Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit - book review: Fearless feminist gives the misogynists a good talking-to

 

At a party near Aspen, the host foolishly delivered himself into the hands of a polemicist. “So I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” he chortled.

Rebecca Solnit had published half a dozen but one doesn’t like to boast so she sketched the gist of the most recent, dealing with “the industrialisation of everyday life”.

“Aha, but have you read the very important new book just out?” the host cut in. He hadn’t but he pontificated about it anyway. “That’s her book,” said Solnit’s friend. “That’s her book.” Oh dear.

A trivial enough solecism. It happens to authors every day, and offenders are not necessarily male. But Solnit’s point in the lead essay, which went viral in 2008, is that a male culture talks women down. In the nicest possible way. On your specialist subject.

And women defer, smouldering inwardly. The gnat-bite Solnit suffered at Aspen links to an offence both lethal and global: the crime against woman’s witness. “Credibility is a basic survival tool.”

Throughout the world women are discredited. The heart of this slim collection is women’s right to be acknowledged as “reliable witnesses to their own lives”.

The essays fiercely confront crime against women: rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, workplace sexual harassment. Justice and kindness are not gendered, she concedes, but sex-crime is.

Solnit’s arguments often proceed by indirection, like walking, defined in her earlier book, Wanderlust, as “a subversive detour”, or like a spider’s web.

Traditionally, the essay form after Montaigne is open, communicative and democratic. Solnit offers distillations of an individual’s sometimes eccentric wisdom: these are my thoughts, now what are yours?

I must speak and I must be heard. That’s the bottom line. The essays in Men Explain Things to Me are various and peripatetic, touching on Virginia Woolf, walking and identity, internet hate-speech, the politics of marriage. The author has hard facts and harder truths to tell. A rape is reported every 6.2 minutes in the US. Throughout the world, violent crime is 90 per cent male. As a feminist, Solnit has a voice of fearless and provocative asperity; she launches a quiverful of aphoristic arrows.

A series of illustrations by Ana Teresa Fernandez is intrinsic to the volume’s meaning. A woman, at once elevated and hobbled by high heels, irons a sheet, beneath which her head is also being pressed.

As she pegs the sheet on the line, the wind whips it over her head. Twice she swims in high heels. I’m a sea swimmer and pretty sure I’d go under in those heels. But happily, as a tall feminist (aren’t all feminists tall?), I kicked them off decades ago.

Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030. Men Explain Things to Me By Rebecca Solnit Granta £12.99

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