Book Essay Free Review


Book Title:
Feel Free: Essays


Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton

Guideline Price:

The subjects covered here are vast: art, cinema, dance, music, literature, life. The pieces that open the book are the weakest, particularly those on British politics, perhaps because they were all written for US publications and tend to stick to the surface as a result, though there’s no doubting the force of Zadie Smith’s feelings on the “arsonists” behind Brexit, or her passion to explain (again, to a US audience) the importance of state involvement in everyone’s lives. Or perhaps it’s because she is “by nature not a political person”. Then again, through the rest of the book, Smith repeatedly disclaims her own expertise on everything (“a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert”), then dazzlingly proves herself wrong.

This is part of a technique that we see throughout this collection. Smith breezily welcomes us in, giving the reader a personal memory or a popular culture comparison, denies her own ability, and then writes rings round us. She worries that an earlier draft of one essay was “too formal or cold”. On Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, she observes that it contains an opening section that “many people (including me) skip, in confusion”. When exploring Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s essay I and Thou, through reference to paid sign-and-greets with Justin Bieber, she pauses: “This is a bit perplexing; I need to unpack it a little for myself.” Yet into another essay she can drop Parmenides and Heraclitus in the same sentence without sounding forced.

There is something performative in this (false) modesty: “I have no real qualifications to write as I do”. Smith’s qualifications are an embarrassment of vision, intelligence and style; for most of us, reading Smith’s smooth erudition gives that sense of “a transfusion from above” that Martin Amis described when reading Saul Bellow. But there’s more to Smith’s success than this.

She is a great communicator of joy. The best essays here achieve this, and the standard is set by Some Notes on Attunement, an account of how, during a long car journey with her husband, Smith went from believing that Joni Mitchell’s voice sounded “like a bee caught in a wing mirror” to finding “an almost intolerable beauty” in her music – all explained clearly and convincingly via Wordsworth, Seneca and Kierkegaard. Similarly, Smith makes Christian Marclay’s film The Clock – which lasts for 24 hours and comprises solely clips from other movies, containing references to each minute of time from midnight to midnight – sound as if it really could be “sublime, maybe the greatest film you have ever seen”. This is because “you don’t feel you are watching a film, you feel you are existing alongside a film”. It is “a joyful art experience but a harsh life experience because it doesn’t disguise what life is doing to you”.


Smith has, also, the simple declarative rightness of a good critic that makes the reader see things they should have seen but never did, and a weapons-grade succinctness with which to deliver it. So in writing about JG Ballard’s Crash, she notes that the “iciness” of Ballard’s style “is partly a consequence of inverting the power balance between people and technology, which in turn deprives his characters of things like interiority and individual agency”. Mark Bradford’s short film Niagara, inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s famous walk in the movie of the same name, depicts a man sashaying away from the camera, and inspires Smith to sum up “camp” as “doing more than is necessary with less than you need. The less-than-you-need part is important. Camp begins in lack, in absence. It is the nuclear option of the disenfranchised”.

Above all, Smith works very hard not to daunt the reader, to give us a good time even when the subject of the essay is something we didn’t know we were interested in. For example, her regular but short-lived book review column for Harper’s (more coyness: “I said yes. I lasted six months”) is sufficiently rich and detailed to leave the reader with a wishlist comprising most of the titles under review, though it’s never quite clear if we would enjoy reading, say, Ian Thomson’s book on Jamaica as much as we like reading Smith telling us about it.

Everyone has opinions, but those that treat the reader with respect will be most likely to convince

Another way of putting this is that these essays are not just consequences, descriptions of something else: they are a primary source, full of sentences that have been, as George Saunders put it, the subject of so much concentration that they have become a thing in the world. On artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Smith writes that “everyone is born with a subject, but it is fully expressed only through a commitment to form”. Similarly, everyone has opinions, but those that treat the reader with respect will be most likely to convince.

This is a big book. Reading it as a reviewer does – bingeing on it like a boxed set – is useful for spotting trends and traits, but it can feel like too much confectionery, too rich. Instead, treat each essay as a short story, and consider Mavis Gallant’s advice: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Essays can wait. Take this approach, and Feel Free will keep you company – good company – for a long time to come.

These essays and journalistic pieces, which date from 2010 to last year and cover a range of subjects from Brexit to Justin Bieber to Italian gardens and her childhood bathroom, confirm Zadie Smith as a non-fiction writer of striking generosity and perception. The generosity takes the form of a permanent, embracing invitation to the reader – even when she is writing about, for example, Arthur Schopenhauer – and the perception is impressive because it operates not only outwards but also inwards, taking in the writer herself. There is a simpler way of putting it: here is Smith, coolly appraising, connoisseurial, discerning; and here she is, too, the book nerd, the culture geek, reading, hearing and seeing, occasionally dizzied by her own place among all these works of art, and dying to talk to somebody about it.

The question of voice – where you find one, where other people find theirs, whose gets listened to first and, perhaps most important, how you know when you can trust your own and when it is beguiling or deceiving you – is central to Smith’s novels. She elaborates on the issue in The I Who Is Not Me, a lecture exploring the use of autobiographical material in fiction, by considering the fact that it took her until her last novel, Swing Time, to break her self-imposed taboo on using the first person.

