Monopolising the news these last few weeks has been the story of Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood producer under investigation by the police in Los Angeles, New York and London after large numbers of women have come forward accusing him of sexual harassment and rape dating back to the nineties. What began in the early days of October with an investigative piece in the New York Times has since snowballed. The allegations against Weinstein himself continue to mount – as I write this, Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is the latest woman to have come forward, joining a chorus of female voices from across the film industry, from the likes of screenwriter Sophie Dix, a twenty-two-year-old embarking on an acting career at the time of her assault back in 1990, to Hollywood royalty such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie – and the power of these women’s stories has fuelled the #MeToo campaign currently trending on social media, through which women all over the world have been sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
‘Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories,’ writes Rebecca Solnit in The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms, which was published here in the UK only a month before the Weinstein allegations hit the headlines. ‘It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.’ It’s been precisely this refusal to listen to women’s stories that’s allowed Weinstein to continue to do what he’s been doing for so long with impunity. ‘Silence,’ Solnit continues in the essay from which the quotation above is taken, ‘A Short History of Silence’, ‘is what allows predators to rampage through the decades, unchecked. It’s as though the voices of these prominent public men devoured the voices of others into nothingness, a narrative cannibalism. They rendered them voiceless to refuse and afflicted with unbelievable stories. Unbelievable means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices.’ Reading this sends a shiver down my spine. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d swear she’s describing the Weinstein case.
The producer’s employees enabled his assaults by turning a conveniently blind eye to his predatory behaviour – ‘the members of his household, the potential witnesses, were all (strategically, it seems to me now) in a soundproof room’, explains Nyong’o in her New York Times essay, recalling how Weinstein insisted she and he retire to his bedroom alone, leaving everyone else in the screening room watching the film Nyong’o was under the impression she’d come to his house to watch. Others in the industry, most often men in positions of power not dissimilar to Weinstein’s, quite simply refused to take any notice of what was going on right under their noses. ‘I knew enough to do more than I did,’ the director Quentin Tarantino confessed, only now contrite: ‘There was more to it than just the normal rumors, the normal gossip. It wasn’t second-hand. I knew he did a couple of these things.’
In ‘A Short History of Silence’ Solnit references a smattering of recent high-profile cases in which male abusers have been named and shamed by those they persecuted: Fox News CEO Roger Ailes; the actor and entertainer Bill Cosby; the Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi; along with then-International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Khan, who assaulted a maid in his Manhattan hotel room. Like Weinstein, each of these aggressors had been abusing women for years. They were all, as Solnit puts it, ‘powerful figures who knew their voices and credibility could drown out those they assaulted, until something broke, until silence was broken, until an ocean of stories roared forth and washed away their impunity.’
Books like The Mother of All Questions and Solnit’s earlier companion volume Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays occupy a double position in the world: they exist as repositories of evidence, documenting the moment, while at the same time they’re tools with which feminist movements galvanize support. Solnit discussed Strauss-Khan’s case in more detail in the earlier book. ‘Who would ever write a fable as obvious, as heavy-handed as the story we’ve just been given?’ she asks in ‘Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: Some Thoughts on the IMF, Global Injustice, and a Stranger on a Train’. ‘The extraordinarily powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization that has created mass poverty and economic injustice, allegedly assaulted a hotel maid, an immigrant from Africa, in a hotel’s luxury suite in New York City.’ It is Solnit herself, however, who turns it into a fable, and a powerful one at that. ‘His name was privilege, but hers was possibility’, she begins the final paragraph of the essay. ‘His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.’ As distressing as the story she tells is, Solnit chooses to bring the essay to a close on an optimistic note, to look to the possibility of a future that brings with it change.
