Several of the last century’s finest non-fiction writers – Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin – longed to be novelists. In interviews with the Paris Review, each touched on the tension and insecurity involved in their dual métier. Sontag wrote in surprisingly aspirational tones of ‘the novelist [I’d] finally given myself permission to be’. Didion confessed to feeling like ‘a kind of apprentice plumber of fiction’. And Baldwin, comparing different forms, simply said: ‘They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.’ The vast majority of writers, even the most successful, select one format or the other and restrict themselves to it. But why should anyone have to pick a genre and stick to it? As Sontag observed, ‘a writer is someone who pays attention to the world.’ The rest is mere form. This thought seems fundamental to Feel Free, Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays, profiles and reviews. Still, Smith has Sontag’s insecurity in reverse, admitting in the foreword to her own anxiety: ‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’
Feel Free is a significantly bigger book than Smith’s first collection of essays, Changing My Mind (2009), which also gathered a decade’s worth of the journalism she has always produced alongside her novels. But the new collection is better, in large part because her mind has continued to change, and so has her life. A short but expansive piece illustrative in miniature of the book’s wide-ranging interests moves from a postcard reproduction of Balthasar Denner’s 1721 painting Alte Frau to a touching remembrance of the late John Berger to a dual meditation on ageing – ‘the great unsexing’, as she calls it, ‘the disappearance of gender, over time’ – and the unencumbered way her father thought about art. All this makes her ask of herself: ‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’
For Smith, Alte Frau is a breathtaking instance of ‘age without illusion’: an aberration in the Western painterly tradition, in which, as Berger argued, portraits of women ‘are constructed around the concept of availability’. Decades ago, Smith’s father, unlike his overeducated teenage daughter, arrived at this understanding intuitively, noting during a trip to Italy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino – an example of ‘eternal sexual receptiveness’ – simply how good-looking she was. ‘Not the painting – Venus herself,’ Smith writes. ‘What an attractive body she had, lithe, with good breasts and nice legs, and so on.’ (The treatment of female sexuality in visual art leads Smith to the persuasive proposition that, in paintings such as Alte Frau or the Mona Lisa, ‘what men consider enigmatic in women is actually agency.’) At the Uffizi, her father’s uncomplicated pleasure strikes Smith as naive and even vulgar, but the insight that fuels this essay and much of the rest of the book comes from her mature awareness that we should try to see, in all its specificity, just what is in front of us – without allowing abstraction, assumptions and dogma to get there first.
Smith, who for several years has been a teacher at NYU, positions herself throughout Feel Free as a prodigious but dutiful permanent student, parsing the issues of the day – at home and abroad – by herself and at her own pace. Perhaps because her huge early success precluded the need for self-promotion, she has, somewhat miraculously for a still youngish writer, never participated in the social media circus. The result is that she tends to arrive at positions that can surprise us, challenging received wisdom without ever lapsing into automatic contrarianism. She is a ‘biracial’ transatlantic commuter who has channelled her mother’s Jamaican roots into consistent solidarity with the black culture and community of her adopted American homeland while simultaneously refusing to lose sight of the complexity of her own perspective as the daughter of a working-class white Englishman. In the essay ‘Speaking in Tongues’ from her first collection, she wrote powerfully about the ‘horror of the middling spot … this dread of the interim place! It extends through the spectre of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety – disguised as genteel concern – for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices – whatever will become of them?’ But the truth is that she had by then transformed the interim place into a sweet spot. In the early, hopeful days of Obama she saw a way forward. ‘The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one,’ she wrote. ‘The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural.’
But things have changed dramatically since then, and since the – in retrospect – even more innocent time of the publication of White Teeth (2000). Looking back on her earlier novels in a speech she gave in Berlin in 2016, included here under the title ‘On Optimism and Despair’, Smith notes that people often ask her whether she has lost her faith in a multiculturalism that appears to have failed:
When I hear these questions I am reminded that to have grown up in a homogenous culture in a corner of rural England, say, or France or Poland, during the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, is to think of oneself as having been simply alive in the world, untroubled by history, whereas to have been raised in London during the same period, with, say, Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical social experiment, now discredited.