“For what is impossible about any real-life identity is its narrowness,” Smith writes. In childhood, that impossibility took the form of being biracial in a binary culture of black and white, but whatever its cause, she notes, it can lead to “anger, sadness, despair, confusion”. But it can also provoke another “inherently creative” response, which she believes to be “at the root of the reason so many writers will tell you that they felt in some way alienated as children. When you are not at home in your self, as a child, you don’t experience your self as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ – as so many other people seem to do.” By way of compensation comes an awareness “of the radical contingency of life” – and, indeed, the desire to create other lives in fiction.

On Get Out, she says: ‘I will not forget the close-ups of suffering black faces; suffering, but trapped behind masks’

In her novels, Smith argues, she has sought to free herself from the obligations of inevitability – to construct characters who are entirely themselves, rather than representations of those either trapped by historical circumstances or the novelist’s idealism; Philip Roth’s Portnoy and Karim Amir, the narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, are particular influences.

Cultural commentaries, pieces of criticism and essays would seem an obviously different category of writing, their concern primarily with inspection rather than invention. But Smith is too canny a thinker and writer to fall for that one; she’s aware not only of the presence and the impact of the observer, but also of the liberation that can come from playing fast and loose with what is being observed.

And perhaps the most freeing moment comes when the writer decides to drop her inhibitions, to banish the self-consciousness that has lurked in her hinterland, and agrees to appear far-fetched, even ridiculous. “At times he restricts himself formally, like the Oulipo, that experimental French literary group of the sixties.” Who is she writing about? Why, the rapper Jay-Z, of course. And whose records, now freighted with nostalgia, does she liken to “listening to a pleasant slice of Sinatra”? Tupac, naturally.

She is sharp enough not to make such florid comparisons without the goods to back them up, and her piece on Jay-Z, The House That Hova Built, is a fantastically illuminating account of the protean nature of hip-hop, the constant shifts of power and purpose that are in its code. I was happily reminded of the way Smith blended Howards End with Public Enemy in her novel On Beauty, but this piece, written in 2012, is a different example of subversion. In the age of celebrity, she has rebranded an interview as an essay, and freed herself from the demands of editors and readers to deliver a hot take, let alone a take-down.

Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind’

In fact, the only target, really, is herself, still clinging to her love of Wu-Tang Clan. “Listening to Jay-Z – still so flexible and enthusiastic, ears wide open – you realise you’re like one of these people who believes jazz died with Dizzy.” Even there, though, is the embrace: one of “these” people, not one of “those”.

That piece sits in a section called In the Audience, which also features an exploration (“review” doesn’t quite cover it, since this is where Schopenhauer enters the scene, and Smith can’t stand the word “meditation” in this context) of Charlie Kaufman’s film Anomalisa and an extended encounter with the US comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from 2015. Smith returned to Peele last year, when she wrote stunningly about Get Out, his debut feature film, now Oscar-nominated.

Tellingly, that essay comes under the heading In the Gallery, alongside pieces about art and artists. That’s partly because she describes Get Out as a series of frames (“I will not easily forget those lengthy close-ups of suffering black faces; suffering, but trapped behind masks, like so many cinematic analogues of the arguments of Frantz Fanon”) but also because she segues into a discussion of a painting by Dana Schutz of Emmett Till, the black American teenager murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman, which Smith goes to see two weeks after she sees the film.

Zadie Smith says using social media would threaten her writing

The painting, Open Casket, became the focus for an intense argument about appropriation; it should not, critics argued, appear in the Whitney Biennial because it should not be acceptable for its creator, a white woman, “to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun”. Could Smith, a biracial woman, lay claim to the subject matter, she wonders? Could her children, who, “by the old racial logic of America” are “quadroons”? If not: “When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern?”

The point here is not to settle the question of cultural appropriation; to decide who can say what, when and how. It is, rather, to give voice to what Smith calls “the ever-present torsion” within her experience; the feeling that clarity is denied her and the suspicion that clarity is a bodge job anyway. And after all that, there’s a simpler light to navigate by: the painting doesn’t make her feel anything, particularly. They do not communicate.

Two other delights of this wonderfully suggestive collection: memories of her parents and her upbringing, including the bathroom filled with greenery that she recognises years later, when she stands amid similar shades in Jamaica; and the fact that Feel Free provides you with a spiralling list of things to read, listen to, watch. Back to JG Ballard! Off to Rome, to find the lovely public gardens to which she wishes she’d taken her father! On the turntable with Joni Mitchell!

Over and again, Smith comes back to the gift of culture that fell into her lap when she was a child, but which she also had to find a way to assimilate into her life. Her essays hit on a truth about such a treasure trove: transformative and enriching it can certainly be, if you’re lucky – but also puzzling, painful, exposing, even treacherous. The title Feel Free itself implies the contradiction: can you order a feeling? Can freedom come as the result of an instruction? Perhaps not, says Smith, but it’s the best chance we’ve got.

• Feel Free is published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for £15 (RRP £20) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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