The Overcorrections

The Fraud by Zadie Smith. New York: Penguin Press. 464 pages. $29

The cover of The Fraud

WHEN ELIZABETH BENNET AND HER SISTERS sit in calico dresses awaiting the favor of a man of “10,000 a year,” the link between that income and that calico remains easily ignored. So easily, that fantasies of Regency romances endure to this day unburdened by discomfiting questions about the origins of the cotton in these drawing-room dramas. By comparison, any respectable circle in the US would know better than to insist, in this decade at least, upon the charm and romance of the antebellum South. One could not produce a Bridgerton set in Alabama as easily as Netflix produced one set in a fictionalized UK. 

Slavery for England is what modern warfare is for the United States, a faraway abstracted violence never meant to disturb domestic shores or the images of life within them. But England eventually discovered (as the US is fated to) that what empires do abroad doesn’t just inspire the hero fantasies of those at home—it is what their lives are built on. And the strain placed upon the world as a result dooms these empires to be crushed by the impending ricochet of their history. Zadie Smith’s new novel The Fraud returns us to a time before that ricochet, before contemporary threats like climate change, a refugee crisis, and austerity statecraft made these empires stumble rightward in the twilight of their imperial reign.  

Smith’s latest novel opens with a literal collapse. William Ainsworth’s ceiling has fallen from the weight of too many volumes of British history books in the second-floor library. After her husband left her, our protagonist Eliza was taken in by the writer William Ainsworth, her cousin by marriage. He gains a housekeeper and occasional dom, and she is rescued from the destitution that could befall her otherwise. Ainsworth’s neglected wife, Frances, takes great comfort in Eliza’s company, forming an intimate relationship. They share a bed while William is off researching his novels. But Frances dies a short while into the arrangement, and is only featured in flashback. Frances introduced Eliza to the cause of abolition, taking her to a meeting, pamphlet in hand. Meanwhile, like any moneyed man whose needs are taken care of by the women around him, Ainsworth lives in the boundless pursuit of his interests. He is unfailingly affable. His self-regard is never disturbed by the nag of doubt, Eliza does her best to keep negative reviews out of his view. He’s a writer who once outsold Charles Dickens. And, as Eliza tells us, “He always appeared entirely satisfied by every line,” despite not retaining the respect of his peers. 

Ainsworth spends his days reveling in the past rather than facing his present situation: his books aren’t selling like they used to and he has had to move his family to ever more modest homes. If it seems I’m paying more attention to Ainsworth’s frivolousness than the fact that the women of the household were discussing abolition, it’s because Smith does too. The way Smith treats every detail in her book as equally important forecloses The Fraud’s potential and exposes how ill served Smith is by her philosophy on fiction. After years of deriding the shallowness of treating art as a site of radical struggle, Smith is left with a book that falters as art because of how shallowly it treats political consciousness. 

While Austen’s Bennets might feel like real people to generations, the tragedy of this book is that Smith fails to make the actual historical figures who inspired her book ever register with any vigor. In 2009, a first edition of A Christmas Carol addressed to Mrs. Eliza Touchet sold at Christie’s for just under $300,000.  Smith enjoys scripting their encounters. But the relationship central to The Fraud is the one between Eliza and the sole Black witness in the Tichborne case, a sensational nineteenth-century trial that spawned its own genre of pop culture at the time, from songs to collectible figurines. 

Illustration from Edwin Thomas Sachs's Sleight of Hand (L. Upcott Gill, London, 1885).
Illustration from Edwin Thomas Sachs's Sleight of Hand (L. Upcott Gill, London, 1885).

The Fraud tells the famous case like this: Roger Tichborne would have inherited a baronetcy had he not disappeared at sea in 1854. A man bearing no resemblance to him returns to England claiming to be Tichborne in 1866. A mass of evidence identifies this man as Arthur Orton, a savvy English butcher escaping debts in Australia. He had come across advertisements seeking information about the lost inheritor. Tichborne’s grieving mother, who’d placed the ads, accepts this claimant. When she dies, the remaining family take the claimant to court, denouncing him as a fraud. Their suit is complicated by Andrew Bogle, a former slave from the Tichborne’s Jamaica properties who continues to serve the household in England as a part of their staff after abolition. Bogle testifies in favor of this claimant, at the loss of his own pension from the family. The reasonable Eliza, who never once believed Orton, is baffled that Bogle does. The story more or less hinges upon her bafflement.

