Non-Fiction, Reviews

Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

IMG_0852Like most people, I am familiar with the term ‘mansplaining’. I’ve also heard a fair bit of excitement about Rebecca Solnit as an interesting writer. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me is the origin of the term, something I only learned seeing the word in circulation – when it first became a thing there were lots of little articles about it everywhere, and examples of when women had been mansplained to were shared across social media. It became something of a pop culture phenomenon. It’s even in the OED.

So, once I knew where the word came from, I was curious to know more. I’d heard of Rebecca Solnit a bit, so finding out more about her work certainly appealed. I’m always keen to read a bit more non-fiction, especially something like this that isn’t narrative (I read a lot of that). Plus, the Granta hardback of Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays is very attractive indeed, so I just had to go for it.

It’s funny to hear that something is great, and then actually experience it for yourself. There are expectations, whether they are rational or not. I expected the essay to be good, to be groundbreaking even, but I didn’t know anything about Solnit’s writing style or her narrative voice. Luckily I was pleased with both of these things – her writing is academic and formal enough to be taken seriously, and it is engaging and elegant enough to entertain and keep you turning the pages. With this essay she is writing about a cultural occurrence, but also about a personal experience. The first instance of explaining occurs at a party, with people she knows, and some she doesn’t, and it’s a wonderful example of a personal, female experience that can be translated into the wider context of our current culture and society. It must have been quite the epiphanic moment when Solnit decided to distill this experience and its relevance to women everywhere into this eloquent and succinct essay. It is a perfect translation of life into literature, and then into something bigger that permeates society.

Though the book is under 200 pages, there are six ‘Other Essays’ in this volume. They all centre around gender, feminism, equal rights, freedom. Personally I found Grandmother Spider to be the most compelling. It starts with an analysis of an untitled painting by the artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, in which a woman is obscured by the sheet which she is pegging to a washing line. The wind is blowing it against her, showing some of the shape of her body, but all we see are her hands at the top, trying to peg it down, and her feet below, jarring in their pointy high heeled shoes. This painting and others by Fernandez are printed at the start of each chapter to illustrate some point in the following essay. But this one struck me the most.

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Untitled (image: anateresafernandez.com)

In Grandmother Spider Solnit discusses how easy it is for women to be obscured, hidden from view, made to disappear. She uses the example of family trees, where maiden names are erased, and sometimes lineages only depict the males of the family, leaving out the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. She also writes about the war in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s, where countless people were “disappeared”, and how the mothers of the disappeared were the ones who gathered in public to protest. She writes about the Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death) project led by the Italian actress Serena Dandini, and how they count every woman killed by a man (about 60,000 annually, worldwide) and how this can be seen as “the ultimate form of erasure, silencing, disappearance” – because most of them are killed by “lovers, husbands, former partners”.

I particularly loved the closing paragraph of this essay, summing up Solnit’s reaction to these terrible facts, to this erasure of women throughout history:

To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.

If you have any interest in feminism and equality, no matter your gender, I would recommend this book. I shall certainly be reading more of Solnit’s work – in fact this afternoon I ordered a copy of her new book, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. I can’t wait to read it!

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Published by Granta (UK) and Haymarket Books (US) in 2014. I read the Granta 2014 hardback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Can We Agree On No More Sylvia Plath Biographies?

I think we can all agree that a mythology has grown around Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. Both her writing and her short life were undoubtedly remarkable, but it is also the fact of Hughes’ control over what was published or not published after her death that has gained notoriety and drawn endless attention to both their names. For decades people have written about them, pried into their lives and invaded their privacy, even when Ted Hughes was still alive. Now that they have both passed away it seems that there are no limits on how much or what can be said about them.

In her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994) Janet Malcolm confronts the issue of how much the poets’ live have been dragged through the mud and held up to the public for viewing in all their glory and pain. Malcolm examines the various Plath biographies that have appeared over the years and the people that have both written and contributed to them. She speaks to people who knew Plath and those who have decided to take sides in what some perceive to be a divide between those who support Plath and those who support Hughes. I personally think such a divide, the act of taking sides, is ludicrous and serves only to trivialise the complicated and ultimately personal and private nature of their relationship. Taking sides implies that we have a a right to an opinion about what was right or wrong, who should be praised and who should be criticised. The fact is, we do not.

2012 Granta paperback

2012 Granta paperback

And yet, what is biography if not dissecting other people’s lives, and, sometimes, passing judgement? The very nature of biography is to sift through the details of a life and expose what was once personal and private. We love to examine the lives of others, and the fact is that this can be done with respect and discretion – but when the life being examined was in living memory, and more is known, the examination can become too detailed, too personal, and can cross from interest and fascination into gawking and speculation. We forget that they were just people. I think sometimes everyone forgets that Sylvia Plath was just a person, another woman like me or anyone else trying to work through life. She was special in that she saw that life with a poet’s eye, and it is, rightly, for this that she is remembered. But she is also remembered for the dark elements of her life, including the breakdown of her marriage – not that that is any of our business frankly. Her poet’s eye was part literary genius and part mental illness, which is what makes her so fascinating. I think it also makes her hard to understand for some people, which leads to the gawking and over-examination. People become obsessed with getting ‘the whole story’ and understanding the truth.

