Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Reviewed by Matthew Richardson
Word Count 499
Penguin Books, 452 pages
Lore dictates that any exploration of Zadie Smith’s writing should begin with ‘White Teeth’, her debut novel published when she was twenty-five. Literary stardom followed and Smith is now a professor of creative writing at New York University. ‘Feel Free’ is her second essay collection and so not the most obvious introduction to Smith’s work. Nevertheless, the eclectic subject matter negates any lack of familiarity. The reader is kept on their toes, expected to keep up as Smith slaloms between subject matter ranging from local libraries,
through Tupac, to Vladimir Nabokov. The essays are nominally split up into sections entitled ‘In the World’, ‘In the Audience’, ‘In the Gallery’, ‘On the Bookshelf’, and ‘Feel Free’, but the collection has a narrative flow rather than feeling bolted together.
I struggled to pick out a structure in some of the essays (undoubtedly due to my own ignorance rather than Smith’s lack of clarity), but such is her down-the-rabbit-hole conversational style that it rarely mattered. She effortlessly hops from subtopic to subtopic, incisive and interesting. Nor does Smith speak down to her audience; minimal explanations suffice as Smith writes a series of essays on art (‘In the Gallery’). My own knowledge of Balthasar Denner and Mark Bradford is non-existent; Smith, though, leads the uninformed and ignorant through said gallery, explaining and prompting discussion as she goes. I had the impression of being in class with a benevolent professor who, recognising a struggling student, has the emotional intelligence not to embarrass me with questions in front of the class. As with all good essays, discussion inevitably develops into broader themes such as race and poverty in Britain.
Perhaps inevitably, Smith repeatedly returns to the subject of writing. Any discussion of the creative process by successful authors is usually catnip for fellow scribblers, and these essays are liberally strewn with anecdotes and self-reflection. One particularly compelling passage discusses the always tricky subject of writing outwith one’s culture and immediate experience. Smith balances ‘the problem of “responsibility”’ with the rejoinder that
‘…there is another truth, particular to writers, that in order to work with any effectiveness you will have to abandon, at least for a time, these familiar battles. If you want to create that “one old Indian man”, you will have to take liberties, you will have to feel free to write as you like…even if it is irresponsible.’
I found this to be an elegant-if-gentle caveat to so-called ‘cancel culture’, a reminder that if authors were limited to creating only with their own parsed experiences, we should all be the poorer for it.
The prose is predictably elegant with liberal use of brackets and frequent rhetorical questioning drawing the reader into the conversation. I never felt preached-at, and Smith’s ability to create a sense of shared exploration was wonderful. Her conclusions are not prescriptive but rather prompt introspection, and anyone interested in the art of essay writing should read this excellent collection.