Feel Free: Essays

By Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £20

Review by Alasdair McKillop

HERE is the strange thing about Zadie Smith, essayist and critic: she is perhaps least engaging when literature is her subject. She is also brilliant when literature is her subject. And literature is her subject, or rather her specialist subject. She is a professor of literature at New York University. She was famous for being a novelist at an age when people are usually famous for being pop stars or footballers. She did the English literature thing at Cambridge. She knows her stuff but in the past was sometimes guilty of forgetting that we did not. In her previous collection of essays, Smith expended a fearful number of pages on deep, dark theorising about the late American writer and academic David Foster Wallace, all of which amounted to a level of insight no greater than an earlier passing reference to him as “very Victorian”. There was a stale coffee, faculty vibe for the reader – it was exam time.

The problem was inaccessible brilliance. The experience was like standing on the ground and looking up at a sparrow-small plane: a great whirring of parts and human life was occurring above your head, but it was hard to make anything of it. And yet she has a problem with authority, her own most of all. In the foreword to Feel Free she states: “I have no real qualifications to write as I do.” This is endearing if a little disingenuous, at least when applied to literature. Later, she calls herself “more or less a connoisseur” of the novel. She has a strange anxiety about just standing before the reader and saying: "I’ve read a lot, hear me out on this one." But this very anxiety might explain the more considerate essays about literature in her new collection. They soar without being hot air balloons. They deliver little vitamin capsules of perfect literary goodness such as this line about Philip Roth’s famous worrier: “In 1969, though it was possible to go to the moon and possible to imagine nuclear annihilation, it was not possible to be Portnoy in the world.”

But oh how she consistently dazzles on other subjects, when her mind is like all of spring bursting out of the ground all at once. When it’s dance she twirls; when it’s music she sings; when it's art she paints. In Feel Free, Smith writes about all these life-giving things and about deathly subjects such as being a corpse and Justin Bieber. She quotes, I think approvingly, Geoff Dyer’s response when asked about his qualifications for writing a book about jazz: “I like listening to it.” Blessed with that same generosity of taste as Melvyn Bragg and Clive James, Smith considers allegiance to high culture or low culture alone to be deprivation. It is not surprising that such a sensibility should be drawn to the essay because the attraction is essentially the same as in the days of Montaigne or Mailer: freedom of voice, implying freedom of content.

As an essayist, Smith is confessional, properly discursive, non-dogmatic; she doesn’t try to take possession of a subject by styling herself as its definitive interpreter. Her approach is akin to picking up a squirming puppy so as to better examine its features from various angles before putting it down to scamper away. As a critic, she refreshingly lacks the killer instinct that once seemed like a prerequisite, particularly if you wanted to hide boiling insecurities. Suggesting something is starting to “weary rather than amuse” is about as close as the coffee comes to being served without milk. As a writer, she is at peace with contingency, moments in time, tides washing in and out, leaves going down and up again. The times would seem to be well attuned to her: “Having one’s own history so suddenly and abruptly made unreal is an experience of a whole generation of young people,” she writes. Things change, nothing stays the same, not even the opinions of great critics.

One of the best essays in this collection is about Joni Mitchell, although it’s really about responses to art. Smith hated Mitchell until the second she loved her madly. “How is it possible to hate something so completely,” she wonders, “and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur?” This is Smith at her best: not only does she admit to a dramatic change of mind, she is conceding her ignorance as to why it happened. She wants to trade her vulnerability for our trust. “I can’t listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people … I can never guarantee that I’m going to get through the song without being made transparent.” Smith suggests a certain kind of susceptibility, actually close to ignorance, might explain the epiphany. “Into the pure nothingness of my non-knowledge something sublime (an event?) beyond (beneath?) consciousness was able to occur.” When Smith is free to consult only her own emotional responses, her finest shimmies to the light.

Smith is undoubtedly a great critic. She is a great critic because she has the defining quality: she is observant. Is that not why we’re reading? To be delighted by the unknown? We want a deepening, a layering. Another important point: essays are meant to be fun; stimulating if we need to be grown-up about it. They should be witches’ brews of references, with a dash of her, a pinch of him and eye of newt all mixing in the swirl. They should come closer than trashy magazines in recreating the thrill of unexpectedly spotting a celebrity. Despite all that remains to be written and said about Muriel Spark in her centenary year, it is unlikely anyone but Smith will think to compare her to Beyonce. If you must know, it’s about devotion and control. But what a leap! This might be even better: “Asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies.”

Gore Vidal believed the essay would out-live other forms because it provided a unique platform for the voice. Still, it can never be more than a partial representation of the full personality. Smith is comfortable with this reality. It might be supposed, probably has been in fact, that social media might "like" the essay to death but, as Smith argues, Mark Zuckerberg’s need to be liked has given rise to a system of interaction that is flattening the identities of millions. A liberal-bourgeois sense of self, liberated and wandering free in the essay, is not necessarily worse than the new possibilities when “our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned”. Smith suggests a different type of voice – gracefully intelligent, enlightened by experience – might sustain the form in changing times. Think of the mind as a watery landscape dotted with little islands of knowledge along which thoughts can hop and be recharged: Zadie Smith has enough islands to go to the horizon. If we’re lucky, she will take us with her.