Grand Union: Stories – A patchy collection from Zadie Smith

The stories veer from the poignant to the blandly middlebrow with occasionally clunky prose

Zadie Smith: the prose is stylistically clunky at times. Photograph: Sergio Dionisio/AP Photo

Zadie Smith: the prose is stylistically clunky at times. Photograph: Sergio Dionisio/AP Photo

Speaking at Hay Festival Cartagena earlier this year, the English novelist Zadie Smith – who lives in New York and has taught creative writing there for almost a decade – bemoaned the incursion of identity politics into literary criticism. Some critics in the United States believe a writer should not write characters of a race to which they do not themselves belong, as this constitutes “cultural appropriation”. Smith rightly contended that this stance is antithetical to the very idea of fiction, which is premised on empathy and the infinitude of imaginative possibilities: “If someone says to me: ‘A black girl would never say that,’ I’m saying: ‘How can you possibly know?’ ”

One detects in these remarks a sense of cumulative weariness, bordering on exasperation, which is entirely consistent with having spent many years in the US higher-education milieu. This impression is corroborated by the blunt satire of Now More than Ever, one of 19 short stories gathered in Grand Union. Its narrator is a writer-turned-professor who draws opprobrium for associating with a man who has been accused of sexual misbehaviour. His transgressions were minor (“He did not have ‘victims’ so much as ‘annoyed parties’ ”) but that doesn’t matter; not long after wondering how it would feel to be “totally and finally placed beyond the pale”, the narrator learns that she has indeed been “cancelled”.

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