Ainsworth’s second wife, Sarah Wells, a maid he impregnated, joins Eliza among the many devotedly attending the trial, but for different reasons. Sarah is a stand-in for all the poor English people who see the claimant as “one of their own” up against “the elites” of a court system that favors the aristocracy. Meanwhile, Eliza is fascinated by Bogle. And though she can’t believe the truth of what he claims, she believes that he believes it. “Her admiration for him grew daily. His story never exceeded its bounds, never turned to conspiracy or illogic. He never raged, never accused.” Like any good liberal, Eliza values affect and manners above the stakes of reality. 

Smith routinely misses the opportunity for depth by avoiding emotional terrain that might be politically salient. The characters admit only the most generic feelings. One of the few things that happens to Eliza is that her principles are tested by a surprise inheritance of money generated from the slave trade. She doesn’t tell anyone about the choice she faces. She refuses the money after some time without much comment or internal debate. And the beneficiaries, who happen to be of mixed race heritage—related to the family her husband started when he left her—never feature beyond being seen from the window of the lawyer’s office. The sole reaction is the lawyer’s surprise at her decision. That’s the extent to which what’s just occurred is given any acknowledgment. We’re shuffled on to the next scene, which will prove just as insubstantial and fundamentally incurious as the one we just encountered. 

This isn’t to say The Fraud doesn’t have value, but that its value is solely in the novelty of its premise, and is otherwise squandered. As Smith told an interviewer this fall: “There’s the obvious case that they don’t talk about slavery in British schools. . . . But what they also don’t talk about is 200 years of radical, mostly working-class, activism in England in opposition to, not only forced labor but all kinds of oppressive labor both in England and the Caribbean.” Fair enough, and now we have a novel that tells us there were slave colonies in the Caribbean and gatherings of socialists in nineteenth century England. To be clear, that’s all it does with that information. The Fraud references that there are people who have meetings about these topics, twice characters even attend them. There are ways the parts might have added up to a whole. Instead, these parts barely interact. Socialist organizing, debates over reform versus abolition, a modeling of how circumscribed opportunities for women of the time were, how liberals can be benevolently biased, all of it occurs in passing acknowledgement within short scenes that don’t ever end up affecting the rest of the story or its characters. 

The overall effect is tedious. The book’s themes—race and class, truth and falsehood—lend the novel an air of significance because contemporary readers already know to treat those themes with attention. The themes are not explored with any sense of what’s at stake for the characters themselves. At least part of that is due to the distance deployed in Smith’s writing. The casual remove with which Eliza’s intimate relationship with another woman is treated allows the character some dignity, it also avoids provoking any critical analysis—there isn’t much to analyze. Doubtless, this is satisfying to Smith. But the approach yields two-dimensional and one-note characters. At one point, Sarah scolds Eliza for thinking of her as nothing more than a formerly poor person, but then she continues to be defined exclusively by her accent and former poverty, with each aspect treated as a stand-in for the other. With nothing to counter Eliza’s characterization of Sarah, Eliza being chastened by their exchange falls as flat as any other exchange in the book. 

Readers are left to project—convenient for an author who can be confident such a serious book will be treated with respect. The characters are thinly drawn, reliant on arch descriptions of the first impression they give the narrator, impressions that seem hasty but are never challenged. The exception is Eliza’s opinion of Charles Dickens, which develops from skepticism to reverent eulogy—too obviously ventriloquized by Smith, as much of Eliza seems to be. The Fraud loops back and forth across Eliza’s memory of life in England over several years. But it represents Smith’s ongoing resistance to writing with a point of view on the world. The absence withholds tension and momentum where it might most be useful. The book leaps between time lines, but if you arranged the book chronologically, your experience would be similar—in fact, it might be improved. The many layers of Eliza’s character don’t amount to much, either. She’s queer, Catholic, an abolitionist, a dependent, then an heir. The full texture of her identity is reduced to mere mention. Instead, Smith covers the more well-trodden ground of how being a woman past the age of sexual desirability prompts people to occasionally take her less seriously than she takes herself. 

