- ISBN-13: 9781594206252
- ISBN-10: 1594206252
- Publisher: Penguin Press
- Publish Date: February 2018
- Page Count: 464
- Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.45 pounds
Well Read: Write what you know
Fans of Zadie Smith’s novels may be less familiar with her forays into nonfiction, which often take the form of essays for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Feel Free collects some of these recent essays, along with book reviews and lectures, into a generous volume that shares the breadth and depth of this thoughtful writer’s curiosity. The title is a playful pun: Smith is expressing the freedom that essay writing grants a writer, but she is also granting the reader his or her own freedom. Feel free to disagree with anything or everything I say, Smith suggests. That’s the whole point of writing and reading.
Like-minded readers will find little to excoriate here, though. Smith is not only a penetrating and candid writer, she is also embracing. Reading these pieces can feel like a pleasant dinner conversation with a smart, open-minded friend. That is not to say that Smith is never a provocateur. On the contrary, she doesn’t always toe the narrow line or adhere to what one might assume would be the views of a Cambridge-educated, liberal woman who grew up on the margins of London poverty with a black, immigrant mother and white, working-class father. It is the very complexity of her background, in fact, that allows Smith to imbue her writing with its prismatic combination of intellect and emotion.
A sharply honed piece such as “Some Notes on Attunement,” wherein Smith ponders her journey from being a pitiable Joni Mitchell-hater to worshipping at the altar of that pop genius, displays the full measure of her talents. In it, she takes detours into Wordsworth’s poetry and the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, combined with fleeting glimpses into her childhood and marriage. In a mere 16 pages, Smith manages to express not only the process by which we find our own path through the cultural landscape but also what she calls “the inconsistency of identity, of personality.”
This inconsistency, and the need to make sense of it, fuels much of Smith’s writing. Her subjects are catholic. Despite protests that she is merely a layman, she writes expertly when commenting on contemporary art as well as when she’s pondering pop culture (the comedy duo Key and Peele are a favorite subject, and she even ventures into the world of Justin Bieber’s celebrity). She lends her critical eye to Facebook and to photographs of Billie Holiday, then surveys the political landscape, considering the root causes of Brexit and the everyday realities of climate change.
“Taken as a whole, Feel Free is about identity.”
Smith admits to feeling most comfortable in her knowledge of the novel, and expectedly, some of the most perceptive writing concerns both her own fiction and the work of others. “I think to appreciate fiction fully it helps to conceive of a space that allows for the writer’s experience and the reader’s simultaneously,” she writes in an essay on Philip Roth that, like many of the essays in this book, offers subtle insight into her own work. “That sounds like an impossible identity, but literature, for me, is precisely the ambivalent space in which impossible identities are made possible, both for authors and their characters.”
Identity is Smith’s watchword, in both her fiction and in essays. Taken as a whole, Feel Free is about identity, played out through the complicated mess we call culture, art and life.