The Reception of White Teeth

Although other writers in Cambridge Authors have been heralded, hyped, and given prizes, none of them has undergone this in a media culture that is so familiar to us. Zadie Smith has been the focus of attention from publicity machines, journalists, fellow writers, and prize committees. This is part of the context in which we read White Teeth, and here Frances Winfield presents some aspects of this phenomenon. The point here is to outline the parts of the process by which the profile of the novel was raised, and also to prompt reflection - there are some questions at the end - about how, as readers, we should (or shouldn't) take account of such things.

Initial Reception

In 1997 rumours started flying about a novelist called Zadie Smith. The majority of first-time authors struggle for fame and financial reward, yet she was paid an advance of a quarter of a million pounds for the opening pages of her first novel, White Teeth. The large amount of money involved and the promise of a brilliant new writer naturally fascinated many journalists and critics. Their interest in Smith began at this point and has scarcely diminished since. The journalists' initial reception of Smith and her work was mostly very positive, focusing upon her evident literary ability, creativity, and humour, whilst also commenting upon her youth and mixed-race background. White Teeth was considered an example of the voice of modern, multicultural Britain, and its literary merit was quickly recognized by the public, as demonstrated by its widespread popularity as a bestseller and a book group staple.

Critical Reception

With the advantages of talent and immediate acclaim on Smith's side, all that seemed to be wanting was the approbation of a fellow renowned author, and this was supplied by Salman Rushdie's famous praise which smoothed White Teeth's path to widespread critical recognition. He was quoted on the book's back cover as saying that the novel was 'astonishingly assured', and that he was 'delighted' by it. Receiving such approval from a Booker prize winner helped to ensure serious critical discussion of this new author's work. Critics have noted that one of White Teeth's most impressive qualities is that its prose flows with the confidence and maturity of an older and more experienced writer than Smith, who was only 21 and had just graduated from Cambridge when she was given the advance for the manuscript. In this respect she outstripped Rushdie, and many other established writers, whose works were not written and published until they were considerably older.

Popular and Journalistic Reception

Thanks to Zadie Smith's talent and youth, at the time of White Teeth's publication newspaper editors often wrote about her as one of the bright young things of contemporary writing. The timing of the publication of White Teeth in January 2000 coincided with this viewpoint, allowing journalists like Stephanie Merritt of The Observer to comment that Smith was 'the first publishing sensation of the millennium'. Much of the media interest surrounding White Teeth, heralding a new voice of British creative writing, echoed and also, to some extent, influenced the popular reception of the book. Nonetheless, White Teeth's continued and long-term critical acclaim and popularity is rooted in Zadie Smith's literary skill; critics and readers have applauded the book's wit, humanity, and realism.

White Teeth is profoundly multicultural and representative of the Britain, and more specifically, the London shaped by generations of immigrants. It has attracted many urban readers, including David Sexton, Literary Editor of the capital's Evening Standard newspaper. In a review he fêted White Teeth as 'the novel most alive to the racial mêlée that is London now'. Smith grew up in the multi-ethnic suburb Willesden Green, where the novel is set, and she depicts it with an authentic and engaging atmosphere. Some journalists have remarked upon Smith's own mixed-race heritage in connection with this aspect of White Teeth: the Observer's headline of its review of the book upon its publication was that Smith was 'young, black, British'. Media attention like this may have aided early sales of the book by drawing particular groups of readers towards White Teeth, and by turning Smith into a household name, but White Teeth's critical and popular success is undoubtedly due to the great merit of the book itself and, consequently, word-of-mouth approval. This is exemplified by the praise of Zadie Smith's literary abilities from Andrew Motion, the poet laureate - usually considered a conventional or 'establishment' post in the literary world. He said that the range of novels and poetry studied at school should be extended and 'revitalised' by the inclusion on the curriculum of writers such as Smith. Furthermore, the success of Smith's second and third novels, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, has shown beyond doubt that White Teeth was certainly no one-hit-wonder.

Literary Prizes

Zadie Smith was not a conventional figure in the literary world when White Teeth was first published, as the extraordinary advance she was given shows. The book's commercial success was mirrored by its literary success, as she received many eminent prizes for her first novel. Smith became the recipient of awards ranging from the Guardian First Book Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, to those such as the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award, and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, to the esteemed Whitbread First Novel Award. Although White Teeth did not win the Orange Prize for Fiction when it was shortlisted in 2000, Smith's third novel On Beauty beat fellow celebrated authors Ali Smith and Sarah Waters to gain it in 2006. Zadie Smith has, however, expressed concern about literary awards, claiming on the arts forum website of the Willesden Herald in February 2008 that they are 'only nominally' about literature and more about corporate brand consolidation. This comment caused a flurry of interest and some controversy; there have even been doubts that she really wrote it, though there has been no denial. One thing it does demonstrate is the uneasy relationship that can exist between literature and literary prizes.


Further Reading

  • Claire Squires, Zadie Smith's White Teeth: A Reader's Guide (New York and London, 2002).
  • Tracey L. Walters, ed., Zadie Smith: Critical Essays (New York and Oxford, 2008).

Further Thinking

Winning a literary prize might seem like a good thing and a worthwhile recommendation: a group of experienced readers has endorsed a book. On the other hand, we may prefer literature to resist consensus, and to cause offence to the establishment rather than seeking its approval. What difference does a literary prize make to your assessment of a work before, during, and/or after reading it?

Much of the excitement surrounding White Teeth seems to have happened with absolutely no prompting from the author or her novel. The media machine, and its relationship with the publishing industry, can make their own momentum. However, do you think White Teeth does actually show qualities that might make it liable to that kind of sensational treatment?

A lot of the critical reception of the novel in the press emphasized that White Teeth is the first novel by a young author. Zadie Smith herself describes it in those terms in the interview she gave to the Cambridge Authors project. As you read the novel, do the concepts of 'firstness' and 'youth' seem useful ones to help you understand the novel?

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