I knew nothing about Ellen Willis before venturing into this book but I enjoy reading essays (yes, I’m that guy) and I was drawn to Willis’ profile and record.
I’m not sure how to describe Willis, based on her writing. Any label I give her would only box her in to a confine too small for who she really was.
It also seems too small to say that I was highly impressed with the essays here, but I was.
The essays here encompass an incredible range – from eras (the 1960’s to the 2000’s) to topics (from radicalism to music to feminism to peace and hope and beyond) – and all are intelligently composed and carefully articulated. This is the writing of a smart, cultured, modern woman (and I mention her gender not to dismiss her in any way but because I think her gender plays a crucial role in her observations).
At times the writing was dated. We can see the influence of the cultural thinking in the way she expresses herself on issues in the 60’s up even through the 90’s. Perceptions sometimes change with cultural changes. Yet it also becomes all-too-apparent that we maybe don’t change enough as humans. Styles may change. What’s acceptable by perception may change. But we don’t change. I couldn’t help but see too many comparisons to today’s politics and revolutions when reading her observations from twenty, thirty, even forty years ago. How sad. How frustrating and very sad. I wondered what she would have to say in today’s political climate and about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh (I was just finishing this book during this debacle).
I loved her insight. “How did the sixties happen in the first place?” she writes,
I’d argue that a confluence of events stimulated desire while temporarily muting anxiety. There was wide-spread prosperity that made young people feel secure, able to challenge authority and experiment with their lives. There was a vibrant mass-mediated culture that, far from damping down the imagination, transmitted the summons to freedom and pleasure far more broadly than a mere political movement could do.
Man, that made me think… a wide-spread prosperity that made young people feel secure. I’d never heard nor read anyone put it quite that way, and yet it feels spot on. And what a tremendous contradiction then – feeling comfortable let them rebel. Yeah.
On sex she sums up: “When women discuss sex in public, male prerogatives and male hypocrisy come under scrutiny. And that makes a lot of journalists (especially male journalists) nervous— not because sex is trivial, but precisely because it isn’t.” This had me wondering what she would have made of the #metoo movement.
When discussing music, one of my favorite observations was:
Watching men groove on Janis, I began to appreciate the resentment many black people feel toward whites who are blues freaks. Janis sang out of her pain as a woman, and men dug it. Yet it was men who caused the pain, and if they stopped causing it they would not have her to dig.
And just when I was thinking that everything she wrote was heavy (and most of it is) I came across her essay “Handle With Care: We Need a Child-Rearing Movement” that I agreed with whole-heartedly.
This isn’t light reading. It took me a long time to read through this collection because every essay can’t just be read, it has to be absorbed. It has to be considered, and that takes time.
I’m sorry that I wasn’t aware of Ellen Willis when she was actively writing and I’m sorry that she’s gone because I think she’d have some very valuable things to say about the ‘Teens.
Looking for a good book? If you like intelligent, socially relevant non-fiction, the The Essential Ellen Willis really needs to be on your reading list.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Essential Ellen Willis
author: Ellen Willis
editor: Nona Willis-Aronowitz
publisher: Univ of Minnesota Press
paperback, 536 pages