I’ve recently been thinking about the difference between books which are ‘fiction’ and those which are allowed to be described as ‘literature’. Are there differences between the two? Is one better than the other? I’m not sure it is possible to answer these questions about books in general but it is certainly something which we tend to do with individual titles. Just look at the discussions around the long and short lists for the Man Booker prize in almost any given year. Some authors are, somehow, automatically assumed to write ‘literature’ and others, well, …not. It is fairly easy to work out which is which with 18th or 19th century authors – if we are still reading them today they must class as ‘literature’, surely? – but I’m not so sure. For me, I think it boils down to whether I am reading a book for the plot, the story, or for the words, the language. If the former is more important then, in my mind, it is ‘literature’. I’m quite possibly wrong – and, to be fair, it is quite likely that it doesn’t really matter anyway – but I do like to categorise things. Interestingly, since Swing Time is the first Zadie Smith novel I have read, I suspect I am quite happy to describe the book as a good story more than as literature. I have seen plenty of reviews praising Smith’s use of language but, for me, it was the story itself which impressed.
The story involves a narrator who never gives her name and her childhood friend Tracy – two mixed-race girls who want to be dancers. Only Tracy, however, has any talent. The narrator drops out of university to become a personal assistant to a pop star (who seemed to me to have hints of Kylie, Madonna, Angelina Jolie…) and the two girl’s lives diverge. Although we start in London large parts of the book are set in a development project in West Africa (which Aimee, the pop star, starts although she does drift away to other interests later). I was particularly fascinated by the way the narrator feels like she stands out as a black girl in her ballet class as a child yet is treated as a white woman when she is in Africa. Race is certainly not treated as a simple, either/or, issue.
If you enjoy a good story but like your books on the literary side then I can recommend this. If you really need to get closure then just remember that we never find out the narrator’s name….