Of all the emotions Eliza might experience, Smith allows significant attention to only Eliza’s sense of loss. Perhaps because it’s the most universal, easily accessible to an imagined nonspecific reader. You can hazard a guess who that reader might be. Besides Bogle, the Black characters exist primarily to hint at a world Eliza doesn’t have access to, reminding the reader of the protagonist's whiteness, conservatism, and age. After Bogle’s son and Eliza attend a concert of Black American musicians, she finds herself politely excused from the remainder of the evening as it becomes obvious the young man and one of the female performers have plans to take a walk together. 

Mrs. Touchet had been a third wheel for so much of her life. This was different. This was a desolate, an almost dizzying feeling of exclusion. . . . When young, she had never understood why old women dithered so. Why they led conversations down dead ends and almost always overstayed their welcome. She did not know then what it was to have no definition in the world, no role and no reason. To be no longer even decorative. . . . Obscurely humiliated, she was almost mute as they said their stiff, awkward good-byes. She watched them walk away, toward Parliament, drawing the attention of all. To Mrs. Touchet they no longer looked like noble sons and daughters of Africa—filled with the grace of suffering, illuminated by freedom—but simply like any other foolish boy and girl. She was unable to shake a sense of conspiracy between them, directed toward her own person. A conspiracy of laughter? Of pity? All the way home the idea pursued her like shame.

The scene is either tragic or comic depending on your sympathies. The book is at its best when it allows the characters to be cracked open like this by some perspective. In the almost five hundred pages, this occurs one other time. The remainder of the book is Eliza confidently managing William Ainsworth’s social life. It’s enough to make one wonder why she must be our only chaperone in this world. 

In an essay on Zora Neale Hurston from her 2009 essay collection Changing My Mind, Smith writes, “I disliked the idea of ‘identifying’ with the fiction I read. I wanted to like Hurston because she represented ‘good writing’, not because she represented me.” Who told Zadie Smith these are mutually exclusive? Every work of art makes a claim for a view of the world. Sometimes that claim contains for readers the affirmation of being seen. I’m wary of treating that as an aim beneath the dignity of great art now that our institutions are being asked to expand the range of whose sight is valued. In a 2013 introduction to The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Smith writes, 

Role models—individuals endowed with wide-ranging socio-symbolic significance have no place in fiction. Role models are bullshit. People who move through the world playing roles, attending to roles, aspiring to roles, looking for models to help them find new roles—these people are not partaking fully in this whole existence thing, which is about doing it for real. We would rather not read that way (leaning over a pond, waiting for the water to settle, and all so our own mirrored faces might rise toward us like Plath’s “terrible fish”), no, nor write that way either. To this some folks will object. Oh I see. So you’re not political. No! Don’t Believe it! You are political! You are the most political fucking person in the world because when you read, when you write, you won’t let a single human being be obscured behind the dread symbolic bulk of somebody or something else.

A laudable statement, it misrepresents what authentic representation means to people. Those who are calling for more mirrors in our media are not doing so to be assigned a role, they’re doing it to escape the one they are assigned by all the people in whose mirrors they never appear. The faces peering into “the pond” are not awaiting a face that tells them what they look like. They’re trying to counter what people can be told about them when they have no reflection to point to.

While Smith derides identity driven work, her own characters here are not communicated beyond their various labels: dead first wife, former maid, closeted Catholic, former slave, has-been writer—each hews faithfully to the corresponding stereotype. The dead first wife was angelic. The maid, newly into money, is tacky and ignorant—she even speaks in all caps. The Catholic is guilt-ridden and stoic. The former slave, first-generation in England, is reserved, while his second-generation son holds more firebrand views. And the has-been writer we meet at the beginning never understands why his peers do not respect or value his cloying writing style. 

Through Ainsworth, Smith satirizes the author who aims to tell his readers what to believe—his writing makes caricatures of people he has no insight into in order to satisfy trite parables. Smith forgets that caricatures don’t become any less lazy when you refuse to attach a message to them. The novel shifts when Eliza solicits Bogle to tell her his life story, and through his memory we escape the tedium of her England and reach the violence of the slave colony in Jamaica. 

