‘When I was younger even the appearance of “I” on the page made me feel a bit ill,’ Zadie Smith confesses in her new book of essays, Feel Free. Shades of this chariness about the personal pronoun still persist in her non-fiction today, which is markedly self-effacing. From the outset, Smith repeatedly attempts to ditch the mantle of authority: ‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film,’ she says in her foreword. Later, she demurs, ‘I am a laywoman … a dilettante novelist, a non-expert.’ You could be forgiven for writing off such claims as disingenuous, coming from a boldface name who writes for The New Yorker and Harper’s – hardly the bush league.
By the end of Feel Free, I came to see these caveats not as false modesty, but rather as Smith’s declaration that she won’t heed jurisdictional boundaries. Over the course of these essays, she moves balletically between highbrow and popular art, politics, identity, and philosophy. She examines the isolating fame suffered by pop’s preening boy-king Justin Bieber through the lens of philosopher Martin Buber’s theories of I-Thou and I-It. She uses Kierkegaard to illuminate her obsession with Joni Mitchell. She argues that the materialistic swagger of Jay-Z’s rap verses is linked to the long history of boasting in epic poetry: ‘asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies’. In Smith’s hands, such long-bow connections between esoterica and mainstream culture seem natural – inspired, even. They’re also frequently very funny.