Why I Don’t Read Rebecca Solnit

It’s time to stop buying into the author's brand of pop feminism

Illustration by Iveta Karpathyova
Illustration by Iveta Karpathyova

Rebecca Solnit’s Facebook page is its own little world, a forum for her more than 100,000 followers to keep up with what matters most to the acclaimed American writer. She copy-pastes Twitter exchanges, shares articles, and replies to comments from fans and friends. A kind of personalized Solnit outlet, the page focuses on American politics, social criticism, and feminism. “Writing,” Solnit has said, “is primarily about gathering.” So it makes sense that her social media presence is all about aggregation—links and words that, together, articulate her identity as a public intellectual.

That identity also stems from the way social media has transformed the feminist movement, reducing a complex body of work to a series of memes, hashtags, and Instagrammable pics. There is now a certain type of female solidarity—call it “pop feminism”—that addresses only topics we can safely agree on. Gendered violence is typically bad. Marriage equality, on the other hand, is good. Sexual assault: bad. Property rights for all: good. In this way, pop feminism taps into a largely acknowledged collective experience online (#EverydaySexism, #RapeCultureIsWhen, #WhyIStayed). It recognizes that awful things happen to women and contends that they shouldn’t. It believes in empowerment and tells women that “breaking the silence” will effect large-scale change. Pop feminism is the thinking behind certain publications asking women to “share” in the comments section or “contribute to the conversation,” without ever explaining what that conversation will actually produce once it’s over. It makes feminism more accessible than ever, while simultaneously trivializing the cause.

Solnit gained prominence as a writer alongside this movement, unwittingly spearheading some of its causes. Nearly a decade ago, she wrote an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me,” which inspired the idea of “mansplaining.” In 2,400 words, Solnit strung together a few vivid anecdotes about the frustration of having men spell out subjects to her condescendingly. The essay went viral, with women exchanging stories about their own run-ins with offenders. The solidarity was exhilarating, and Solnit was immediately adopted as the author that conscious, literate women need to read. But, when the fever wore off, Solnit’s community building brought society no closer to understanding the complexities of the misogyny her essay touched on. Her essay may have been revolutionary, but only for those who rarely dived into the thorny debates on women’s issues.

Pop feminism had grown substantially by the time Solnit expanded her essay into Men Explain Things to Me, the eponymous book, six years later. After it was released in 2014, the book became the literary equivalent of a tote bag bearing the word feminist in glitter. It was more about aesthetics than ideas. Women still take selfies with Solnit’s book—at the beach or on a couch at home, while cradling a mug of tea.

In the hands of a gifted feminist writer, however, the essay form can force readers to question their assumptions and also their lives. Consequently, such writing doesn’t often win the easy praise that Solnit’s work does. Take, for example, Jia Tolentino’s 2016 piece for Jezebel about Thomas Sayers Ellis. Last year, Ellis, a poet and a visiting professor at the Iowa Writing Workshop, was caught up in a series of grievances regarding his violent, abusive treatment of women, some of whom were his students. Alleged victims posted anonymously on the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts website, accusing him of various kinds of misconduct. Disgraced, Ellis left his teaching position—one of the most prominent examples of what Tolentino calls the takedown of an “important, inappropriate literary man.”

In her essay, Tolentino explores the various sides of the Sayers Ellis controversy—legal, social, personal, emotional. She speaks to witnesses and to victims, and while she believes them, she doesn’t stop there. “Believing a woman, anyway,” she writes, “isn’t the same as supporting her.” By dissecting Ellis’s shaming, Tolentino questions what feminism means and what it requires of us in such situations. Whether or not one agrees with her conclusion—that posting stories of abuse anonymously online and asking for an institutional response could “contribute to a wider disbelief of women” and “weaken our position in the end”—Tolentino’s essay raised the level of conversation around sexual assault by asking uncomfortable questions that deserve answers.

Solnit, on the other hand, would have considered the testimonies and concluded happily that women are finally calling out predatory behaviour: end of story. In fact, that’s exactly the theme of her latest collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions—a book that could be described as the high-water mark of pop feminism. Its main message is that, while silencing women is bad and should be avoided, “telling women’s stories” is always positive, because “words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.”

