The New Essay by Zadie Smith

1 03 2018

Zadie Smith’s brilliance is on display in ‘Feel Free’

Upon opening “Feel Free,” Zadie Smith’s new essay collection, you’ll be surprised to learn that she doubts her literary talent, her critical acumen. I suppose that many literary writers are skeptical or anxious about their chosen profession. I know I am: though some invisible force compels us to create, we writers sometimes feel ourselves fraudulent intellectually, not knowing enough about anything to represent human experience or critique the arts successfully. Smith ought not be one of those writers though. Since 2000, Smith — London born and bred, now a New Yorker — has published six substantial, exceptional works of fiction (including the 2012 novel “NW,” a tour de force formally and stylistically) and an excellent work of nonfiction, “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays” (2009).

Across her eighth book’s five parts — “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf,” “Feel Free” — Smith has distributed a slew of essays, reviews (including a folio of “Harper’s” columns) and lectures written from 2009-17. Over the course of 435 pages, she covers Brexit and the waning British state; climate change; David Fincher, Facebook and internet 2.0; Billie Holiday; Joni Mitchell; Key & Peele; Schopenhauer, Charlie Kaufman and stop-motion animation; black beauty, black sorrow, oil painting and a horror movie about white liberals; the vagaries of lower-middle-class British life in the 1980s and ’90s; literary fiction and the discontinuous self; Justin Bieber, Jay-Z and joy.

Smith’s continuous stream of productivity, her topical range, the accolades laureling her books, her prodigious artistic abilities, should be evidence enough to assuage her fears about credibility. And yet, as Smith explains in the new collection’s foreword, her anxiety arises from believing she has “no real qualifications” to write as she does. “Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist,” Smith thinks that her essays rest shakily on evidence that is “almost always intimate. I feel this — do you? I’m struck by this thought — are you?” She worries that her writing has “not a leg to stand on” because it’s born from “affective experience” and not argument. “All [the essays] have is their freedom. And the reader is likewise unusually free, because I have absolutely nothing over her, no authority.”

Read further @ LA Times


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