Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Men Explain Things to Me" by Rebecca Solnit [Review]: This Book Really is Applicable to Teaching English

Rebecca Solnit's 2014 essay collection Men Explain Things to Me appeared on a best books list, which is how I discovered it, although I don't recall which list included the title. I ordered the book because I've been disillusioned by the backlash against feminism that seems to have gained momentum this year. 

Additionally, songs such as Taylor Swift's "Blank Space," Meghan Trainor's "All About that Bass," and Hurray for the Riff Raff's "The Body Electric" shine a light on various ways females are silenced in our culture. Thus, Solnit's collection fit into my current thinking. 

The title essay, "Men Explain Things to Me," responds to an incident in which Solnit found herself the captive audience of a party host who schooled her on the subject of Edweard Muybridge, about whom Solnit had written a book, River of Shadows: Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, a book her host knew about but had not read. He described the book as "very important." Additionally, the host did not realize his guest was the author of the "very important" book and seemed not to care even after learning the fact. 

Solnit penned "Men Explain Things to Me" to make the point that even when confronted with female expertise, "Men explain things to me , and other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men" (4).

My brother-in-law is like that. My husband is not. Perhaps that's why I've been a bit shielded from the slow pace of change. 

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation, just as it emphasizes men's unsupported over-confidence. (4-5)

Throughout the book, Solnit takes care to avoid hasty generalizations, but her larger thesis is that despite much progress, women still face objectification and silencing and exclusion in both western as well as eastern cultures. 

Among the essays, "The Longest War" (2013) stands as the most important and the most poignant. Solnit packs the essay with statistical evidence about the violence against women and the ways in which our social structures put both the blame for such violence and the responsibility for ending it on women. "Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender" (21).

Solnit tells readers that there's much that we don't talk about when we don't talk about gender, and one thing we should talk about is violence against women as a civil and human rights issue. Solnit peppers the statistics with stories, such as the rape of a 73-year old in Central Park in 2012 to the stories of high school and college athletes gang raping young women. 

She extends her criticism of cultural response to those who suggest women on college campuses stay locked-in rather than exercise their right to freedom of movement if they want to stay safe. 

And it isn't just the violence strangers perpetrate against women that Solnit documents: 

Never mind workplace violence , let's go home. So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year--meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11's casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror. (24)

Violence against women worldwide trumps cancer, traffic fatalities, and malaria as a leading cause of death, yet we don't have a Susan B. Koman for the cure campaign replete with pink ribbons to show our support for funding this egregious social justice crisis. 

It's this epidemic of violence against women on college campuses that prompted Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff to compose "The Body Electric." Writing for NPR, Ann Powers explains:
Horrified by the rapes that have made tragic news from India to America's college campuses, the singer-songwriter noticed that her own people--music makers and music lovers--would regularly sing along with choruses about killing women, comfortably accepting gender-based violence as part of the ballad tradition. No more, she said. 'The Body Electric" was her intervention.

There's much more in "The Longest War," including an indictment of politicians who seek to exert control over women's autonomy, and those states, 31, that give rapists who father children with their victims parental rights. 

"In Praise of the Threat" (2013) offers a perspective on marriage equality I had not considered by suggesting that its opposition is really about maintaining patriarchal power structures more than about protecting traditional marriage. 

A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian--one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it's a relationship between people who have equal standing and so are free to define their roles themselves. (63)

This goes against the grain of many marriages, which historically have placed women in weaker power positions. Indeed, this idea of women having no property rights and no legal standing is a theme Jane Austin explores in such novels as Sense and Sensibility.

Solnit argues that as marriage equality becomes normalized, women in traditional marriages will experience unions that are inherently more egalitarian. 

In the title to this post, I claim that Men Explain Things to Me is applicable to teaching English. To that end, I've pondered how the essay "The Longest War" will work with "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Prologue in The Canterbury Tales.

Additionally, I've considered how I might use one or more of the essays with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In "Woolf's Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable" (2009) Solnit discusses her relationship to Susan Sontag and Virginia Wolfe, for whom gender played a defining role in Orlando. 

Woolf once wrote, "The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think." It's an idea worth pondering both for its implication that the present state of women in society is challenging and in its hopefulness that we don't know the future but can work to make it a more open and peaceful place for all. 

In the final essay, "Pandora's Box and the Volunteer Police Force," Solnit takes readers back to Susan Faludi's 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which I read when it was first publishedto remind readers that, as Faludi argues, "And yet, for all the forces the backlash mustered. . . women never really surrendered." As much as some want to push women back through the door Nora threw open at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House, there really is no disappearing back into the attic, the kitchen, the closet, the genie bottle, invisibility, silence. 

Finally, as a teacher, Solnit makes me think about criticism, specifically literary criticism. She does this in the essay "Woolf's Darkness":

We often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. . . . Literary criticism, like criticism of art, embodies a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks o expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meaning, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. (100-101)

Having grown up and attended college at a time when professors bludgeoned my writing with notes about all I did wrong in an essay, this binary approach to critiquing student writing is what I took into the classroom and what I have worked to move beyond in my reflections on student work, especially during the past dozen years. 

Isn't my job as a teacher to help liberate student writing so that the student can develop ideas fully? To engage in conversations about both reading and writing with my students? To begin never-ending conversations with students, dialogues that empower and feed their imaginations? To free their spirits to read, write, discuss, and in turn learn more? Isn't this what makes teaching art and craft? 

These are things I'd like to explain to so many if only those who explain to me would listen.


  1. This book looks fascinating. Putting it on my list.

  2. Thank you, friend, for thinking this through here. I, too, have been questioning my own criticism of student work, and I love the idea of criticism as an opening rather than a correction.