Few would dare deny that. In fact, in the 1960s, so-called consciousness-raising feminists would meet to do just what Solnit is advocating for: share simple, didactic anecdotes. But what happens after we’ve shared personal experiences of oppression? These exchanges should be the basis for critical analysis and creative thinking, for debate that triggers policy change, social reform, or even popular demonstrations. Solnit never makes it past anecdotal evidence.

Rebecca Solnit grew up in California in the 1970s, a “scrawny, unpopular, nerdy” girl who graduated early from high school and briefly lived in Paris to avoid a violent and unsupportive household. She studied English in university and worked at Artweek magazine for a few years before becoming a full-time freelance writer in the late 1980s, covering everything from art and history to nuclear power and the environment. Art and literary critics praised her for her free-flowing style and breadth of interests. She calls Wanderlust (2000), her book on the history of walking, her first “popular success.” Three years later, her biography of photographer Eadweard Muybridge was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.

The main theme in Solnit’s work was, and is, the importance of optimism. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” she wrote in her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark, “and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.” Practically all of her writing has centered on that philosophy, on the existence of future possibilities. She has proudly described herself as breaking through genres, as a writer but also an activist and a thinker. As she told The Believer, “I want people to read my work. I want it to have value for others. I occasionally regret not writing simpler narratives around more tightly defined subjects… But I am apparently here to make wide-ranging connections and lateral moves.”

It wasn’t until 2008, after a friend casually suggested that Solnit write an essay about the then-unnamed phenomenon of mansplaining, that Solnit caught the public eye as a female writer—as opposed to a writer who happened to be female. Since the release of “Men Explain Things to Me,” the author who was once known for her sharp commentary on art, nature, and literature has become a de facto women’s advocate of the literary world—a kind of higher-brow version of the feminist tweeter. Macquarie Dictionary named “mansplain” its word of the year in 2014, and Lena Dunham called Men Explain Things to Me the most “clarifying, soothing, and socially aware document” about being a woman in America. Elle and Cosmopolitan magazines have profiled Solnit, and The New Republic described her as “essential feminist reading.” Harper’s hired Solnit in 2014 as the literary magazine’s first female “Easy Chair” columnist. Even Beyoncé has hinted that she named her daughter Blue Ivy after a passage from one of Solnit’s books.

Given such attention to Solnit’s work, a modern feminist might expect Solnit to tackle myriad timely topics on gender. For example: intersectionality and the many rifts opening up in the women’s movement; affirmative action and the contradictions involved in levelling the professional playing field; the over-simplification of identity and body image; or feminism’s tortured relationship with the sex industry. But her books Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions ignore even such basic considerations.

Take Solnit’s essay about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund. Solnit praises Nafissatou Diallo, the New York City maid who publicly accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in 2014, for standing up for women’s rights. In that essay—written before the judge dismissed all charges against Strauss-Kahn—Solnit describes an experience she had as a teenager in Paris, when “a geezer grabbed my ass” and she responded by pelting him with the three grapefruits she had been holding. Solnit compares herself to Diallo and to other women who confronted their aggressors. But it seems almost ridiculous to suggest any kind of equivalency between herself and Diallo: I could mention the many ways I’ve manoeuvred myself free from such unpleasant situations (on the street, in the classroom, as a waitress) but I also know that avoiding groping creeps is the most commonplace of female experiences—unlike being raped by a prominent international politician.

Readers come away from Solnit’s essay learning that assault happens all the time and in many different ways. Which, granted, is worth a reminder. But with so many different stories being shared on Twitter, on TV, or in the comment sections, an essay that compiles them is scarcely any help at all. We don’t need to be told that a problem exists or to repeat a conversation that has already been had; we need someone to help further the discussion, to question why the problem persists and how, if possible, it can be solved. Throwing fresh fruit on the street—and later congratulating oneself for it in a book about feminism—does not contribute to any kind of meaningful discussion.

Others have criticized Solnit’s moral simplicity and naïveté. “While I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t experienced a patronizing and gendered lecture from a man, I’ve only met a very privileged few who feel the undue confidence of masculinity is their biggest bone to pick with sexism,” Amber A’lee Frost wrote in her review of Men Explain Things to Me for NewPolitics. Vivian Gornick put it the most succinctly in her short review of the same book for the Boston Review: “The essays in this book are almost all written in the same spirit as the title piece, employing the same vocabulary and tone of voice to address a readership that seems to be grossly ignorant of insights that many if not most of us would have thought belong to Feminism 101 by now.”

