The inside flap of the book jacket describes Zadie Smith’s new collection of occasional essays, Feel Free, as literary journalism. This genre label is, for now, the best we can offer for this kind of writing: fluid, investigative, wide-ranging, at times autobiographical, but mostly focused outward, bent on articulating insights into issues of our day. Smith begins the book with an oddly apologetic forward about the tenor of our political moment and whether or not her essays are useful now, given her “somewhat ambivalent view of human selves.” These essays, she writes, were written in Britain and the United States during the eight years of the Obama presidency “and so are a product of a bygone world.” In the wake of conservative voices seizing power in these two countries and elsewhere, she continues, it seems there is no time for doubt. Smith envisions a swarm: “Millions of more or less amorphous selves will now necessarily find themselves solidifying into protesters, activists, marchers, voters, firebrands, impeachers, lobbyists, soldiers, champions, defenders, historians, experts, critics.” The clear and constant distinctions that people in these positions have to draw for others, and for themselves, might clash with the fuzz and flash of mental life, but Smith points out that “you can’t fight for a freedom you’ve forgotten how to identify.” Contrary to the self-effacing preface, these essays prove over and over that an ambivalent view of human selfhood is not ever out of fashion. Musing on the long roundabout road she took to appreciating Joni Mitchell; reviewing the film Get Out and connecting its logic to the controversy over the Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennale; imagining a meeting between Justin Bieber and Martin Buber (both are in their way experts on meeting and greeting, one from pop stardom and one from philosophical praxis); examining the source of the narrative mystery of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings and the full immersiveness of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novels. In every occasion, Smith helps us see that internal and external life, be it private self-image or violent action, constitute each other through the medium of the human imagination.
These essays, Smith writes, were written in Britain and the United States during the eight years of the Obama presidency “and so are a product of a bygone world.” In the wake of conservative voices seizing power in these two countries and elsewhere, she continues, it seems there is no time for doubt.
The fate of the imagination appeals to Smith, especially when it is threatened by outside forces. Smith allows us to see her changing grasp of her own naiveté, especially in the first section of the book which collects essays about the world outside of her novels. In “Northwest London Blues,” Smith recounts a stroll with her daughter through Willesden Green, “an open-air urban area.” She gives us local details about the turreted buildings, “the four homeless drunks” on the steps of a library, “drinking Special Brew”; details about the Willesden French Market that sells “umbrellas and artificial flowers” and “water pistols” and “ornaments and knickknacks and doodads, which are not always obviously French in theme or nature,” and also the day’s quality itself: “It’s a nice day out, is my point.” (4-5) Only three pages in does the essay address its subject: Smith is writing a defense of libraries as useful social public spaces. Smith’s argument is bolstered by the way she performs the naiveté that can lead to a kind of passivity not unrelated to the birth of political problems:
“During [a previous] period of expat existence, in Italy, I sat at a Roman cafe in a Renaissance Square rolling my eyes at the soap opera of Italian political life: wiretapped politicians and footballers and TV Stars, backroom media deals, glaring conflicts of interests, tabloid culture run riot, politicians in the pockets of newspapers. I used to chuckle over La Republica and tease my Italian friends about the kind of problems we didn’t have in our basically sound British parliamentary democracy.”