That section is, in true Victorian fashion, full of sensual descriptions. It is more affecting because its subject is disturbing, and exactingly drawn. It emerges from Bogle narrating his life to Eliza, who then compiles it into a manuscript, obscuring whose voice we are receiving.  But primarily who we hear is Zadie Smith. Bogle remains opaque; his interiority, like that of everyone in the book, is gestured at but very rarely written. Eliza offers a clue as to why these are the chosen priorities: “All her life Eliza had refused to be the servant of pathos, and could never accept any argument on the basis of emotion alone . . .” Pathos is so frequently deployed for cheap moralism that, rather than risk being corny, Smith avoids emotional stakes entirely. It’s a result that would appear to follow Smith’s stated commitments. 

IN AN ESSAY FOR Harper’s Magazine, Smith reviews Jordan Peele’s Get Out with an exquisite summary capturing every note in the film and aligning it to its corresponding note in the society it was informed by—that interplay is what made the film resonate so widely. The film operates successfully both within its artistic genre and in conversation with the world in which it was produced. Yet it’s the film’s ability to speak to its audience that prompts Smith to withhold full praise. She observes that each scene is “simultaneously describing and interpreting the situation at hand,” and this, she writes, “is what accounts for the homogeneity of reactions to Get Out: It is a film that contains its own commentary.” 

Smith is more impressed by Todd Field’s Tár, which, to the consternation of many viewers, does not tell you what to think. She writes in the New York Review of Books: “There is no redemption. Nothing to be said or done except feel it. And in this positivist world—in which our friends at Google have indexed everything that is the case—how I treasure any artwork that preserves a silence or recognizes a limit!’” 

Perhaps Smith mistakes underwriting her own characters for the integrity of not telling her audience how to judge them. Both the films she reviews operate with more complexity than she allows in her own work. 

There’s nothing I can allege about Smith based on her latest novel that she hasn’t already said about herself.

Her characters are defined by their manners of speech rather than how they move through the world: “For personal reasons to do with my upbringing, the questions of accents, of class-as-revealed-through-voice, weighed very heavily on me. It’s actually an aspect of my fiction, of myself, that I find a little depressing. There are deeper differences between people than the social, but I find it hard to express them without making some reference to the social.” 

Her Gen X wariness of being sincere and discernible in her politics may be holding her back: “And one of the striking things about my crowd is that although we like to speak rapturously of emotion in the aesthetic sense, we prefer to scorn emotions personally (by way of claiming to not really have any) and also to trample over other peoples’.” 

She’s too self-consciously committed to traditional genre conventions to speak her mind: “There’s a lot in On Beauty that is still hamstrung and dutiful to an idea of the novel that I don’t really believe in, intellectually. I think when you say it’s the most accomplished you mean ‘It looks and smells just like a real novel.’ But what’s the point of that really? . . . I’m writing criticism now and I feel so much more confident and happy about it. It allows me to express my passion, which is really other people’s fiction. I find it hard to express anything really personal to me in the fiction: I’m too self-conscious.”

She writes as if she doesn’t believe in fiction’s ability to contain ideas: “As if fiction could argue itself into a reader’s belief system! As if, armed with our collection of facts about what an X type of person feels, is, and does, always and everywhere, a writer could hope to bypass the intimate judgment of a reader, which happens sentence by sentence, moment by moment. Is it this judgment we fear? It’s so uncertain, so risky.” 

For Smith, it seems overt politics come at the expense of great writing, and even politics—which, she insists, only weaken the horizons of both by being combined. The approach veers too close to a refusal to examine the society we’ve inherited. 

I think Smith’s point regarding the limits of fiction to stir political change can be taken in another way. In America, most forms of political action risk an encounter with police, which relegates much of our civic energies to the market—attempts at either influencing or critiquing it. So there are people who push for humanizing various identities in the hope that perhaps entertainment value, or at least higher standards for that entertainment, might curb the rage so many people here feel if they so much as see a rainbow on a beer can or a hijab on a neighbor, the rage that continues to take lives. I think that if the bar is at humanizing your fellow human under the parameters set by tech companies cosplaying as creative studios, then the fascists have already won.