But now is a time of retrenchment and regress, of polarisation and sometimes violent mutual suspicion, of singular identities and tribal loyalty. ‘I did not realise that the life I was living was considered in any way provisional or experimental by others,’ she continues. ‘I did not understand that I was “championing” multiculturalism simply by depicting it.’
Last year, Smith ran foul not just of emboldened racists eager to reverse society’s diversification, but of the anti-racist consensus too. What got her into trouble was ‘Getting In and Out’, a frank investigation, included in this collection, into the proprietorship of black pain. Like almost all of Smith’s essays, the piece is interested in several things at once: it is partly a straightforward and mostly laudatory review of Jordan Peele’s surprise blockbuster movie Get Out but also a set of reflections on racial authenticity and cultural appropriation. It culminates in an intervention into the feverish controversy surrounding the white American artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, depicting the lynched black teenager Emmett Till, on show at the Whitney Biennial. Halfway through the essay, Smith quotes Baldwin on the fundamental absurdity of racial categorisation: ‘What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place.’ She concludes that
there is an important difference between the invented ‘nigger’ of 1963 and the invented African-American of 2017. The disgust has mostly fallen away … everything that was once reviled – our eyes, our skin, our backsides, our noses, our arms, our legs, our breasts, and of course our hair – is now openly envied and celebrated and aestheticised and deployed in secondary images to sell stuff.
Our eyes, skin, backsides, noses: Smith is careful to align herself with the black body. To avoid the charge of naivety, she concedes that ‘the life of the black citizen in America is no more envied or desired today than it was back in 1963. Her schools are still avoided and her housing still substandard and her neighborhood still feared and her personal and professional outcomes disproportionately linked to her zip code.’ But ‘her physical self is no longer reviled. If she is a child and comes up for adoption, many a white family will be delighted to have her, and if she is in your social class and social circle, she is very welcome to come to the party; indeed, it’s not really a party unless she does come.’
If such belief in progress and contradiction had been halfway permissible under Obama – the surest and brightest emblem of the country’s fundamentally mongrel composition – it has become unthinkable in the era of Trump. ‘To be biracial at any time is complex,’ Smith acknowledges:
Speaking for myself, I know that racially charged historical moments, like this one, can increase the ever present torsion within my experience until it feels like something’s got to give. You start to yearn for absolute clarity: personal, genetic, political. I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation.
Soon after she published the piece, Smith’s own racial bona fides were called into question, partly because she had been sceptical of the racial absolutism of another biracial British woman, an artist called Hannah Black, who published a widely circulated letter demanding that the Whitney remove and destroy Open Casket. ‘I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum,’ Black wrote, ‘because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.’ Smith, rightly, will have none of this. ‘I do not find discussions on appropriation and representation to be in any way trivial,’ she stresses, before pointing out that Black’s essentialist logic would set a Southern planter at ease. ‘Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter?’ Smith wonders. ‘Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an octoroon still count?’
These are questions we would all benefit from thinking through with care. Yet, much as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie provoked anger on the left by appealing for a more complicated interpretation of trans and cis-gendered women’s experience, Smith was attacked for failing to toe the rhetorical line. Her essay ‘should have been titled, “Will My Mixed Children Be Black Enough for America?”’ one writer quipped on Medium. Morgan Jerkins devoted a lengthy Twitter thread to the emotional ‘hurt’ the essay had caused her. Smith’s violation, according to Jerkins, was ‘intellectualising blackness’ from a distance instead of feeling it. ‘Black pain is not an intellectual exercise,’ she wrote. ‘Lived experiences often times transcend discourse. It’s not always meant to be rationalised.’ ‘Do not be surprised,’ she warned, ‘if a chunk of that essay is used in discussions as to why biracial people need to take a backseat in the movement.’ (Never mind the fact that, according to a recent study, the average African-American genome has 25 per cent European ancestry and so black Americans are by definition an ethnically ambiguous – i.e. ‘mixed’ – population.)