This memory leads to an admission of sorts: “And so I recognize myself to be an intensely naive person. Most novelists are, despite frequent pretensions to deep sociopolitical insight.” (8) Her particular naiveté she traces to her past, growing up in Britain at a time when the state “fixed [her] teeth (a bit),” sent her to school, gave her a grant for a university education, and “found housing for [her] veteran father in his dotage.” (9) “I bore myself telling these stories,” Smith admits, which speeds the essay along to its real charge: defending a specific beloved library in Britain about to be dismantled, reimagined as a corporate center. She defends this and all libraries on the basis that they are “an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
This point would seem obvious. As Smith puts it: “But it seems we need, right now, to keep restating the obvious” (11). Smith hits a stride: “It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind) which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.” (12) The argument thickens: “If the losses of private companies are to be socialized within already struggling communities, the very least we can do is listen to the people when they try to tell us where in the hierarchy of their needs things like public space, access to culture, and preservation of environment lie.” (12) A comic element is drummed up: “‘But I never use the damn things!’ says Mr. Notmytaxes in the letters page. Sir, I believe you.” (12) Then comes fact: “However. British libraries received over 300 million visits last year, and this despite the common neglect of the various councils that oversee them.” (12) Then performative irony:
“People have taken to writing long pieces in the newspapers to ‘defend’ them. Just saying the same thing over and over again. Defend our libraries. We like libraries. Can we keep our libraries? We need to talk about libraries. Pleading, like children. Is that really where we are?” (13)
Her essay ends with this question. I point out this artful sequence of maneuvers because I want to make clear how Smith arrives; ideas bounce off the surfaces created by personal waxing, local detail work, pleasurable register shifting. It is a method not easily tolerated by direct polemic.
Smith uses naiveté as a way to think through the question of how to live and what to do in a political moment where the attack on public libraries is only one of many on what had once seemed unassailable human dignity. In “On Optimism and Despair,” Smith’s acceptance speech for a major literary prize received shortly after November 8, 2016, she recounts a question she says she is asked most often—in its most explicit form, the question concerns how Smith has changed as a writer and whether racial homogeneity is inevitable:
“It is a question usually posed in a tone of sly eagerness—you will recognize this tone if you’ve ever heard a child ask permission to do something she has in fact already done. Sometimes it is put … more explicitly, like so: ‘You were such a champion of ‘multiculturalism. Can you admit now that it has failed?’” (35)
Smith’s response, referring to the break-out debut novel White Teeth she wrote while still a college student at Cambridge, is delicious:
“…[When] I wrote a novel about the London I grew up in, I further did not realize that by describing an environment in which people from different places lived relatively peaceably side by side, I was ‘championing’ a situation that was in fact on trial and whose conditions could suddenly be revoked.” (36)
More decorous than outright sarcastic, Smith implies how the feeble charge of ‘championing’ attributes is not only an intention Smith did not have but also presumes to dismiss the lived experience of Smith and her neighbors. The sentence that follows shifts tone completely: “This is all to say I was very innocent, aged twenty-one.” Smith goes on to defend the worth of the idea of people “living peacefully together despite their many differences” (41):
“Neither my readers nor I are in this relatively sunlit uplands depicted in White Teeth anymore. But the lesson I take from this is not that the lives in that novel were illusory but rather that progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
Overturning the image of the writer as “the naïve child” only, Smith argues that “people who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive” and that furthermore, “if novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities.” (41) It is on this maxim about individual interiority that Smith’s thinking often turns.
What does thinking like a so-called naïve novelist make possible to see? In “The I Who Is Not Me,” Smith affirms the novelist’s right to imagine the intimate lives of others. She describes her third novel On Beauty where she writes about “a world that was not mine,” “a family I never had, a childhood as distant from mine as could be imagined, at least by me.”(334) The fear among some writers and critics that the only ethical position to write from is one’s own misses the point, in Smith’s view, closing down what fiction can do: it can brave the impossibility of identity. This fear of writing about others also seems connected to the default suspiciousness of so many readers that writers are secretly writing about themselves and their personal lives, that “the term ‘fiction’ [is] not much more than a publishing-world fig-leaf employed to obscure personal revelation” (343). Smith writes that, for her, “fiction is a way of asking: what if things were other than they are?” Which involves asking, “what if I was different than I am?” (337). These are refreshing questions—the questions of the consummate beginner, and part of their usefulness for the writer, Smith implies, is the very difficulty of the material they can bring to life.
In every occasion, Smith helps us see that internal and external life, be it private self-image or violent action, constitute each other through the medium of the human imagination.
