She extended appreciation to her husband first, with a jaunty, “Thank you so much to Nick Laird, for sharing so much with me, willingly and unwillingly, including the title of his poetry book Feel Free, which I would also like to apologize to for stealing.”
The book is a lively, capacious and learned romp through five sections that explore freedom of language and thought: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free.” Smith, a 43-year-old Londoner, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006 for On Beauty, a witty story of an interracial family living in an American university town astraddle multiple cultural fault lines.
Critic Charles Finch, who championed the essay collection at the NBCC, praised Smith’s critical comfort with uncertainty. He wrote: “If, as the famous line from the famous book goes, personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then perhaps so is great criticism. Feel Free is a collection of essays, reviews, vignettes, and profiles by Zadie Smith, and it might so easily, like other books of its kind, ultimately feel like an arbitrary collocation of unrelated ephemera, a patchwork of unrelated scraps. Or in more cynical terms: a money grab. But it doesn’t!”
Finch praised how the essayist rotates with aplomb through the art of Jay-Z, J.G. Ballard and Justin Bieber, more appreciative than harsh.
Smith, who wore her trademark turban and trousers to the stage, ended her short acceptance remarks with an appreciation of Robert B. Silvers, the late editor at the New York Review of Books, for whom she wrote many of the essays in her book.
“He was a model of rigor, clarity and engagement,” Smith said. “He made you a better writer deletion by deletion, query by query. The first essay I ever wrote for him was about Kafka. And a line from ‘The Judgment’ always reminds me of him. It’s the bit when the father leaps up out of bed and says to his son, ‘Now you know what existed outside of you. Before you were only aware of yourself.’ Bob knew how to prompt writers, easily some of the most narcissistic people on earth.”
That line prompted a wave of slightly uncomfortable chuckles from the audience at the New School in Manhattan.
Other winners this year were Nora Krug’s provocative and searching graphic memoir, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home; Anna Burn’s Milkman, a novel set amid the Irish troubles, already crowned with a Booker prize; Christopher Bananos’ erudite biography Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous; Ada Limon’s poetry book The Carrying that celebrates her mother, and Steve Coll’s probing, definitive and multi-year investigative nonfiction, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.