On Men Explain Things to Me
An essay collection is a beautiful thing. In recent years, more essayists seem to collect their essays into cohesive collections that cover a topic rather than a time period. My gold standard is (and always will be) Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
Joan Didion, assisted by the blurred lines between her essayistic reportage and the deadpan, reportorial voice she employs in her essays, produced a collection of writing that was sort of incidentally cohesive. Dispatch from the Frontiers of Collapsing Optimism. Her next collection, The White Album, is a sequel. Dispatch from the Wreckage of Optimism Collapsed.
Her obsessions and assignments lead her deep into other areas and she meditates on life, politics, society, and class by way of the violence of El Salvador, immigration in Miami, the banality of the Bush/Dukakis race, the death of a friend. In the eyes of an amateur, not a scholar, and a fan, not a critic, Joan Didion is the model by which essayists seem to organize their work. Gone is Shooting an Elephant with its literary and political criticism, meditations on poverty, and personal essays held together by the author’s brilliance alone. When something does appear in that model, it’s an exception. “So-and-so covers a remarkable range of topics!” “The breadth of what’s-his-name’s expertise is dazzling!”
But, at the risk of declamation, depth that is always preferable to breadth. Insightful writing over a range of topics is indeed dazzling, but it’s possible to cover a dozen without offering insight into one. I’m not sure it’s possible to offer true depth without illuminating the wider world in some way. Didion’s investigation of the counter-culture of 1967 becomes more than the counter-culture of 1967: optimism, reality, our reasons for running to one from the other, expectations, decadence, corruption, how we react when the world falls apart. Focusing on one thing, truly, is a meditation. Focusing on too many can be manic. Depth becomes dangerous only when it is confused with repetition, when an author stacks essays on their focal point, confusing for a different dimension what is really just a rehashing of the same facts.
Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me is a wonderfully deep, though short, collection of essays in the model of Didion. The first essay (from which the book derives its title) is, from one paragraph to the next, angry, mournful, hilarious, and deadly serious. More to the point, it tackles an issue around which her entire book is organized: the credibility of women.
Men explain things to Rebecca Solnit; historian, journalist, freelance essayist, editor, and author of several critically-acclaimed books. She leverages her own expertise and a ridiculous lecture she received about one of her own books from a man who had not read enough of it to realize that he was speaking to its author to explore the myriad ways that women are regarded as less trustworthy – serious, expert, reliable, objective – than even their male inferiors. That idea launches her into essays about men lecturing her, the IMF and capitalism, violence, Virginia Woolf, genealogies, and art. But in all of them – at the center, on the periphery, woven subtly through – she finds the idea of female credibility to be the root of misogyny, structural sexism, and rampant violence against women. Every word sizzles with this one particular idea, from the title to the very last, and she uses it to shine new light on her own dazzling array of topics.
And therein lies the genius of depth. Breadth is too often a distraction. Depth is a lens, ready to be turned on anything, bound only by the imagination of the diver.