In 2008, Zadie Smith published an essay in the New York Review of Books under the hiply doctrinaire title ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. In it, she chides a tradition she calls ‘lyrical Realism’ – a tradition characterised by a belief in ‘the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self’ – for being ‘inauthentic’ and ‘consoling’. ‘I have written in this tradition myself’, she admits, ‘and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject.’ She quotes a passage from Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland that she sees as typical of ‘lyrical Realism’, and poses a few questions she reckons it fails to engage with:
Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels?