From essays on Brexit and the politics of public space to those covering Justin Bieber and the influence of teen idols, Zadie Smith’s Feel Free showcases the writer’s versatile range.
A collection of cultural criticism, personal essays, and political writings, Feel Free: Essays brings together all the nonfiction Zadie Smith authored during the 2010s. In this, Feel Free resembles Smith’s last essay collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, which also lacks a central concept and merely gathers the best work the writer published during the 2000s. Most of the essays in both collections were first released in outlets like The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, though there are also a few new pieces in Feel Free.
The five-part essay collection unsurprisingly spans a wide range of subjects. Each section’s title suggests its theme: “In the World” (politics), “In the Audience” (film, theatre, and dance), “In the Gallery” (art), “On the Bookshelf” (literature), and “Feel Free” (society). There are highlights in each section, whether the first part’s opening essay on the privatization of public space in London (“Northwestern London Blues”), the second’s meditation on the aesthetics of different popular dancers (“Dance Lessons for Writers”), the third’s analysis of the male gaze in portraiture (“Alte Frau by Balthasar Denner”), the fourth’s republication of all Smith’s book reviews for Harper’s Magazine (“The Harper’s Columns”), or the fifth’s comparison of joy and pleasure (“Joy”). Smith writes lively and casual prose, laced with wit, and her energy makes the 452-page book move at a fast pace.
The collection’s eclecticism is its greatest strength and weakness. There’s something in here for everyone, from Smith’s reflection on immigration and borders in “Fences: A Brexit Diary” to her discussion of teen idols in “Meet Justin Bieber!” Because Feel Free is a hodgepodge of disparate topics, though, few will find all the essays of interest, in spite of the fact that they’re consistently well crafted and thought provoking.