Sheer Enthusiasm

Thomas Chatterton Williams

  • Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
    Hamish Hamilton, 464 pp, £20.00, February 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 14689 7

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?’

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