Collections of essays, reviews and various forms of literary ephemera are a hard sell, for a number of reasons. But Zadie Smith’s new collection is worth the cover price for one piece alone – “Meet Justin Bieber!” – of which more later. That she is a singular, sensitive and sympathetic writer will come as no surprise to those who have read everything from White Teeth to Swing Time. But in her non-fiction form, she is equally engaging.
This new collection is divided into movements – “In The World”, “In The Audience”, “In The Gallery”, On The Bookshelf” and “Feel Free”, by far the most personal and most intriguing part of the book. The opening section reveals an anger and a hurt about politics that is very different from her previous collection of essays, Changing My Mind. The world seems altogether more “in your face” than once it was. Her “Brexit Diary”, for example, is a good case in point, and rather than arguing from first principles, it uses a novelistic technique of noticing. In this case, it begins with a fence put up around her child’s school, which is both fact and metaphor.
One feature of the outward facing parts of such collections, which can be both a virtue and a failing, is that it is extremely unlikely that any reader will have exactly the same cultural experiences as the author. I have barely seen any of the artwork of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye or Sarah Sze, nor have I watched any episodes of Key And Peele or Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and I regret to inform readers my knowledge of hip-hop is sorely inadequate (though I have very few plans to address this failing).
When these essays work, it sends the reader on a new trajectory into the world. I read them with the laptop constantly open to Google art works and video clips, and feel expanded by the experience. We all have our cultural comfort zones and it is good to be winkled out of them in such eloquent company.
On the other hand there are pieces – often in the book reviews section – where I do know the works referred to, and indeed, have often commented on them myself. It is a different experience approaching texts on John Gray’s philosophy or the scabrous work of Thomas Bernhard. On one hand, as a reader, I am evaluating my response compared with the essayist’s (why, for example, does she recommend Bernhard’s Woodcutters, Concrete and The Loser but not the divine Wittgenstein’s Nephew or Extinction?) But again, it is sometimes like being gifted a new pair of eyes. In particular the essay on Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia made me want to go back to that book.
Smith is adept at self-deprecation. In a superb piece on JG Ballard’s Crash she recounts her only excruciating encounter with the author, who looked like the “ghost of a defrocked priest” and whose “moon face” was “curdling with disgust” at Smith’s ingénue status. It goes, however, further than anecdote about mortification, in that she compares her undergraduate antipathy to the novel with her later admiration for it. Often, the essay is at its best when it is more confession box than pulpit.
It is a recurring arc in these pieces, a movement from “?” to “!” The initial question or puzzle is not just the work or situation under consideration, but a hard stare at the author’s self. The foreword talks about feeling she has “no real qualifications to write as I do”, she then disparages herself as a “Luddite, fiscally ignorant liberal”, accuses herself of “liberal paranoia” and later refers to herself as a “bluestocking”. It’s a clever form of defensiveness, to get your opponents’ barbs in before they do. It is also beguiling. There is a kind of anxiety which Smith exhibits and dissects at the same time – that fear of “What am I supposed to be thinking or feeling about this?” – which usually resolves into a more confident form. I’ll think what I damn well think. Her definition of camp – doing more than is necessary with less than is needed – seems a parallel to this.
There are pieces which look at Smith’s own work, such as the decision to use the first person for the first time in Swing Time and the burden of being a “champion” of the multicultural. There are wise lessons for younger writers to be gleaned. But the standout piece is her astonishing meditation on not just Justin Bieber and his “Beliebers”, but also on the theology of Martin Buber (their surnames are different orthographies of the same name). It is daring, and its combination of pop culture and a lofty thinker is done with aplomb – and with purpose. Buber’s most famous contribution is the distinction between the I-It relationship and the I-Thou relationship (though as Smith observes there is also the “demonic Thou”).
In thinking about celebrity, relationships, adoration and blinkeredness, Smith manages a work of supreme moral integrity. It is a piece that scrutinises empathy – a common theme in her creative work – and is generous without being uncritical. What more could one ask for?
Feel Free, by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £20