to make visible a cultural group or environment previously neglected in fiction, realism, hysterical or otherwise, would be your strategy of choice, but both "Two Paths for the Novel" and NW itself would seem to indicate that Smith takes interest as well in the aesthetics of fiction, in the formal/stylistic choices that confront the writer. NW attempts to embody different choices (more stylistically restrained, formally tighter) than those informing the first three books, but finally these choices provide mere surface variation on the same underlying objective to represent multicultural London with authenticity and on the same themes of identity and assimilation.
There are those, of course, who believe that this objective and these themes are worthy, wholly sufficient goals, that they indeed describe what has become one of the most important developments in contemporary fiction--what could be called multicultural realism. By this measure, simply by presenting her characters and her setting with convincing authenticity Zadie Smith is credited with an aesthetic achievement that is also a contribution to social progress. "Two Paths for the Novel" is a clear enough indication that Smith herself probably would not accept this as an adequate criterion for judging a work of fiction (certainly not as the sole criterion). She is not, of course, responsible for readings of her work that apply spurious standards or appropriate it for agendas that are at best tangential to the creation of literary art. Still, however much Smith wants her novels to be taken seriously as literary art, she has yet to write one that connects form to subject in such a way that the former becomes more than the well-worn path to recognizing the latter.
Even if one were to concede Zadie Smith her strategies of choice, despite a lingering impatience with those strategies, her realization of them in the four published novels does little to redeem their possibilities. Contrary to Wood's classification of White Teeth as hysterical realism, I actually found this novel a pretty drab affair, its gestures toward a Dickensian amplitude in the characters falling completely flat. The Autograph Man is even more listless in its characterization, the characters so uninteresting in their supposed eccentricities as to make the novel almost unreadable. On Beauty is more reader-friendly, and is the best of the books Smith has so far produced. (Coincidentally or not, it is also the only one not set in northwest London.) It tells a rather familiar story of academic rivalry, but the characters are not exactly of the sort we usually find in an academic novel and do add some interest to the story of scholarly warfare and its effects on the families of the combatants. NW, in returning to the setting of the first two novels, also returns to the prevailing tedium that unfortunately accompanies it.
That On Beauty, alone among Smith's four novels, manages to hold the reader's attention with relative consistency hardly seems to merit the critical approbation this fiction has generally received. I can think of few writers whose work has created a larger gap between the praise it has accumulated and what I am able to determine to be its actual quality than Zadie Smith.