The same analysis can be applied to The Mother of All Questions. Solnit’s portrayal of the Jian Ghomeshi case, for example, ignores all of the complexities of the trial, such as the legal notion of consent, judicial standards around witness reliability, or the challenged feminism of Marie Henein, Ghomeshi’s defence lawyer. Solnit writes as though there is nothing more to the story than the bravery of Royal Canadian Air Force captain Lucy Decoutere and other women for speaking up, and Ghomeshi’s surprise at his subsequent downfall.

But assault is often triggered by something much more complicated than the assailant’s belief that he will never be caught. In Ghomeshi’s case, it has often been argued that, if he did do anything wrong, he wasn’t convinced of its wrongness—which is part of the problem. Coming forward, too, can be motivated by much more than what Solnit describes as some kind of inspired epiphany. DeCoutere presumably did not wake up one morning and exclaim, “Finally, I can speak!” Certainly, DeCoutere is not thinking that today—not after having barely survived a particularly rough round of cross-examination in court and even harsher criticism on social media ever since. Solnit describes the consequences of “going public” as “usually unpleasant,” which sounds like the discomfort of being caught in the rain—not the pain and humiliation of facing one’s abuser in court.

These shortfalls don’t only show how much Solnit has left to understand—they also keep her audience from learning. Solnit leaves us mired in pop-feminist ideology: she compiles anecdotal evidence, but she frequently doesn’t seem to understand it or the questions it raises. These problems are just as evident in Solnit’s description of the “Stanford rapist” case, in which Brock Turner, a professional swimmer and university student, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious twenty-two-year-old woman in an alley. Solnit praises Turner’s conviction. She focuses on the statement the victim read to Turner in court, which became famous when it was published on Buzzfeed News. “She regained the voice taken away from her,” Solnit writes of the woman, “and with it rehumanized her dehumanized self. She spoke words that built a cage around him, erected a monument to his casual malice, words that will likely follow him all his life. Her voice was her power.”

But Solnit doesn’t acknowledge the rapist’s minimal sentence of six months in jail, the clearing of misconduct charges against the judge, or the media’s tone-deaf response to the story—all details that considerably complicate her optimistic picture.

It’s unsettling to think that we prefer our female commentators as moralistic hopemongers. The fundamental assumption of The Mother of All Questions is that things are getting better. After Ghomeshi, Cosby, Trump, that thesis seems depressingly misguided. While Solnit has received her fair share of vitriol from online trolls, it hasn’t been for broaching controversial topics. Solnit was even “ambivalent at first” about the coinage “mansplaining,” she told the Guardian, because she worried about “typecasting men with the term.” Pop feminism allows us to label ourselves as progressive without the possible cost—to our reputations, our convictions, our friendships, our free time—that comes from thinking critically on controversial issues. It provides an easy alternative to participating in the modern women’s movement, which is full of contradictions. Better to agree with Solnit’s basic conclusions, we decide, than to participate in feminism’s various disagreements. Yet how will this approach ever lead to progress?

In the book’s long essay about silence, Solnit summarizes what feminist thinkers over the last decades (such as Mary Beard, Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, and Allison Bechdel) have said on the topic. She’s done her research—she even drops in the word intersectionality a couple of times. But it quickly becomes painfully obvious that many women have thought critically about silence, and Solnit herself doesn’t have anything new to add. As usual, she tells us what we already know—in this case, that women have been silenced for centuries and it would be better if we weren’t—and adds a few literary flourishes. Maybe that’s the fate of women writers: we’re constantly repeating ourselves, never heard the first time. Or maybe, in today’s world of 140-character thoughts and uncomplicated iconography, Solnit is giving us exactly what we asked for. The most positive thing to say is that, at least, she isn’t being silent. And, for better or for worse, we are reading her.

Viviane Fairbank
Viviane Fairbank (@vivianefairbank) is a writer based in Montreal and the former head of research at The Walrus.
Iveta Karpathyova
Iveta Karpathyova, M.Des., is an illustrator, animator, and educator. Her work can be viewed online at www.ivetaka.com.