In an essay in n+1 entitled ‘Zadie Smith and the Problem of Her Single Story’, Victoria Princewell mocked Smith’s claim ‘that there is a universal “us” in the United States of America’, before stripping her of her racial standing:
Though Smith focuses on individual racial privilege, she fails to note the other forms of privilege that are present when a Cambridge and Harvard-educated academic, a literary prodigy, a bestselling and award-winning novelist and national (arguably international) treasure, a woman lauded for both her beauty and intellect, featured in a luxury fashion campaign and prestigious magazines, prescribes her own emotional response to the symbolic representation of African-American torment as a model for others. When Smith takes up the question of how white mainstream culture traffics in black trauma, and makes it hinge primarily on her own experience, she stretches towards solipsism.
What is striking in this response is the idea that Smith’s appearance and achievements should somehow weaken her claim to an authentic black perspective, rendering it artificial. More, the implication is that there is an objective ‘black experience’ – whatever that might mean for many millions stretched across distinct geographic regions and socioeconomic strata – located outside individual black people’s variegated lives. ‘Bitter struggles deform their participants in subtle, complicated ways,’ Smith noted a decade ago in ‘Speaking in Tongues’. ‘The idea that one should speak one’s cultural allegiance first and the truth second (and that this is a sign of authenticity) is precisely such a deformation.’
Although complex realities – racial, cultural, national – are a constant in Smith’s work, she isn’t obsessed with issues of identity, and some of the best moments in the new collection arise from wholly unfreighted encounters. Smith pays attention to everything around her, and her very amateurishness – that is to say the sheer enthusiasm that propels these essays – makes the combinations she lands on compelling. It is easy to say that Smith is a writer concerned with hybridity – there are many writers of whom that could be said. But I can’t easily think of anyone else who would think to weave a close reading of Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World into a humorous and moving review of Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion movie Anomalisa. She finds in the film, which stars lifelike puppets (‘something not quite human – and all too human’), a Brechtian effect that is, on further consideration, actually Schopenhauerian. Anomalisa is a story of loneliness, the ultimately futile craving for lasting human connection, illustrated by Michael, a married Everyman who experiences other people as distressingly undifferentiated. He seems to find love – or the rare opportunity to experience not just physical passion but reciprocal compassion – for a night with a special (anomalous) puppet called Lisa. In the morning, however, Michael realises that he won’t be able to sustain the connection. We know by this point that he wants women and then rejects them – unable to explain, even to himself, why he’s stopped wanting them. ‘Human needs,’ Smith writes via Schopenhauer, ‘are not in their essence complex. On the contrary, their “basis is very narrow” … Yet on this narrow strip we build the extraordinary edifice of pleasure and pain, of hope and disappointment!’
Smith, who gets a great deal out of this eccentric movie, also wants to explain why it was so mistakenly overlooked by award-givers. The reason:
Alongside its noted myopia toward distinct genres, races and subcultures, the Academy has also proved reliably blind to a more general category: genius. (Which category, so problematic for us, is, for Schopenhauer, easily defined: ‘The gift of genius is nothing but … the ability … to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.’)
The clear eye of the world: at her best, Smith too is able momentarily to discard personality and step back for a clearer view. This is precisely what her critics, in response to ‘Getting In and Out’, identified as the root of her racial betrayal.
There is genius, and there is fame. Feel Free also includes exhilarating essays on Joni Mitchell and Justin Bieber: the first at the same time an investigation of Kierkegaard’s notion of ‘attunement’, the second of Martin Buber’s concept of ‘meeting’. About Bieber-Buber (‘alternative spellings of the same German surname’), Smith takes the singer’s objectifying fame as the most extreme instance of the difficulty we all must face in meeting the world. ‘All real living is meeting,’ she writes, channelling Buber. ‘But what most of us do, most of the time, feels more like “presenting”.’ Fame isolates, precludes genuine interaction. ‘To be as famous as Bieber, in the 21st century,’ she writes, ‘is to live as pure monologue.’ She describes and returns to the image of him at one of his stadium-sized meet-and-greets, sitting at a table, receiving a mesmerised queue, ‘experiencing himself as the sole and obsessive focus of an unending line’ of adulatory fans. Because there is an unbridgeable epistemological divide – they all know him, but he does not know them – ‘there is a smooth certainty to all encounters,’ Smith writes. ‘This is because all meetings with others have in one sense always already happened.’
