‘Feel Free’ is a new collection of over thirty essays, reviews and interviews by Zadie Smith divided into five sections. The first and last of these, ‘In the World’ and ‘Feel Free’, cover current events and some autobiographical “life writing”, while ‘In the Audience’, ‘In the Gallery’ and ‘On the Bookshelf’ concern her musings on film, art and writing respectively.
Covering a vast array of topics, the collection opens with an impassioned defence of libraries (“the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet”) while a new security fence constructed around her daughter’s primary school is the springboard for a nuanced and insightful piece on Brexit. As to be expected, some of the more in-depth reviews may only be of real interest for those who already know about the subject matter. I am familiar with some of the films and authors discussed here (‘The Social Network’, ‘Get Out’ and Karl Ove Knausgaard are all featured), but it has to be said that the more academic essays about art were less appealing to me and I skimmed most of these. As well as subject matter, the essays were originally written for very different audiences across different publications and while many pieces first appeared in the New York Review of Books and Harper’s magazine, some were delivered as lectures.
As she does so skilfully in her fiction, Smith moves easily between up-to-the-minute contemporary pop culture and obscure or highbrow intellectual figures – from an exploration of Schopenhauer references in the film ‘Anomalisa’ to the surprising links between Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and pop star Justin Bieber (yes, really). Above all, however, Smith is at her most engaging when talking about her own writing and family background. In the lecture ‘The I Who Is Not Me’, she explores why it took until her fifth novel Swing Time for her to start writing fiction in the first person while ‘The Bathroom’, a new autobiographical piece published last year, is among the most impressive in the “life writing” section.
I am rarely drawn to collections of essays, even those by well-respected authors whose novels I have enjoyed, as it strikes me as a form which often serves the writer much more than the audience. Fortunately, Smith shows that essays need not be dry and inaccessible – instead, they can be illuminating and erudite. I haven’t yet read Smith’s first collection of essays ‘Changing My Mind’ published in 2009 but will consider doing so while waiting for her next novel to be published. Many thanks to Penguin Books UK for sending me a review copy of ‘Feel Free’ via NetGalley.