Smith’s distaste for ladening her characters with identity-driven missions is a respite from the myth that a more just world can be secured through the sustained public performance of oppressed identities. I can understand her weariness with it. In 2016 she told Isaac Chotiner: “But I do feel, as I think people do feel when they’re up against it, that you get tired of trying to represent your people to other people, and expect their sympathy and understanding. At a certain point you just want to defend your people for yourself and for them, and become less externally facing because there doesn’t seem to be so much point.” Smith has no obligation to make her fiction a vehicle for ideology. But her refusal has acted like a sieve filtering out ideas in general. The emotional austerity she practices in The Fraud doesn’t just not serve politics, it doesn’t serve the art of storytelling.

In the Get Out essay Smith also discusses the artist Hannah Black’s letter to the curators and staff of the 2017 Whitney Biennial regarding Open Casket, a painting of Emmett Till by white artist Dana Schutz. The letter is a critique of the painting’s inclusion in the Biennial, arguing that it demonstrates an allegiance to values we should consider abandoning. Namely, the profiteering of Black death by white people, particularly when the circumstances leading to Till’s death (the ability to self-deputize against a Black person’s life without repercussion) have yet to cease. The letter states:

Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go. . . . Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humor, and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.

That last line stands out to me now even more after reading Smith’s work. Someone with an allegiance to empty formalism would naturally recoil at such an impassioned engagement with art and the systems in which it is produced. The second part of what Eliza says about pathos is that in “the absence of an audience, she realized, nothing really offended her, except cruelty.” 

It’s a convenient belief, both generally speaking and for Eliza and Smith. Because narrating Eliza’s private thoughts allows Smith to pretend there isn’t an audience. And because, for the general person, to be vaguely against an obvious negative is an effective way of dismissing further inquiry into more specific harms. I’ve heard it frequently in the years between the advent of “cancel culture” and being “anti-woke.” Variations of “why can’t we all just get along” more often than not are designed to be spoken over the people who’d be able to tell you exactly what conditions are preventing this proverbial “getting along.” Cruelty takes many forms. Theoretically, it wouldn’t make one as discerning or as above being offended as the statement pretends—unless you meant you only take offense at cruelty directed at you personally. In her Harper’s essay Smith writes, “When I looked at Open Casket, the truth is I didn’t feel very much.” Earlier in the piece she cites Nabokov: “Why not leave their private sorrows to people? Is sorrow not, one asks, the only thing in the world people really possess?” It’s such an elegant way of recommending silence. 

Discussing the young adults in her 2005 novel On Beauty, Smith  speaks less obliquely: “The Belsey children need to stop worrying about their identity and concern themselves with the people they care about, ideas that matter to them, beliefs they can stand by, tickets they can run on. It’s a tough, unimaginably lonely and complicated way to be in the world. But that’s the deal: you have to live; you can’t live by slogans, dead ideas, clichés, or national flags. Finding an identity is easy. It’s the easy way out.” 

One could argue ignoring the impact of identity is even easier, and to disconnect it from people, ideas, and beliefs reveals a very blinkered view of how identity activates people and what it is activated by. Her refusal to engage the letter on the binary it proposes is passive, but later in her response she makes an active choice: “I want to follow the letter very precisely, along its own logic, in which natural rights are replaced with racial ones.” And then begins a discussion extrapolating on a hypothetical future in which an artist’s right to a subject depends on their race. This retreat into abstraction is the favor of liberals whose politics cannot bear the load of reality. Smith doesn’t need anyone to explain racism to her, but her contempt for the present-day dialogue around diversity and inclusion in the arts is too useful to the very real backlash those efforts are facing. 

In an interview on the podcast Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, Smith elaborates on what she believes is a tension between collectivism and personal identity: 

The argument is what does humanism mean? And at the moment it means, to a lot of young people, just some neoliberal cover story—some wooly bullshit about how we’re all the same. You can think that that’s humanism. . . . But there is another humanism which to me is radical and socialist, and interested in finding a collective category in which you can perform acts of political solidarity. . . . You need to have a bracketed sense of yourself as a political citizen. It’s absolutely the case, particularly in America because of the way your politics are structured, that you need to gather in identity groups in order to pressure government for rights. . . . But it is important, I think, to know that is not the only way politics can function. . . . If you don’t have a radical collective idea of the human, you’re splintered in the face of the wave. You’re going to have to find a way just as they did in the nineteenth century in the battle against slavery. “I am a Manchester cotton worker, you are . . . an enslaved person in the Caribbean, we are not in the same situation exactly, but we are working under the same system—which is the system of capital, can we work together?” . . . To do that you need some conception of your human situation under this power structure. And if you say, “No we can’t work together because you can’t exactly comprehend my situation and I can’t comprehend yours,” the only person who wins from that is capital itself. It’s okay to have imperfect allies. It’s not a compromise.

