The essay is experiencing a renaissance. At the same time, there’s quite a lot of confusion about what an essay is and what it does. Often, when people talk about “an essay,” it’s actually an op-ed or some opinion-driven riff that employs the first person. Must a so-called essay truly be an essay? Does it matter if it’s some other form?
Such questions arise in regard to the work of Rebecca Solnit, who in recent years has published five collections of topical nonfiction. One, Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays), was long-listed for a 2018 National Book Award. Their component pieces, originally published in venues such as Literary Hub, the Guardian, and Harper’s, are mostly commentary written in response to current events. In book form, they feel tethered to the ephemerality of the news cycle. In the new Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, for example, Solnit writes about books on female anger; about unconscious bias and “electability,” apropos of the current crop of white male candidates; and also about Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh and Jian Ghomeshi—the Canadian radio commentator accused of sexual assault.
“One of the rights that the powerful often assume,” Solnit notes in that last piece, “is the power to dictate reality.” This is more or less the subtext of all her books. She observes, correctly, that the media moguls recently exposed for sexual misconduct—Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves—were also, disturbingly, the creators of our culture. In a short piece about New York’s lack of monuments and streets named after women (she calls it a “manscape,” a clever Solnitian coinage not unlike “mansplaining,” the term her essay “Men Explain Things to Me” is credited with inspiring), she asks how her sense of self and possibility might have been different “if, in my formative years, I had moved through a city where most things were named after women.”
The dominant theme of Solnit’s work is injustice: economic, environmental, carceral, or that which stems from race or gender or sexuality; the “oppression and erasure” of certain people—women in particular. Yet, reading her, I often find myself in the discomfiting position of agreeing morally and ethically while feeling frustrated aesthetically and intellectually.
As a form, the essay is inherently speculative. It tends to be imperfect, not snapping shut in assured conclusion. In Solnit’s pieces, which are almost always political, we know where we are headed. Her writing feels virtuous, fibrous almost, good for you but less often exciting.
Solnit resists the personal as a way into narrative or character, which may explain why her essays often lack a storyteller’s seductiveness. With that in mind, her new memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence—which necessarily traffics in the personal—is fascinating, and at times frustrating, to read. The book is elliptical and impressionistic; Solnit mostly sidesteps her childhood and almost all experiences that weren’t professionally formative. She writes about the affordable corner studio apartment in a black neighborhood where she lived for many years (“my refuge, my incubator, my shell, my anchor, my starting blocks”) and her job at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where she stumbled upon a Wallace Berman collage that would lead to her first book, about avant-garde California artists. She writes about a 1988 visit to the Nevada Test Site and how that landscape moved her to write creative nonfiction: “a place so stark and vast, and, to me, strange, at which so many cultures and stories converged, that I had to bring together all the fragments of what I was doing into a new whole.” We get a precise and invigorating sense of a young woman’s deep yearning for ideas and intellectual transformation.
What personal material she does disclose provides some insight into the development of her worldview when it comes to men and women—a cosmology that informs many of her pieces. In a section called “Annihilators,” she obliquely mentions “violence at home” and remarks that as a teenager she was “pursued and pressured for sex by adult men.” She laments her leashed sense of mobility (“I felt hemmed in, hunted”), describing an aura of ambient menace: reading about the rapes and deaths of women in the papers, seeing them killed in books and movies. She writes that she gave away her grandmother’s black-and-white television after witnessing “a young blonde woman being murdered on each channel.” That each event was treated in the culture as an isolated incident, rather than as evidence of a violent epidemic, galled her. Solnit calls it a “collective gaslighting” that left her “unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted.”
It also gave her an abiding theme. She opens “Annihilators” with a description of her writing desk, given to her by a friend who was stabbed 15 times by a boyfriend. “Someone tried to silence her,” Solnit writes. “Then she gave me a platform for my voice.”
Does it matter if the pieces written at this desktop are essays or political treatises? In the spirit of precision, I believe it does. An essay is wild, surprising, unpredictable, exploratory. It is not a consensus experience. That Solnit’s pieces are so right about everything is arguably what makes them so popular. It feels noble to be right; it is safe and wins you friends. The problem is that being right contradicts the inherent spirit of the essay, where a writer undertakes a solo venture, possibly humiliating, and thinks aloud while readers look on. The distinction is important. What if writers dare to say only what they know to be commendable, what is sure to garner likes and favorites and applause?
In “On Women’s Work and the Myth of the Art Monster,” Solnit writes, “You make art because you think what you make is good, and good means that it’s good for other people, not necessarily pleasant or easy, but leading toward more truth or justice or awareness or reform.” The “you” is slippery here. Solnit’s art may be good for people, but much of art is not, and doesn’t seek to be. Whether it should be remains, blessedly, an open question.
RECOLLECTIONS OF MY NONEXISTENCE: A MEMOIR
• By Rebecca Solnit
• Viking, 256 pages, $26
WHOSE STORY IS THIS? OLD CONFLICTS, NEW CHAPTERS
• By Rebecca Solnit
• Haymarket Books, 192 pages, $15.95