The nature of truth is something that Janet Malcolm explores throughout The Silent Woman. As a journalist and non-fiction writer she is in the business of finding the truth, and as she interviews various people who knew or wrote about Plath she examines how much truth she finds in each person and their recollections. Ultimately she declares that there can be no real truth in non-fiction writing because we cannot ever know ‘what really happened’ between other people. She states that there can only be truth in fiction, where the author is the omniscient power. I’m not sure if I agree – but I didn’t agree with a lot of Malcolm’s assertions. Malcolm is an opinionated writer, which I liked, but I didn’t always warm to her. To me she was cold and humourless, researching and interviewing with a determination that seemed more like a fixation than a passion. She doesn’t seem to gain any pleasure from her research for this book – it is all bleakly matter-of-fact and while I was fascinated and engaged, I realised towards the end that I didn’t really enjoy reading The Silent Woman. It produced no positivity for me and only proved that some things are best left alone, best kept at a respectful distance. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were both extraordinary writers, and I think we would all be better off if the world focussed on that and left their personal lives to rest.

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First published by Picador in 1994, then by Granta in 2005 and 2012.

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Fiction, Guest Posts, Reviews

Best of 2012: Rook, Swimming Home, Hawthorn & Child, and Object Lessons – Guest Post by Alan Bowden

This guest post has been written by blogger and philosophy PhD student Alan Bowden. Alan’s blog Words of Mercury is an intelligent and well-written book blog with a variety of texts as well as Alan’s own fiction and poetry. Here he talks about his favourite books of 2012 (he couldn’t choose just one!), Rook by Jane Rusbridge, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story.

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2012 has been a significant year for me as I’m of the firm belief that it’s the first time I really started reading fiction. (I also got married). I’ve read hundreds of novels, but only once I began writing reviews for my blog did I realise what they can really do. As a result, many of the books I’ve read this year have a lasting personal significance beyond their purely literary achievements. The books that follow are as much a reflection of my new engagement with contemporary fiction as they are an attempt to pick some personal highlights of what has been, by all accounts, a very good year. A quick note on criteria: with one obvious exception all my choices were – to the best of my knowledge – published for the first time in 2012. Reprints, translations, new editions, and so on, were excluded.

Some further criteria: The late Peter Goldie turned more than once in his writings on the philosophy of art to a quotation from his favourite author Joseph Conrad. He felt that it captured the essence and value of the project of creating and consuming art. The artist, Conrad wrote, ‘speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts; to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspiration, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.’  More than anything, the books which will stay with me from this year have looked to speak in this way.

Jane Rusbridge’s wonderful Rook (Bloomsbury Circus) successfully seeks to occupy the slippery but persistent ground between the land and the sea, the past and the present, bereavement and consolation, in language that flows with the rhythms of the tides that inundate the Sussex village of Bosham and the insistence of the young rook rescued and nurtured by Nora, a former concert cellist forced to return to the home of her widowed mother by the crisis which haunts the novel. The interpenetration of the language of the mind and landscape in moments which shift toward the visionary before returning, quite literally, to earth, emphasises Rusbridge’s concerns, not only with the role of place in forming our mental economy, but also with the idea that the only way that we can reach out and touch the past is by staying where we are and living in the same buried spaces.

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

2012 paperback cover. Image: bloomsbury.com

A concern with the complexities of surface and depth underpins Booker shortlisted Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories/Faber). Gathered around a pool in the South of France are two quite different couples, childless shop-owners Laura and Mitchell, and war correspondent Isabel and poet Joe who are accompanied by their teenage daughter Nina. The pool’s surface is disturbed by the arrival of Kitty, a painfully thin young woman obsessed by Joe’s poetry. Her uneasy transition between surface and depth is mirrored and undermined by Levy’s refusal to allow clear distinctions between private thought and public behaviour. Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires, dreams, and repressed violence.

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

2011 paperback cover. Image: andotherstories.org

From fractured minds to broken narratives of urban lives, the much tweeted and quite stunning Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta) sticks a policeman’s boot into the novel and emerges bloody and triumphant between the splints of its covers. A set of eight stories set in North London and loosely held together by the detectives of its title, this book challenges any and all coherence you felt your identity and experience might have. It’s a novel of violence and sickness of language; of fear, memory, suspicion, lust, and confusion. And it’s marvellous. ‘I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.’ But is there?

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

2012 paperback cover. Image: grantabooks.com

The mind’s resilience beneath the weight of solitude and the meaning of human endeavour are at the heart of James Smythe’s unforgiving novel The Explorer (Harper Voyager) in which journalist Cormac Easton finds himself the lone survivor on a mission to deep space. Then it gets weird. Smythe’s writing is controlled to within an inch of its life and Cormac’s direct first-person voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? The bizarre reflexivity Cormac achieves is testament to Smythe’s narrative and poetic imagination and ambition in his consideration of exploration, time, and identity.

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

2013 hardback cover. Image: harpercollins.co.uk

Finally, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story (William Heinemann) contains a superb collection of stories. Each has been selected and introduced by another excellent writer, some of whom appear as both a selector and a selectee. Thus Jeffrey Eugenides introduces Denis Johnson’s remarkable ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ which, he argues, ‘delivers a narrative where the personal brushes up against the eternal, all from a single incident, or accident, on a rainy night.’ Lydia Davis selects and dissects Jane Bowles’ ‘Emmy Moore’s Journal’, revealing its hidden and confused despair, whilst her own ‘Ten Stories from Flaubert’ appears as Ali Smith’s choice. I must confess that I haven’t finished this book yet: I refuse to rush it. Each story must be read and then returned to once the introduction has been taken in. As a guide and inspiration for the budding short story writer Object Lessons cannot fail.

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

2012 hardback cover. Image: randomhouse.co.uk

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Rook was published in August 2012 by Bloomsbury Circus, an imprint of Bloomsbury UK. Swimming Home was published in October 2011 by And Other Stories/Faber. Hawthorn & Child was published in July 2012 by Granta Books. The Explorer will be published in January 2013 by Harper Voyager, an imprint of Harper Collins. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story was published in October 2012 by William Heinemann, an imprint of the Random House Group.

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