Review: Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
A revolt championing the cause of women
Rebecca Solnit argues persuasively, is often funny and is articulate to a fault
Men Explain Things to Me
In 2008 Rebecca Solnit wrote about an incident during a skiing weekend in Aspen. In the essay, the writer recounts a conversation with their host, a wealthy man, who asks what she does for a living. When she replies that she is a writer, the host proceeds to haughtily tell her about a book on the bestseller list that he hasn’t read. Solnit’s friend casually interjects that said book – one the man argues strongly for, without having read – is actually written by Solnit.
“He was already telling me about the very important book – with the smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”.
When published online, the piece went viral, and Solnit updates the title essay of Men Explain Things to Me with a postscript to say she is often erroneously credited with coining the term “Mansplaining”. It may not be her creation, but it encompasses the casual condescension that steers women towards the “slippery slope of silencings” in all aspects of life. In The Longest War, the New Delhi gang rape is the lynchpin for a broader examination of violence against women.
“Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion or nationality, but it does have a gender”, says Solnit, who believes violence is authoritarian and based on someone saying “I have the right to control you”.
Solnit has been writing on diverse topics for over a decade, from landscape and literature to gender and politics. The essays collected here have been published elsewhere and demonstrate her thematic preoccupation and the rigour of Solnit’s intellectual investigation. The book is interspersed with paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez, depicting faceless women: one mops an endless shoreline, another hangs out laundry and is completely enveloped by a sheet – “A woman both exists and is obliterated”. The images are playful, but are a serious signifier for women’s experience and Solnit’s many subjects are filtered through the prism of gender. When writing on place and psychogeography, she examines the barriers to solitude because women cannot travel to certain places alone. Ancestry, lineage, and post-marriage surnames form the basis of the invigorating and well-argued, Grandmother Spider. If women have been audibly silenced, a huge number have been visibly erased from family trees.
Many of these subjects – domestic violence, motherhood, sexual exploitation – are not new, but they are cyclical and Solnit gets to nub of male power and privilege. Her work feels both timeless and timely, and in the run-up to May’s referendum in Ireland, her essay In Praise of the Threat – What Marriage Equality Really Means is essential reading. Solnit is very convincing and takes equality as a starting point, but she also speaks to a Presbyterian Pastor who has performed many same-sex marriages. His view? “The old patriarchal default settings did not apply in their relationships and it was a glorious thing to witness.”
Solnit argues persuasively, is often funny and is articulate to a fault. Writing about the Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death) project and how 66,000 women are killed annually by Femicide, “the killing of females by males because they are female”, she counters it with the idea of visibility, of being vocal, and of never being diminished. “The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt”. Solnit’s writing is its own victory and revolt. An incendiary, inquiring and important work.
Sinéad Gleeson presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1