But what saves us from sinking to the ground in despondency, our heads in our hands at the revelation of yet another male abuser who got away with his crimes for years? Some solace is to be found in #MeToo. The ubiquity of the hashtag across social media, although on the one hand depressing proof of just how pervasive sexual harassment is – something the majority of us who identify as female already suspected, if we did not already know it with the absolute certainty of first-hand experience – it also brings with it a degree of optimism, unequivocal evidence that women are refusing to remain silent and refusing to be silenced, something that Nyong’o herself notably speaks to at the end of her New York Times piece:
‘I hope we can form a community where a woman can speak up about her abuse and not suffer another abuse by not being believed and instead being ridiculed. That’s why we don’t speak up – for fear of suffering twice, and for fear of being labeled and characterized by our moment of powerlessness.’
It’s this second abuse that Solnit’s recent work has been concerned with highlighting, and thus it’s surely no coincidence that what’s clearly both a promising move forward in terms of women finding the courage to tell these stories, and the cultural shift that’s taken place priming a larger audience to be receptive to hearing them, however hard this might be, comes off the back of what’s been the most popular work of Solnit’s career.
Not that Solnit herself met the recent revelations with any sense of complacency, and nor should we if we heed her latest piece on the subject. ‘Harvey Weinstein is Hillary Clinton’s fault, we have learned from many sources,’ begins the biting satirical essay on male privilege and female powerlessness, ‘On Harvey Weinstein, Hillary Clinton, and Blaming Women for the Acts of Men: Or, an incomplete list of things that are not men’s fault’, that Solnit published on Literary Hub in the immediate wake of the Weinstein allegations. ‘So is eczema and the Civil War and the fact that your child refuses to learn to tie shoelaces and sticks to Velcro shoes,’ the first paragraph continues. ‘The hairs and stuff that get caught in the Velcro are also Hillary Clinton’s fault, and she could have passed legislation against them if she cared instead of being uncaring. It is also the soon-to-be-divorced Mrs Weinstein’s fault that her husband is an alleged rapist, except that it is Hillary Clinton’s fault, except that it is the fault of the victims for choosing to be small, young female victims looking for work at the outset of their careers instead of being Matt Damon, a choice open to us all.’
I read this short essay with fascination. It contains a rage – certainly not untamed, but rather defiantly raw-edged – of the like not often found in Solnit’s writing. Indeed, one of her most impressive strengths, and something that continually came up when I crowdsourced other people’s thoughts on her writing for this piece, is the way in which she balances horror and hope, stagnation and progress. As one particular reader put it, compare Solnit’s work with that of other contemporary female essayists, the loudness of Roxane Gay, for example, or the cold brilliance of Siri Hustvedt, and it’s her ‘wisdom and quietness’ that stands out. The Mother of All Questions, Men Explain Things to Me and the essay collection that came before these, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, all showcase this talent, the latter most explicitly. Written back in 2003 and 2004, it was a response, Solnit explains in the foreword to the third edition, to the ‘tremendous despair’ many were experiencing at what was the height of the Bush administration in the US, and the onset of the war in Iraq. ‘Coming back to the text more than a dozen tumultuous years later’, she explains, ‘I believe its premises hold up. Progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.’ Twelve months ago, when Donald Trump’s electoral victory was announced to the world, Solnit’s first response as a public intellectual keenly concerned with serving the needs of the masses was to once again step up to offer optimism at what seemed to many of us like the very darkest moment in recent history: she made the e-book version of Hope in the Dark freely available for download in order that the examples therein – a wide-ranging collection that includes the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 that blockaded the World Trade Organization meeting and the worldwide marches against the war in Iraq – might once again provide some solace, and act as a call to arms.
