Will Zadie Smith Ever Feel Free?

Zadie Smith. Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Zadie Smith attends dinner parties. A few of them are glimpsed in her new collection of essays and criticism, Feel Free. At a dinner of “old friends, north London intellectuals” just after the Brexit referendum, the table considers the fact that all of them were wrong to think that the U.K. would vote to remain in the EU. The partisans of bourgeois liberal cosmopolitan consensus have found themselves marooned on a strange island they thought they had inherited. They also disdain the younger generation of leftists’ tendency to pursue no-platforming and safe spaces, until one of them — “the cleverest among us,” notably a parent sitting on a sofa feeding an infant — suggests that the youth might have simply inherited the guests’ own sense of self-righteousness. But one risk of sourcing your essays to dinner parties is that the menu tends toward conventional wisdom, polite banalities. That’s why it’s called small talk.

In Manhattan, over dinner at the home of the art critic Hal Foster, the guests — “like groupies discussing their favorite band” — examine their shared obsession with Karl Ove Knausgaard and his immersive, multivolume autofiction epic My Struggle. One of them dissents “on the principle of boredom,” but (as many critics have pointed out) that’s the point: “Knausgaard’s boredom is baroque. It has many elaborations: the boredom of children’s parties, of buying beers, of being married, writing, being oneself, dealing with one’s family. It’s a cathedral of boredom. And when you enter it, it looks a lot like the one you yourself are living in.” It’s a common reading of Knausgaard, but it neglects that the cathedral of boredom houses a restless romantic freak, given to cutting up his face when passion strikes him.

In the foreword to Feel Free, Smith recalls a dinner in Rome where an old friend turned to her and said, “But of course your writing so far has been a fifteen-year psychodrama.” Smith and the rest of her friends laughed at this remark, she tells us, “but I was a little stung by it, and worried at the idea for a few weeks.” I laughed, too, because in my 2012 review of her fourth novel NW, for the London Review of Books, the opening line is: “Zadie Smith’s career has been a 15-year psychodrama.” I’m sorry the phrase bothered her, even if it was secondhand.

What I meant was that, after her first novel White Teeth garnered her a big advance and made her a celebrity author, you could see across Smith’s books a writer in dialogue with both her critics, especially James Wood, and her influences, especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Dialogue is, really, too gentle a word: New terms were coined (“hysterical realism” by Wood) or repurposed (“snark” by Heidi Julavits, with reference to Smith’s detractors reviewing Smith); public apologies were made (by Smith); a magazine (The Believer) was launched in her defense. At last she took shelter, first at Harvard (where she became a critic herself), and then in the pages of the New York Review of Books (where many of the essays in Feel Free first appeared). It was fun to watch, like a Sidney Lumet film, except longer and slower and without anyone getting murdered.

I think that Feel Free marks an end to the psychodrama phase of her career. Across dozens of essays spanning about a decade’s activity (roughly congruent, she points out, with the Obama administration), we recognize a stable persona: a liberal, middle-class, middle-aged citizen of London and New York (with a two-year sojourn spent in Rome); a devoted mother, daughter, and wife interested in reflecting on those roles while protective of her own and her family’s privacy; a committed novelist and student of the history of the novel, somewhat apprehensive about her engagement with other art forms. The drama in Feel Free doesn’t derive, as it used to, from Smith’s chameleon changes, but from the fact that, just as she’s entered her own cathedral of boredom (see dinner party No. 2), she’s seen that the world around her isn’t quite so boring (see dinner party No. 1).

It’s a world that’s liable to turn itself upside down at any moment, inducing in our narrator a series of anxiety dreams. The first section of Feel Free is governed by what Smith calls “my particular brand of liberal paranoia.” Libraries and bookstores are vanishing in her corner of Northwest London. England’s very seasons are bleeding into each other, presumably because of global warming (the essay is light on science). Brexit makes her think of a young mother who lives in the housing estate where she herself grew up: Their children are friendly but the mothers are too shy to make a playdate, it seems to Smith, because of the class divide that separates them, and now Smith lives in a house with a fancy door across the way.

