Literary Value and Zadie Smith’s “Tower of Shame”
December, 2019
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao lives and studies in Toronto. She loves reviewing books, always appreciates cafe recommendations, and probably has a pen you can borrow.
An interview with Zadie Smith recently appeared in The Guardian, and, in the title, was a quote from Smith herself: “I’ve never finished Proust or even the Brothers Karamazov.” Only in the subtitle is there any information about Smith’s responses to the multitude of dependent-clause prompts that read a little like a feedback form: The book I’m currently reading. The book I wish I’d written. The last book that made me cry. Despite the format of the interview, it still manages to provide plenty of lovely insight into the interests and reading habits of one of the world’s most famous authors.
So then, why is it most important to highlight what Smith hasn’t read, or as she dubs it, the Tower of Shame?

As newspapers go, online or physical, they need to attract readers, so it makes sense that the headline would be something surprising. More cynically, it might be a veiled accusation – a well-known writer has not read the work of another, and that is a strike against her credibility. Do Smith’s works and her impressive achievements in literature suddenly become invalidated, or, at least, less valid, because she has not read all of Dostoevsky’s work?

If the answer is yes, the deep implication here is that some literary work is significantly more valuable than others, and only complete familiarity with the valuable grants a person’s authority to comment on literature. This leads directly into the next question of what value in literature truly means, and how potential definitions can differ.

In Western society, there are some works that are generally acknowledged and essentially cemented as part of the English literary canon, and debate about how valid and relevant the canon is nowadays could go on endlessly. Notable names from the canon include Shakespeare, Austen, Milton, Wilde, Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and many others. These are all names that show up on typical English class reading lists, and their influence has been strong enough that they have been translated, becoming prominent works in non-English-speaking countries.

For the sake of inclusivity from across different Western languages and cultures, the term is expanded to the Western canon, defined loosely as the cultural works that are highly valued in the West (including visual art and music). Here is the category where the works of Proust and something like The Brothers Karamazov can be found, and it is typically what is thought of when referring to “valuable” literature. More negatively, and, in my opinion, entirely mistakenly, it can be viewed as a checklist of works that contribute to one’s status as an intellectual.

There are millions of books that do not fit into this definition of value, and yet have gained popularity, notoriety, or simply have been meaningful in some way to readers. There is children’s literature that we remember fondly throughout our lives and would pass down to our own children. Perhaps someone read a young adult novel and saw their culture or sexual orientation represented in a positive, in-depth way for the first time; perhaps that work has significantly more value to them than to someone else. There is “pop” literature that swiftly generates revenue and is easily marketable – and as crude as it may seem, profit is one way of analyzing a work’s value.

These categories (and more) all blend together and are far from covering all the books in the world. It is impossible to have read everything, simply because of the massive number of works present in our society. It is also unnecessary to choose all of one’s reading material based on what society has declared important—there is no meaning in picking up a book purely to be able to claim you have read it. Value is determined so subjectively when it comes to literature that never having read Dostoevsky does not have to be terribly guilt-inducing or shameful if one is pursuing different kinds of books that they prefer.

For fun, I did my best to answer the same questions Zadie Smith did in her Guardian interview.

The book I am currently reading

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I picked it up from a shelf on a whim while looking for something else and only just got around to reading it. An underground fantasy London, a typical young businessman, and a girl with an ability to open doors in a world of monsters and angels – it has so far been a lovely ride, and I recently found out that it is actually a novelization of a BBC TV series from the 90s, so it looks like I have a rabbit hole waiting for me.

The book I wish I’d written

In first grade I dreamed of writing a novel. Over the years, I fleshed it out and changed my ideas again and again, and in a way, it grew up with me – but it also never truly formed itself into a complete novel and has been on the back burner for years. I wish I knew how to finish it, or really, start it properly.

The book I think is most underrated

As a genre, I think young adult (YA) novels are too quickly dismissed. Is the teenage fan base off-putting? Possibly. However, the concept of a fandom really is a lovely thing at its core, and a lot of YA books in recent years have incredible amounts of representation and diversity, as well as tackling real and powerful issues, so it is no surprise that they become immensely popular.

The book that changed my mind

Atonement by Ian McEwan made me question happy endings, narrators, and everything I thought I knew about the power of storytelling.

The last book that made me cry

Continuing on my train of thought about YA novels, the last book that I remember making me cry was Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas, the last book in the Throne of Glass series. I have been following that series for years now and, without spoiling too much, there was a highly unexpected sacrifice. I was also unfortunately on public transit when I read through that section and had to try not to cry. The knowledge that I had followed a story all that way and there couldn’t be any undoing from here was upsetting. It was well-written and made sense to the plot, so I cannot be angry, but it broke my heart.

The last book that made me laugh

Terry Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens, for sure. I recently got a copy after hearing about the TV series. An angel and a demon attempting to thwart Armageddon and getting it rather wrong by managing to lose track of the Antichrist makes for a wonderful story, as it turns out. The recent adaptation for screen is quite faithful and also delightful in its own right.

The book I couldn’t finish

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I was gifted a beautiful copy of Anna Karenina for Christmas. It was a labour from the beginning, and I always felt like there were copious amounts of subtext going straight over my head. A couple of years later I ended up seeing the movie version with Keira Knightley and looked up how the movie diverged from the original novel – so I can say I know how the story ends, but not much else. Interestingly, I do remember the exact scene where I stopped reading – (with minor spoilers for the novel) Levin has considered marrying a peasant woman, but upon seeing Kitty again decides that he still loves her. Perhaps Tolstoy deserves another shot from my older self sometime soon.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read

The first thing that comes to mind is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My friend’s father declared I would love it after I fell in love with Doctor Who, and it had already been on my radar for a very long time. I promised myself I would get to it before this past summer ended, and now I find myself in October. I am terribly aware that my copy is sitting on the shelf right behind me as I write this.

My earliest reading memory

As a kid, I had been getting more confident in reading picture books on my own, so when my father brought home a new one for me, I tore through it in minutes. My father informed me that I needed to read the book again and to enjoy it this time around, especially the illustrations, which I had largely ignored except for a cursory glance. Ironically, today it is the full-page paintings that I remember best, not the plot or character names, and it took some googling before I could find the title again – The Floating Orchard by Troon Harrison, with beautiful artwork from Miranda Jones.

My comfort read

Jane Eyre, because I love Charlotte Bronte’s prose and how quietly powerful Jane is. It feels like returning to someone friendly, and I have gone through it so many times. Alternatively, any novel I loved when I was younger just becomes comforting because of its familiarity.

The book I give as a gift

I don’t have a go-to; I try very hard to pick something specific to the recipient, if I know them well. I liked Zadie Smith’s comment about gifted books being “all pleasure and no obligation” – I would hate to contribute to someone’s pile of shame. The last book I gifted someone was And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling over Niagara, so there’s that. As the title suggests, it is not a novel, and it examines various ridiculous scenarios and offers up explanations of what exactly happens in these situations that result in death. It is funny and playful in its descriptions of absurd situations, with enough science to be engaging but never incomprehensible – in other words, engaging even for those who are not typically avid readers or particularly interested in sciences.

In first grade I dreamed of writing a novel. Over the years, I fleshed it out and changed my ideas again and again, and in a way, it grew up with me – but it also never truly formed itself into a complete novel and has been on the back burner for years. I wish I knew how to finish it, or really, start it properly.

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