Solnit’s activism winds its way serpent-like through her work, sometimes at the very heart of the subject, sometimes lingering less obviously on the sidelines, but it’s always there. Place is also a topic she returns to again and again – the American West, Ireland, Iceland; these are all geographical locations she’s persuasively laid claim to in her writing – and most recently she’s the author of a trilogy of innovative atlases: Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas and Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, each book constituted by a beguiling assortment of visual material – maps, illustrations and charts – combined with essays and stories that present a vision of each city from a rich variety of layered perspectives; musical, geographical, literary, economic, personal and communal. One of the most interesting chapters in Nonstop Metropolis: New York City, for example, is ‘City of Women’, in which she renames every single subway stop on the city’s transport network map after one of ‘the great and significant women of New York City in the places where they lived, worked, competed, went to school, danced, painted, wrote, rebelled, organized, philosophized, taught, and made names for themselves.’ It’s a series that showcases one of Solnit’s most impressive talents, that of being able to infuse the political with the poetical, and vice versa. The pleasures of reading Solnit’s work don’t just lie in the impressive powers of her intellect, but equally in the apparent ease and insight with which she enfolds such a wide variety of disciplines into her thought, each end result always an artwork in and of itself. Her work often includes some form of visual element, but even when this is absent, she remains a visual writer. Take this paragraph from The Faraway Nearby for example, in which she’s describing a scene from one of the many cinematic adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
The expanse of smooth snow and jagged ice rising into small peaks and ranges seemed to go on forever, to dwarf the figures pursuing each other across it, and to threaten or promise to swallow them. They were small dark forms like two letters on an otherwise blank page, overwhelmed by that whiteness. They drew closer to each other as though to form a word that would never be sounded, drew apart into wordlessness and silence, but the landscape promised them a kind of immortality: the immortality of cold in which nothing decays.
She sees words in images; we see images in her words.
While I was writing this essay, I found myself procrastinating in all the familiar ways. I pause to check my Twitter feed, scroll through the usual mindless rubbish, crack a smile at a funny gif or two, click through to a few of the more interesting articles people have taken the time to share, before pulling myself up short and forcing myself back to the Word doc that awaits me. I type a few sentences, perhaps an entire paragraph if I’m feeling particularly inspired, consult one of the many books piled up beside me for a quote I need, stare out of the window for a few minutes, turn back to the document and delete what I’ve just written. Then, inevitably, it’s back to Twitter and the cycle begins all over again. There’s something else on repeat in this particular scenario though: the regularity with which I’m seeing Tweets linking through to Solnit’s Literary Hub Weinstein essay.
Not five days after it was published, the piece had already clocked 200,000 readers, and this number is growing by the day, something that’s not uncommon for a Solnit essay. ‘The Loneliness of Donald Trump: On the corrosive privilege of the most mocked man in the world’, which was published on the same site in May earlier this year, is currently approaching two million readers. As Jonny Diamond, Literary Hub’s editor in chief, confirms, Solnit’s essays are routinely the most popular pieces they run, and she appears no less than five times on a list of their fifteen all time most-read stories.
In a recent interview published in the Observer, Solnit described the here and now as a ‘golden age’ for essays, claiming that those written by women – once dismissed as fluffy memoir – are ‘seen as powerful and compelling again.’ Not to put too fine a point on it, but Solnit’s reaping the rewards of her own hard work, as well as having bravely forged the way for younger writers who are following in her footsteps. Back in 2014 – pretty much three years ago to the day – I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast that shone a spotlight on the women writers who’d made and were continuing to make waves in this genre: Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Leslie Jamison, Meghan Daum and, of course, Rebecca Solnit were all on my list. Looking back on it now, I realise that I’d compiled it at a point that was something of a watershed year in Solnit’s career: the year Men Explain Things to Me was published, as a result of which she went not just mainstream, but viral.
It’s hardly like Solnit was toiling away in obscurity up until this point. All the essays in Men Explain Things to Me were edited versions of pieces that had been previously published elsewhere, and this was actually her twentieth book. Over the course of what was then a twenty-three-year career she’d covered an astonishingly broad range of subjects. Her first book, Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (1991), was a study of a little known group of West Coast avant-garde artists in the 1950s – Solnit studied art in Paris before taking a degree in English and Art History at San Francisco State University, after which she worked at MOMA San Francisco (while pursuing a journalism degree at UC Berkley), and when she graduated she got a job as an editorial assistant at Artweek.