As I read this essay, another image surfaced in my mind, not of Justin Bieber but of Smith – no pop star but about as famous as any contemporary writer is allowed to be – at a jam-packed event for her last novel, Swing Time. I watched as she dutifully made her way from the green room of the 92nd Street Y in New York City to the lone chair behind a book-signing table, while a line of hundreds of anonymous readers – each with her own personal Zadie Smith experience to recount during the moment she held the author’s attention – filled the room and stretched beyond where the eye could follow. As with Bieber’s fans, the highlight of each individual’s night surely was to have met not the person but the object ‘Zadie Smith’. About Bieber, Smith concludes from a distance that ‘the overwhelming feeling I have when I consider fame on this scale is pity.’ But the evidence that leads her to this conclusion must, at least in part, be her own. As she writes in her foreword, her evidence ‘is almost always intimate’.
Famous for half her life and now in her forties, Smith has become extremely good on the subject of getting older. In the book’s penultimate essay, ‘Find Your Beach’ – sparked by a Corona advert glimpsed from her window – she contrasts her English and American selves, capturing in a few lines the narcotic, death-defying exhilaration of New York City. ‘You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day,’ she writes.
When I am in England each summer, it’s the opposite: all I see are the limits of my life. The brain that puts a hairbrush in the fridge, the leg that radiates pain from the hip to the toe, the lovely children who eat all my time, the books unread and unwritten. And casting a shadow over it all is what Philip Larkin called ‘extinction’s alp’, no longer a stable peak in a distance, finally becoming rising ground.
I could identify only one passage in this 400-page book that rang false. Smith is almost always thoughtful and unpretentious when writing about money and her own relationship to it – from not having much to suddenly having plenty. In an otherwise illuminating essay about the financial crisis and the two years she spent living in Rome, she writes that she accidentally set her apartment on fire. She arrived home in time to see all her possessions disintegrating:
I understood at last what it means to have money. By then it was seven years since I’d had some money, but the day of the fire was the first time I understood what it had done to me. The terror at the cashpoint, the anxiety in the supermarket, the argument at the bank teller’s desk, the furious family row because someone has left a light on, because someone thinks ‘we have shares in the electricity company’ … All of that, the whole daily battle with money, was over. When money’s scarce life is a daily emergency, everything is freighted with potential loss, you feel even the slightest misstep will destroy you. When there’s money, it’s different, even a real emergency never quite touches you, you’re always shielded from risk. You are, in some sense, too big to fail. And when I looked at my life on fire I had a thought I don’t believe any person in the history of my family – going back many generations on both sides – could ever have had or ever even think of having: Everything lost can be replaced.
This is a persuasive description of the constant experience of lack, and of the speed with which one can get used to surplus. Yet in the very last paragraph, after the firefighters have put out the blaze and Smith talks them into letting her back in to survey ‘our own little financial crash’, she writes: ‘As I climbed the stairs I remembered a line from an old Negro spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water but the fire next time.”’ Despite a deft water motif throughout the piece – down to a drowned art dealer in Venice – not only does the invocation of a Negro spiritual sit uneasily with the scale of her personal disaster, the unmistakable allusion to Baldwin’s civil rights classic The Fire Next Time also feels unearned. Here, the personal really doesn’t reveal the universal – and it shouldn’t have tried to. But everywhere else in the book Smith’s commitment to exploring what it means to feel free, through experiences we have in common as well as alone, is contagious. We don’t need to experience the world exactly as she sees it, but we need something of that commitment.