Barbie, Inc.

By Jan Baetens

Everybody knows the situation: a delayed flight, and nothing more to read. Airport literature is then the answer to all our anxieties. In this case, it was entitled Swing Time (2016, Penguin edition in 2017) and its author is Zadie Smith. 453 pages of which I read 91 during the flight. I stopped in the middle of a sentence and did not go on to page 92, despite the multiple incentives that litter the volume. Swing timeThe book has indeed an exceptionally long blurb section, which starts at the front cover, continues on the back cover, appears to cheer up the interior cover pages and quite a lot of the front matter. In short: no less than nine pages of praise of a “superb”, breathtaking”, and “brilliant” book, which only made me yawn.

For skeptical readers, excessive blurb always sounds suspect and my own reading only confirmed this intuition. Imagine a novel where the author has tried to combine the following three constraints:

  1. List and mix everything that may illustrate the modern, cosmopolitan life of a bobo (please don’t forget issues of race, class and gender).
  2. Be cool and try to surprise with crisp dialogues and a “well written” style, but never forget that easy reading is the key of success.
  3. Target an audience as broad as possible (think of all the translations and how people abroad think of London, New York and West Africa) and cater to all possible reader groups.

Zadie Smith applies all these rules in an amazingly efficient way (after all, she also teaches creative writing, and one can guess that her work holds a top place in book discussion groups all over the world). The result is perfect plastic literature. Barbie and Ken may do and experience and say and think everything that the Mattel dolls are not allowed to, but they remain dolls. What Zadie Smith is writing is Barbie literature for post-young adults. Let’s hope the film will be better.