Thoughts on Zadie Smith’s Essay Collection "Feel Free"

I first read Zadie Smith’s writing while I was studying in the UK. It wasn't the novel that made her one of the most renowned authors of the 21st century, but an essay she wrote for The New Yorker in 2012. This piece, which ended up affecting me more than I could’ve imagined, became included in Smith’s essay collection Feel Free, published in 2018. When I saw this last spring before Covid forced me to come back to Finland, I immediately went to the Blackwell’s bookshop and managed to order a copy. Excited, I started to get acquainted with Smith’s writing after I returned, and it didn’t disappoint. 

I have been reading the collection gradually – through summer and finishing early this autumn. These past few weeks as I’ve got hold of that university routine again, I’ve gone back to the essays thinking I need something else to think about (of course this might’ve been good old procrastination). Finally finishing the collection, I can say that I’ve never truly enjoyed a personal essay until I read Smith’s collection consisting of them. Not only was this new and refreshing, but also a learning experience of reading the personal essay – something that requires the reader to give the writer a chance: let go of your stronger presumptions and be open to subjects you wouldn’t normally care to consider at all. What does this do exactly? Well, if you share this interest in different types of commentary that encourages you to consider these subjects from your own viewpoint, I think it makes us more culturally aware and more critical. And most importantly, more open.

Smith’s is a brilliant collection of cultural commentary and criticism which brings variety with writing that concerns also, though lightly, social and political questions. Her essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” discusses climate change as well, and the way it’s conversed in the 2010s which can often be characterized as a cry for our earth that usually goes: “what have we done!” – bringing no “meaningful action.” She presents many different topics that range from entertainment – music, art works and movies – and literature to more personal ponderings and recollections; in these, the reader also gets to access the mind of Zadie Smith when its attention is caught by something and learn of her personal life.

Smith writes about these subjects, significantly the cultural ones, in a captivating fashion. She writes with an ease, compelled by her personal interests and experiences, what sometimes seems like a cool philosophical way of expressing one’s thoughts after an event or an object has caught every bit of their attention. Her language is straightforward, descriptive, colorful of references and occasionally more informal than formal with freer expression and indignation, which makes the texts the more enjoyable – if you patiently take your time in reading them, to get to her point. Her writing, then, is captivating because it’s more personal. The book divides these topics to five parts; the essays “are the product of a bygone world” by this time, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed as interesting pieces of writing that shows the beauty of the personal essay and the freedom that goes to writing it.

The first part, called “IN THE WORLD,” has essays that consider London, her hometown, as well as England and an essay discussing how Smith’s writing worldview has changed since White Teeth (2000) from a sunny to a “cloudier” view. The most interesting is “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” where Smith remembers an old school in her childhood neighborhood which she saw had had a fence built around it, blocking the view into the playground. Surely things change, Smith notes, but then the essay turns from this worry of separating a diverse, multicultural school from the wider community to the tragic worry of Brexit, which creates this larger fence around the whole of Britain and shines light upon all these built fences within British society that enable social inequality.

“IN THE AUDIENCE” follows, and these essays are intriguing commentary and criticism on entertainment. Smith’s interview with Jay-Z shows an interest in rap and hip hop and how these have changed. In “Generation Why” (brilliantly titled) she reviews The Social Network and discusses the oddity of Facebook for its huge influence on the younger generations. She’s also written “Dance Lessons for Writers” – delightful notes on how to connect famous dancers to one’s writing so the writer, like the dancer, wouldn’t block this unique force from within that creates, like movement, the writing. Without a doubt the best essay is “Some Notes on Attunement.” It’s a perfect example of a good, modern personal essay in my opinion. It’s one of the most fascinating since it examines an event in Smith’s life when she experienced an epiphany that changed an attitude of hate to love.

And this epiphany was a moment of… attuning to the music of Joni Mitchell. Doesn’t really sound remarkable, right? But the essay is truly mesmerizing, with words of Wordsworth, Seneca and Kierkegaard (The New Yorker article also has Ginsburg) to write her thoughts: Smith writes of this sudden change in her attitude, this attuning to Mitchell, with almost a philosophical wonder at how in one moment you suddenly just stop utterly hating something and begin to love it. She compares this to a “progressive change in taste,” an effort in learning something, which happens only with novels and expresses melancholy of missing out in music. She goes to suggest that all you need is to “lower your defenses,” truly let go of your inhibitions so you’ll be open to, for example, the musical new.

“IN THE GALLERY” has Smith writing on art and these pieces differ significantly from each other: among these there’s a 24 hour film installation (google “Christian Marclay, The Clock,” you’ll be amazed); photos of Billie Holiday (an essay that seems more like Smith giving Holiday a voice than reviewing her photos); a short film called Niagara, with a man sashaying down the street, that Smith sees as the epitome of camp; and an installation by Sarah Sze’s called Centrifuge, a difficult piece to write about, being a type of deconstruction of modern technology forming a type of ominous colosseum. Isn’t the art world fascinating? Smith certainly makes you think so, and my favorite of these has to be “Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner.” Granted, this is a classic 18th century painting, an ancient compared to the previous ones but I love and enjoy Smith’s way of analyzing this portrait of an old woman that looks kind of angry and couldn’t care less if you, the viewer, were looking at her. Smith perfectly describes this by comparing Alte Frau to Venus of Urbino, where the woman is made to be looked at and is herself aware of this.

Part four, “ON THE BOOKSHELF,” has Smith discussing and reviewing books. She gave an interesting lecture on writing in the first person in 2016 and it’s an important description of her thought processes as a writer, showing her motives and inspirations (beautifully and interestingly diverse). The most intriguing, though, are Smith’s thoughts on novels of which she writes in a way where they appear as some of the most peculiar works ever. I’m specifically referring to her account of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. It appears as a funny and perverse book, but Smith brings out its beauty and describes its racial aspect and the relationship of the immigrant parent and child born in the other country (UK) in an insightful way that makes me want to read the book.

Last part, “FEEL FREE,” consists of perhaps some of the most personal essays you could ever read from Zadie Smith. They’re the most philosophical and sensitive about life and, I’ll admit, a bit odd and sometimes challenging to follow; but this is what I meant by giving the writer a chance. In my case it’s because I feel I might learn something from them. Even though some of the essays have as odd names as “The Bathroom” and “Find Your Beach,” you still want to give them a chance. The former ended up being very touching, about family and parents’ sacrifices for their children; the latter an incredible account of what the “limitless” mentality of New York can do to Smith compared to England, where she might’ve felt limited. Then, there’s the oddity titled “Meet Justin Bieber!” which kind of shows Smith at her best: combining popular culture and philosophy (of Martin Buber) in serious consideration of the former (represented by Justin Bieber). And then there are also the titles “The Shadow of Ideas” and “Joy,” the first almost like a story from Smith’s memories and considerations of her surroundings in Italy, and the second an amusing thought on how she divides pleasure and joy.

What I got from this is that I learned quite a lot from the well-read Zadie Smith. It shows Smith as a diverse modern writer who brings fascinating insights to popular culture, art, literature and life, encouraging us to lower our defenses and be more open to what culture has to offer.