The books that followed charted a broadening of her interests. She pushed at the boundaries of traditional cultural histories in the likes of Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West (1994), A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland (1997) and Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001). In 2004 she published the Guggenheim-, National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism-, and Lannan Literary Award-winning River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, the book that inspired the anecdote with which she opens the now infamous ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ essay: During a party at the home of an older ‘imposing man who’d made a lot of money’, she mentions that she’s just written a book about Muybridge. Her host cuts her off in order to regale her with a description of ‘the very important Muybridge book’ that came out earlier in the year without stopping to think that it might be her book, a book which he hasn’t even read, simply read about in the New York Times Book Review.
Later came A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009), which examined utopian fraternity in the wake of community-destroying disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. In his New York Times review, Dwight Garner described the book as demonstrating that Solnit possessed ‘a rare gift: the ability to turn the act of cognition, of arriving at a coherent point of view, into compelling moral drama.’ And, although she’s always present in everything she writes, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005) was a collection strictly devoted to autobiographical essays, followed by The Faraway Nearby (2013), a memoir about her relationship with her mother and her travels to Iceland via discussions of apricots, Mary Shelley and Che Guevara. It’s worth nothing that this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of her work, merely selected highlights.
Sounds impressive, right? All the same, Solnit could be described as the Hilary Mantel of the non-fiction world. When the then fifty-seven-year-old British novelist won the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall in 2009, many acted like she’d sprung up from nowhere, oblivious to the fact that Mantel had been publishing critically acclaimed novels since 1985. Men Explain Things to Me – which Solnit published when she was fifty-three (two decades after the publication of her first book) – was Solnit’s Wolf Hall moment. And just as Mantel’s win sent impressed readers back to her earlier novels, so too Solnit’s new-found superstardom saw her fans eagerly discovering her previous work.
So what was it about this particular book? The title essay was first published on the American email publication and website TomDispatch in 2008, the home for much of Solnit’s journalism prior to her ongoing reign at Literary Hub, and, as Solnit explains in the postscript added in the book’s version, ‘It’s circulated like nothing else I’ve done.’ It ultimately gave rise to the term ‘mansplaining’ – not technically Solnit’s invention, she’s keen to point out, though she does acknowledge the role her essay played in the phrase’s inception. Looking back on the essay six years after she wrote it, ‘It struck a chord’, she admits. ‘And a nerve.’ This, of course, is exactly what she has done in discussing female silencing and the Weinstein case. Solnit’s star continues to be in ascendance because she has an almost uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist – even before it’s recognised as such. Her work gleams with the kind of clarity and truthfulness that all too often proves elusive to others because of the incendiary nature of the topic(s) in question, and this immediately sets her apart.
‘Much of contemporary discourse, particularly online, is now famously understood as equal parts inarticulate bitterness and paranoid resentment’, Jonny Diamond tells me, when I ask him to explain the allure of working with Solnit. ‘The genius of Rebecca Solnit, and what makes her so ideally suited to write about this moment (though she’s always been great), is her ability to work from a place of justifiable anger and hone it into something precise, that cuts in just the right way.’ Even in those instances, as with her essay on Weinstein, that her work pulsates with unconcealed ire, she never lets this obscure the intellect behind the points she’s making, nor the careful structure and shape of the essay itself. ‘She also happens to be one of the most rigorous journalists I’ve ever worked with’, Diamond continues, ‘even when she’s writing in the realm of opinion, which is why her pieces stand out in stark contrast to the infinite supply of 850-word hot takes we live with each day.’
We are living in a moment that demands great courage from us all, whether it’s speaking out about inequalities such as sexism and racism and the abuses of power that go hand in hand with predominantly white patriarchal structures, or environmental and ecological issues that many are attempting to at best ignore and at worst refute. The good news, however, is that Solnit is here by our side, ready to show us the way forward.