The tone in these essays varies. Sometimes Smith sounds like an activist, sometimes just another beleaguered liberal. Her “aw, shucks, I’m just a novelist” line makes for a useful refrain: Please don’t take me, a nonexpert, too seriously. But she occasionally adopts the tone of a seasoned pundit, a centrist punching left, as when she scolds Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for the Euroskepticism that made him an inadequate front man for the Remain campaign: “Corbyn has profoundly betrayed the youth vote that so recently swept him into power. He must go.” Members of the Labour Party, and British voters generally, have disagreed, and Corbyn’s support has only surged since Smith wrote him off. And what other British politician is going to attempt to restore the social democratic institutions Smith says she’s so sad to see eroding? Ed Miliband wasn’t going to do it.

Given Smith’s celebrity, you wonder why she doesn’t enter politics herself. Literary celebrities now present themselves like dignitaries at the service of their readership constituencies. Even when Jonathan Franzen puts his foot in his mouth — as when he told the Guardian that he’d considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan — he usually does so in the midst of an attempt to explain that he wants to broaden his empathic reach. Smith is self-conscious about writing as a teacher of young people (and no doubt as a role model), so when she discusses Facebook in a review of The Social Network, she’s careful to compliment the younger generation for their achievement in building a new online world even as she rightly points out that the new world is trapped within the preoccupations and hangups of the 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg.

You also wonder why — aside from the paychecks — she so often writes about celebrities. An essay in her previous collection, Changing My Mind (2009), recounted a trip to the Academy Awards without naming any actors or actresses: a neat literary stunt and surely an assignment impossible to resist. The approach to celebrity is personal in Feel Free, which includes profiles of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and Jay-Z (Smith has two brothers: one a comedian, the other a rapper), as well as a speculative essay about Justin Bieber. Smith is drawn to Key and Peele as fellow biracial artists, as avatars of “nerd culture,” and for their “chameleonic” abilities as impressionists. The performers’ physicality, as well as their recourse to hair and makeup, is a tool the novelist, burdened with the duties of interiority, doesn’t have. With Jay-Z, her interest is in the arc of his career and his maturation from technical prodigy to master, with “life experiences” and a slower flow. He earns comparisons to John Milton and Oulipo. And when Smith writes about Justin Bieber at a fan meet and greet, in terms of Martin Buber ideas of I-Thou relations, you sense she’s probably writing about her own experience at book signings and her own Beliebers. Smith’s last novel, the melancholy Swing Time, was largely about fame: the narrator the personal assistant of a Kylie Minogue–like pop star. Literary famous must be something in between being the assistant and being the star. On the one hand you’re famous and rich and flown all over the world just to be you. On the other hand, compared to Madonna, you’re not famous or rich at all.

More anxiety-inducing than fame is aging, and occasionally Smith’s remarks on the subject verge on the laughable. On book tour at a record shop in Vancouver, looking at a copy of More Songs About Buildings and Food, she asks herself, “Is it too late to get into Talking Heads?” No, you want to tell her, buy the album, or start with Talking Heads: 77. In “Joy,” which since its first appearance in 2012 I’ve always thought of as the greatest Tumblr post ever printed in the New York Review of Books, Smith fondly recalls hearing A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” mixed with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one early 1990s morning at the London club Fabric while on ecstasy. But such youthful joys have been replaced in her life more recently by childhood and parenting. Ho-hum — hire a sitter and call the drug dealer. A book of Italian paintings she finds in the lobby of her apartment building (on the way home from dinner at Hal Foster’s), leads her to the contemplation of corpses and leaves you with the impression that she’s never thought much about the prospect of her own death. Yet the most moving character in Feel Free is Smith’s late father Harvey, who is glimpsed across several essays: a World War II veteran present at the liberation of Belsen; an unhappy husband twice over; and a frustrated photographer.
Elsewhere, Smith is too protective of her own and her family’s privacy to bring much juice to her personal essays.

Privacy isn’t, or shouldn’t be, an issue in the practice of criticism.
Smith’s essays — about cinema, television, music, visual art, dance — are frequently brilliant, but they fall short of inducing in the reader a conversion experience. This is in part because Smith has a habit of narrating her own conversion experiences — for example, to Joni Mitchell: After a youth of indifference, Blue now makes her cry — and of announcing her own lack of qualifications: “A casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert … I don’t trust myself in front of a painting as I do when I open a book.” Tasked with writing an introduction to a book of photographs of Billie Holiday, Smith instead writes a portrait of the singer in the second person, which appeared in The New Yorker as fiction, and reads like fanfiction of a high order — a compromise for the timid music critic.