“Imperfect ally” euphemizes legitimate barriers to trust. It’s a terribly facile interpretation of the point of understanding difference and completely ignores that true solidarity occurs when you seek to protect each other because of your vast differences, not in spite of them. An ally wouldn’t require collapsing the meaningful differences between a slave and a worker in a Manchester textile factory. Anyone who did would be reproducing a hierarchy within their solidarity effort (we must consider who is being accommodated and who is being asked to accommodate).

If we are going to privilege an appeal to the human, it’s worth remembering “human” remains a category not everyone has been accepted into equally. And the most urgent political battles of our day continue to be about membership in that humanity. It’s why Palestinians must repeatedly invoke that they too have women and children, which has done little to shift the category of “terrorist” indiscriminately applied to them and their allies. A generic appeal to the human risks nothing. It is categorically incapable of the kind of allyship that effects change. Why should we pretend otherwise when fascists can easily tell the differences between useful and useless allies for us. Recall their response to white American women Rachel Corrie and Heather Heyer: Corrie was killed without consequence by the Israeli army, crushed by a bulldozer in Gaza as she defended a Palestinian property from demolition in 2003. Heather Heyer was killed in 2017 by a self-deputized right winger who ran her over while she protested a rally of white supremacists. 

Smith’s public comments on the impotence of “identity” strangely insist on a lack of overlap between the people who recognize identity, theirs and others, and a serious politics. It’s why her response to the Whitney letter was so strange in its literalism. The interpretation that the letter aimed to establish rules for painters is only possible if you are completely shut off to the history it references. I know this isn’t true of Smith, so her posture is an intentional rather than automatic one. The letter called attention to a pattern. To endorse it would mean expressing a commitment to acknowledging certain harms and an investment in rectifying them. It wouldn’t suddenly result in the policing of paintings—that seems the more unserious interpretation. 

Smith’s views toward art and identity are likely what set her latest novel on its meandering route. While she is admirably honest and thoughtful in her nonfiction, her fiction proves to be her less compelling intellectual contribution.

The Fraud, at best, offers a counter narrative to a white national self-image. It goes on to tell the story of a nation that, while having a history of violence, ultimately can be commended for bending towards the arc of justice with deference to its white canon. As an American, I recognize how a lack of political sophistication is necessary to that story. 

The descriptions of the plantation in Jamaica, the conditions under which the slaves there worked and lived, and the temperament of those they worked for, are unsparing. They are nested under the narrative layers of William Ainsworth and his literary dinner parties, past Eliza’s and Sarah’s fascination with the trial of an English claimant, past the newspaper excerpts and gentle musings of a repressed Victorian woman. The book’s structure mirrors the fact that slavery is at the heart of the British story. That choice demonstrates some curiosity and imagination behind this book, one I wish was also present throughout the rest of it. 

When Ainsworth and Eliza travel to Manchester, Eliza observes: 

The closed factories, the rail-thin women lined up outside every church and workhouse. The starving, barefoot children everywhere! Yet for Mrs. Touchet, all of this was a sight in which Manchester might take some cautious pride. In Liverpool, they were flying Confederate flags. She tried to explain herself: “It is the consequence of the embargo. The South wishes to send cotton again and could, given their current progress—but Manchester holds firm. There was a public vote in the Free Trade Hall, just after Christmas. The workers refused. They will not use slave cotton. They will continue Lincoln’s blockade, in solidarity with him—no matter the cost.”

Ainsworth is bored by the subject so it never goes beyond what I’ve quoted here. Still, this one paragraph was more compelling than all the pages devoted to whether William Makepeace Thackeray would appear at one of Ainsworth’s dinners or whether he would be too shy after accidentally implying an insult toward his host on a previous occasion (spoiler alert: he does attend). 