The ability of the writer to use persona when saying “I” becomes the basis for the writer to make possible what Smith describes as an impossible identity. The assuming of a fictional “I” can, Smith points out, frees the writer as well as readers. For her case in point, Smith looks at how Phillip Roth made it possible to change the idea that Jews could not risk obscenity in fiction. “By saying ‘I,’ in a certain mode, an ambivalent, fictional mode, [Phillip] Roth made possible through Portnoy a new kind of ‘I’ in the world, a gift of freedom that was taken up by a generation of writers, millions of readers and eventually a global community.” (338) At the time of its writing in 1969, a Jew could not be “A Great American Novelist,” Smith writes, but Roth “set about furiously writing himself out of that impossibility, a further gift of freedom so large and effective that it now seems like a natural bounty, and people are liable to forget he is responsible for it at all.” (339). For Smith, Roth was a powerful freer of imagination: “I took from Roth the liberty to create free characters behaving with freedom, independent of obligation, some good, some bad, some admirable, some perverse, some downright evil.” (340) Smith’s line of reasoning on the power of literature illuminates “the gift of freedom” that literature bestows for people who feel an internal violence, unable to imagine being “Muslim and gay, or Jewish and obscene, or black and nerdy, or female and perverse” (341). This situation wherein “we kill some part of ourselves,” where “we ignore that we are gay, or smart, or masculine, or melancholy, or scared,” means we live “in a mutilated way”; worse still, she writes, are the times when this internal violence turns outward, when “we project the ‘other’ we are onto another human and hurt or even kill them in proxy.” (342)
It can be dangerous, of course, to praise literature for a kind of social usefulness. Smith qualifies the extent we can wander down this path of thinking:
“[It’s] a naive and romantic fool who offers the novel or any art form as the cure-all for this form of internal confusion. And novels written with this explicit intention are guaranteed to be a great bore. I certainly don’t write as a public service. But I am aware, at least as a reader, that remarkable acts of art-making—bold, perverse, unbeholden, free—have had the side effect of changing the weather in a country, in a people, at a certain historical moment, and finally in me, conferring freedoms for what I am now very grateful.”
Once again, the naïve figure bounds into view. But the naïve figure can also be a resource that the writer can use, almost like point of view and imagery. Smith makes a compelling case that Roth’s “singular achievement was to use his reader’s erroneous beliefs about the relations between characters and their authors as one of his literary effects,” pointing out that Roth’s work raises questions in the reader’s mind “about how much of young Philip is in young Portnoy, whether that is Roth’s marriage or not, or Roth’s lover or not” (345). Smith confesses herself to fall back onto this kind of thinking in her own reading life, but knows to stay vigilant to its false lure of authenticity. The effect of an author like Roth playing with our “interpretive sensibilities” is that the work messes with “our sense of what is possible to do with our judgments. It usefully suspends our great and violent desire to be right on every question, and creates an unholy and ungovernable mix of the true and the false.” This effect of fiction forms, for Smith, “the ultimate impossibility.” Therein its true usefulness lies.
In a moment where it seems like all of our public discourse is engulfed by polemical waters, Smith’s writing—bold, yes, and beholden only to telling the truth of what strikes her—becomes a balm.
Not all of the essays concern the act of writing fiction, but these concerns about freedom and representation—who gets represented and how—are everywhere present. In a moment where it seems like all of our public discourse is engulfed by polemical waters, Smith’s writing—bold, yes, and beholden only to telling the truth of what strikes her—becomes a balm. Her first essay collection, Changing My Mind, also had some extraordinary writing in it, but it seems that Feel Free has a more constantly deeply considered point of view and a wider gathering of material. But there is a through-line between the two essay collections. In a review of Edwin St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Smith recounts one character overhearing his son’s quip: “You should change your mind, because that’s what it’s for!” Smith zooms out from this character’s whimsical retort to the widest possible frame, asking: “But is a changed mind possible? Is it possible to feel free?” The Melrose novels deal with some of the worst of abuses, from death of parents and childhood rape to alcoholism and addiction to heroin. In the face of so much suffering, Smith asks, ‘What would it mean to be spontaneous, to have an unconditioned response to things—to anything?’”(309). Perhaps it is a question only a naïve mind would ask, but it is to her benefit, and ours, that she can ask such questions, and write them down, and let them stand. These essays refresh our enthusiasm for that crazy idea of the dream of freedom.