I dislike starting the review of a work I enjoyed with a negative but I would like to offer an alternative way in which to read this book, Solnits collection of essays does not need to be read together or even at once, take it slow, read one essay at time, devour the writing and then take time to think on it.
Having said that, Men explain things to me and other essays is a collection of feminist writings which really didn’t go where I thought it would. Reading the collection as a whole I was expecting a common thread, a connection – something that bound them together, perhaps an overarching theme. There really is only one; feminism and its just not strong enough, its an obtuse connection and its not sharp enough, it’s too disjointed and disconnected to work as a whole.
In the recent past Solnit’s writings on the environment, gender, human rights and violence against women, all of which goes back decades, seems suddenly and remarkably prescient. Solnit’s titular essay ‘Men explain things to me’ tells the story of a 2003 party at which Solnit experienced a man attempt to explain her latest book to her without realizing she was its author. The term mansplaining has been in use within popular lexicon since 2009 and Solnit is credited with its creation, although her essay never actually uses the term. It is a word that was needed because so many women recognized an experience they had never been able to vocalize before, they just needed someone, Solnit, to define it.
The internet being what it is, the essay was strip-mined for that one idea and very little attention was paid to where Solnit takes it next, she turns a personal account into the discussion of the same phenomenon on a global scale. Women who speak out and then find their testimony being downgraded or dismissed (the female FBI agent whose warnings about al-Qaeda were ignored; the women who need a male witness to corroborate their rape; the writers and politicians whose anger is read as “shrill” and “hysterical’), this may indeed be the most important conversation we need to have.
Don’t get me wrong, this opening essay is outstanding, and there are others which make this title well worth reading but perhaps just one essay, one subject at a time. Solnits writing meanders along, she makes stunning statements that stick with you but then goes on to contradict herself and somewhat condescend her audience. Her writing can be a little tedious If the subject matter has not grabbed your interest, but overall the essays are well written and well thought out.
Solnit is unflinchingly honest even when, especially when, it threatens the patricharcial narrative. Her writing is accessible, confrontational and deals with a wide variety of difficult subjects. The final essay “Pandora’s box and the volunteer police force” is the second essay that really stands out to me, its subject is hope. Solnit writes about the history of feminism, not that it is at a point where a full and frank history can be recorded but to show how much change has been facilitated in the effort to change something very old, something very ingrained, something that might indeed take a very long time to change.