There’s a limit to how much importance you can allow anything if you ultimately care to make it all equally of note. There were just as many pages devoted to dinner-party quips as there were to a bloody slave revolt in which Bogle must have lost loved ones. This may be because Smith’s other guidepost is the pastiche of her literary education. In the introduction to The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Smith writes, “Requiredness lingers over me. When deciding which book of a significant author to read, I pick the one that appears on reading lists across the country.” I think the worst fate Smith can imagine for her work is that it might alienate those in charge of the reading lists. Maybe that’s why Smith is so against invoking her membership in a solidarity against hegemony over our art. The refusal to be in active dialogue with anything other than an archive results in a book that seems neither inspired by, nor likely to provoke, much thought. Indeed Smith has referred to herself as a fraud so often in interviews, I’m beginning to believe her.

At the Hay Festival Cartagena in 2019 Smith again made the subject of appropriation her target, saying arguments against appropriation restrict an author's freedom and assume “the possibility of total knowledge of humans.” I don’t think that’s fair; they more often serve to highlight where socially sanctioned authority and actual knowledge diverge. It’s telling that at that same talk, she admits the mistakes in her depictions of South Asian and Muslim characters were largely overlooked because she has been elevated by a white establishment who didn’t notice or care. 

AMONG THE PAT PARALLELS onto which early reviewers latched is how the title of “fraud” could be leveled at many of the novel’s characters who have varying awareness of their own motivations. The fallibility of a resentful public and their vulnerability to a charismatic populist folk hero were also catnip to a literary commentariat eager to have their arena validated as the site of important work. A number of reviewers of the book have implied it contains an allegory of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, depending on which country the review was published in. The claimant is considered refreshing in his frankness, in how much he is like the poor masses. Sarah tells us: “And what sort of thing does a Lord like? I’ll tell you: fighting, fucking, drinking, and kicking a pigskin about. Now what does my old man and all my uncles and brothers and cousins like? None different. It’s only them on the bottom and top know how to live! The ones in the middle are odd ones out, if you ask me. All that reading. They’re curious and no mistake!” You can imagine an NYT op-ed writer reading that and chuckling at finding the lede for their next piece on what the “white working class” gets right about the emerging elite of English majors. It’s easy to read modern clichés onto Smith’s characters, they’re already clichés. 

However I could appreciate how Sarah “represents” the stupid but persistent (because it’s an exculpatory) idea about the white working class and their politics: that their racism is only incidental to their singular reverence for authenticity (as determined by how relatable they find anyone). The more revealing measure of a racist person’s values is the fact they will “relate” to and label “authentic” anyone whose power they aspire to rather than feel threatened by. 

Sarah’s views echo how Trump supporters treat his many contradictions, his gaffes only serving to endear him further—like Bush before him and many other usefully incompetent men after. Any commonality with Trump or Boris Johnson the claimant might have is incidental to the fact that populism is a force easily generated with ingredients that look the same at any time and place. But the claimant isn’t actually that analogous to our political leaders. The grift of right-wing populist movements is that their leaders are exactly who they say they are. The fraud of our day is in pretending that liberal democracies are above such figures. 

If the assignment was a historical novel inspired by true events and tinged with enough modern parallels to generate happy reviews extolling a “clear-eyed” or “wry” send-up of our times, then the assignment was aced with all the aptitude of a thorough student. The novel is suffused with parallels and neat ironies, committed to its performance of form and genre. It is a rich historical text. There are even court transcripts. The Fraud retells Victorian British history. The drawing rooms of the wealthy do feature, but unlike the works of Austen or Dickens, in these rooms English people trill over the fate of the colonies where slave rebellions are taking place. Even if the characters are dull, the starched cotton at their necks and sugar slowly melting into their tea are appropriately contextualized as the products of an irredeemable evil. Smith has thus expanded the canon of British literature in a valuable direction. But it’s curious that after all her skepticism for symbolic expansions of the canon, the bar her latest work succeeds most at clearing is that one.

Ayesha A. Siddiqi is a writer and the editor in chief of the New Inquiry.