Dec. 28 – Zadie Smith – Feel Free: Essays [Advent Calendar]

The Englewood Review of Books
Best Books of 2018
Advent / Christmas Calendar
December 28


Feel Free: Essays

Zadie Smith

Hardback: Penguin Press, 2018
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Smith is engrossed by questions of artistic freedoms, on which her opinions are fiercely laissez-faire. In order to write anything worthwhile, she asserts, “you will have to take liberties, you will have to feel free to write as you like . . . even if it is irresponsible,” which means the writer “will have to abandon, at least for a time, these familiar battles” of power and appropriation (242). Elsewhere, she states, “People can be too precious about their ‘heritage,’ about their ‘tradition’—writers especially. Preservation  and protection have their place but they shouldn’t block either freedom or theft. All possible aesthetic expressions are available to all peoples—under the sign of love” (145). That last caveat makes Smith’s assertion less controversial than it first appears. And Smith writes so well we’re tempted to take her position as fact, but its generality demands further questions. When does this right of the individual run up against the interests of the people being written about? When does speaking for oneself become speaking over and around someone else? Smith might find such questions too blasé to treat seriously. And her defense of the artist’s right to source any and all human experience leads her to make statements we might associate with far-right pundits, not self-avowed “sentimental humanist” writers. At one point, she rages against “our twenty-first-century world where the only possible reaction to anything seems to be outraged offense,” where we have grown into “such delicate flowers” offended by “every man’s casual idiocy.”

Whether or not we agree with her, we accede to follow where her mind leads, and it’s usually a pleasure to be led. We’re here, after all, not really to learn about Justin Bieber or J.G. Ballard but rather for Smith’s take on both. Of the artist Christian Marclay, Smith writes that he “manages to deliver connections at once so lovely and so unlikely that you can’t really see how
they were managed: you have to chalk it up to blessed serendipity” (155). At their best, Smith’s essays suggest similar providence.

  • from Ryan Lackey’s review
    in our Eastertide magazine issue
    (SUBSCRIBE NOW to the magazine)


LISTEN to NPR Book Critic
Maureen Corrigan’s review of this book



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