“Hysterical Realism” in Zadie Smith’s Novels Essay (Critical Writing)

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Nov 10th, 2020

Zadie Smith is a writer who, through the skillful use of language varieties of contemporary English, is able to provide her characters that come from different ethnic backgrounds with unique and remarkable voices, thereby making her work timeless. The excellent performance of her novels in terms of verisimilitude helps to immerse her readers in a world of emotional complexity and drama of endless self-discovery. The writer’s works are filled with tragic humor that rebels against the ever-growing orthodoxies of English literature. She enhances the realism of melting-pot London by introducing elaborate labyrinths of facts, images, and experiences such as “how to make the best Indonesian fish curry, the sonics of the trombone, and the history of strip cartoons among others into her writing (Marcus 67). Smith’s detractors criticize her ambition calling the style of the writer’s novels “hysterical realism” (Marcus 68). Wood claims that paragraph-long digressions serve as a substitute for emotional complexity, and narrative acrobatics are used in place of vitality (qt. in Marcus 68). However, it can be argued that the author tries to imitate the world too closely through the skillful use of detail in her novels in order to create a real human connection.

The aim of this paper is to analyze Smith’s writing by looking closely at her novels—White Teeth, The Autograph Man, and Piece of Flesh. The paper will also explore the author’s use of grammar, patterns, structure, as well as the message she tries to convey to her readers.


In her critically acclaimed novel White Teeth, the writer has managed to handle an infinitely complex issue of multiculturalism and modern society with such panache that she has been immediately launched into literary fame. It seems that while writing her story, Smith was obsessed with normalizing experiences of contemporary postcolonial London. The same can be said about her other novels. Unlike her predecessors who have explored the traditional postcolonial approach to immigrant-novels, the writer deliberately eschews the notion that the colonial past can be a sole predictor of life experiences of future generations (Marcus 68). Undoubtedly, she imbues her books with a sense of spatial sensibility; however, it is being used not to make London another character of her stories but rather to show that the city is a place that has been shaped by its long history and causality, just like the lives of her characters, and cannot be reduced to a simplistic unit in the postcolonial classification. In White Teeth, Smith states that “every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories” (White Teeth 46).

The author is well aware of the dichotomy between actual and reported experiences; therefore, she does not want to lock herself in a binary system of historical interpretations. Instead, she wants to provide her readers with a chance to position themselves toward the residue of the past experiences of the country that still can be felt on the streets of modern London. By showing perpetual mobility of the diverse, bright, and cacophonous city, the writer invites her reader to experience trepidation and friction that simmers beneath the pages of her novels. The writer uses a similar structure in all her novels. Even a much-praised essay collection edited by Smith, Piece of Flesh, is filled with tension and fear that can be felt in the lewd tales. The authors’ choice of stories can hardly be called random: all of them, instead of being straightforwardly arousing, titillate their readers with a fair share of irony that is more rewarding than sexual gratification. Smith jokingly revels in her ability to solicit piquant details about the sexual lives of her friends and notes that “it never occurred to me that lovely, sweet Rebecca had sex with cab drivers or that serious Jim had a thing about Littlewood’s catalogs” (Smith, Piece of Flesh 6). The writer’s participation in the creation of the collection reveals an overall pattern of unwillingness to conform.

The proclivity for unconformity is especially evident in the writer’s second novel—The Autograph Man. Despite the fact that Smith deals with a sober theme of travails of a Jewish-Chinese Londoner, the writer puts aside boring lenses of Jewishness and boyishness and tries to create a literary quilt consisting of royal relationships, class struggle, manic internationalism, and religion among others to introduce her audience to “the effect of celluloid culture on our ability to express ourselves spontaneously and originally” (Clark). It can be argued that despite her attention to detail, Smith sometimes engages in the narrowing process of encapsulating a single feeling in a literary form at the cost of authenticity. For example, she voices exasperation of a black character with his experience of living in London with a shorthand phrase: “I’m the black guy. No doubt I die halfway through” (Smith, The Autograph Man 76). However, being a masterful chronicler of multiculturalism, the writer uses the gag to condemn the rueful state of society. By utilizing cartoonish jokes, she tries to avoid retrogressive pragmatism that has placed other writers such as Rushdie and Said on their postcolonial pedestals, thereby achieving a thematic rupture with literary canons of the past.

It is hard to deny that Smith’s novels are influenced by works of iconic writers such as Amis, Wallace, and to some extent, even DeLillo. It can also be argued that White Teeth and The Autograph Man can be “situated within an older British comic tradition of Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens” (Tolan 137). However, her precise assessment of the linguistic realities of modern London is what differentiates her from the cohort of other literary geniuses. To draw a portrait of multicultural London in White Teeth, she relies on the use of “Creole, Cockney and Bengali (little), and different representations of street language and youth talk” (Kollamagi 362), thereby imbuing her sagas with vibrancy and multiplicity. Creole-speaking characters in the novel, use a mixture of London and Jamaican English: “Pickney, Nah even got fancy on—child must be freezin’ […] Come’ ere. Now come into the kitchen an’ cease an’ sickle” (Smith, White Teeth 114). The peculiar use of vocabulary and grammar surprises readers and immerses them into the linguistic identities of Smith’s heroes. The writer also employs the Creole-specific phonology to distinguish between different generations of immigrants. While at the beginning of the novel, Clara, a daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, extensively uses a mixture of standard English and Jamaican Creole, at the end of the story, she opts for London English.


Smith is a talented writer whose novels can be considered a victorious celebration of multiculturalism. Skillfully employing a multitude of narrative techniques, she manages to provide her readers with vicarious experiences of immigrants who go through motions of their daily lives in London.

Works Cited

Clark, Alex. “The Autograph Man.” The Guardian, Web.

Kollamagi, Liis. “Language Ideologies in the Writing of Nonstandard Varieties: The Case of Written British Creole.” Proceedings of ConSOLE XXIV, 6-8 January 2016, York, edited by Kate Bellamy, Elena Karvovskaya, and George Saad, Leiden University Publishing, 2016.

Marcus, David. “Post-Hysterics: Zadie Smith and the Fiction of Austerity.” Dissent, vol. 13, no. 1, 2013, pp. 67-73.

Smith, Zadie, editor. Piece of Flesh. Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1999.

The Autograph Man. Vintage, 2003.

White Teeth. Vintage, 2001.

Tolan, Fiona. “Zadie Smith’s Forsterian Ethics: White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty.” Critique, vol. 54, no. 1, 2013, pp. 135-146.

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