There’s nothing timid about the literary criticism collected in Feel Free, especially her columns for Harper’s, written over six months in 2011 and breathtakingly good. Here her angle of approach is direct, and she delivers concentrated and authoritative considerations of Edward St. Aubyn, Thomas Bernhard, Geoff Dyer, Paula Fox, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Danzy Senna, among others. She compares Bernhard to an internet troll; praises St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels for their blend sadism and irony but notes his tic of lapsing into therapeutic earnestness at crucial moments; she compares Ursula K.
Le Guin, deliciously, to Jane Austen and Seneca. Smith ventures that, though he wouldn’t enjoy the comparison, Geoff Dyer is the heir of Kingsley Amis because of their shared “commitment to the moral integrity of pleasure.” The difference is that Amis was parochial and Dyer is unfailingly open to the world.

The Amis that Smith herself resembles is Martin. What they share is the predicament of the former wunderkind. Both burst to fame in their early 20s as truly funny comic novelists. Both are dedicated students of literature, as good as critics as they are as novelists. Both are transatlantic liberals who grew up in public and have been compelled to wear the mantle of the public intellectual. But public seriousness has never been a comfortable fit for either of them. As a child of the Cold War, Amis’s pet issues were nuclear weapons and the legacies of the Holocaust and Stalinism. A turning point for him was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It’s not a long journey from fighting for free speech to saying things like “There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order,’” as Amis told an interviewer in 2006.
Smith has until recently been too canny to say anything so controversial, but you can tell that seriousness gives her the blues.
Multiculturalism and globalization have been the issues she’s returned to in her novels, and as she explains in an acceptance speech for a literary prize included in Feel Free, the course of recent history (terrorism, various wars, Brexit, Trump, and so on) may have something to do with the arc of her novels from optimism to despair. It’s worth asking whether it would have been possible for Smith to write White Teeth, with its cheekily named Islamic fundamentalist terror organization KEVIN, after 9/11. Probably not.

Last year Smith experienced something like her fatwa moment writing about the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting of the corpse of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial. To call for the painting to “be destroyed,” as the writer and artist Hannah Black did in a letter posted on Facebook, is, Smith writes, “the province of Nazis and censorious evangelicals.” Smith’s nuanced and ambivalent intervention fit perfectly within the theater of provocation that traditionally emerge during Whitney controversies. After the tone-deaf blue-chip artist, the inept curators, and the firebrand radicals, soon enough comes the responsible liberal to remind us of the Nazis, only to be scolded for her newly problematic views on social media. It was depressingly predictable and another sign, like her loathing of Corbyn, that Smith might be out of touch with the youth, or at least the younger generation of ideological enforcers. Middle age is no fun.

Toward the end of reading Feel Free, after I finished the section of literary criticism, I took a nap and had an anxiety dream of my own. One of my friends had been in an accident and had both his legs amputated. Yet he made his way around the office where we were working — I don’t work in an office anymore, but this friend and I used to be colleagues — quite agilely on crutches and boasted that his detachable prosthetic legs enabled him to run faster than he’d ever been able to run before. I couldn’t look down at my own legs but I suspected they were gone too, but that no prosthetics would make me able to run fast or run at all. And once upon a time I was a track star. Maybe I was feeling inadequate after reading the work of a superior critic. Maybe I’ve reviewed too many of Smith’s books. One thing I was not feeling was free.

Why is the title of this collection an imperative? Feel Free — the feeling of freedom no longer comes naturally to Smith. She has to push herself to get that feeling, except perhaps when it comes to writing but especially reading fiction. Writing about her adoption of a first-person voice in her last novel, 2016’s Swing Time, Smith calls fiction a zone where both writer and reader can be themselves and not themselves. In other words, a zone of freedom and perhaps the only one left to her. I was sad to hear the news last year that Smith’s next novel will be a work of historical fiction — another aspect of her career arc that resembles Martin Amis’s. I was also saddened to read in Feel Free that Smith’s iPhone makes her feel agitated and given to a compulsion to checking the latest news about Miley Cyrus. So I offer her this advice: Get a flip phone. It’s liberating.

*This article appears in the February 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. 

Will Zadie Smith Ever Feel Free?