Rebecca Solnit, an author long esteemed for her thoughtfulness and variety of interests, jumped to the kind of weird prominence made by the internet when her essay “Men Explain Things To Me” led to the coinage of “mansplaining.” When the essay was published in a collection under the same name, she included an update that reflected on the word and its wide usage, noting she has mixed feelings about it and rarely uses it. But the birth of that word is a showcase for the sort of work that Solnit does so well. In her essays, she captures a feeling or a behavior or a practice that many, many women feel but can’t always articulate. With “Men Explain Things To Me” and, eventually, mansplaining, Solnit put in (beautiful) prose what was only a vague, yet pernicious, sense of degradation women so often feel at the hands of men who talk over us, assume expertise, and explain to us subjects that we are actually the authorities on. By identifying and lucidly writing on these experiences, Solnit does the invaluable work of solidifying something understood but unnamed into something real and legitimate.
So it is with Solnit’s new book of collected essays, The Mother Of All Questions. A selection of her work from 2014 to 2016, the essays all have to do with feminism as it stands today. Solnit traces feminism—and history at large—to deftly bring us to our current moment, a time when the word “feminism” is more widely used than ever yet patriarchic forces show no sign of slowing down. The first essay, the title of which is given to the book, addresses that exhausted, timeless question of motherhood. If that feels like a subject that’s been written about to death in the feminist blogosphere, don’t be fooled: Solnit’s brief essay is more thoughtful, probing, and powerful than the majority of content on the subject. Building her piece around Virginia Woolf, what constitutes happiness, and her own experiences on the topic, Solnit arranges “the mother question” into a piece of writing as profound as the question is tired.
The longest and newest essay, “A Short History Of Silence,” is perhaps highest on the must-read list, dealing with the myriad and insidious ways both women and men are silenced under the patriarchy. It’s a remarkable examination, as is “Feminism: The Men Arrive,” about the role men must play in this movement. Solnit is an assured writer and also a very funny one. “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” written in response to Esquire’s “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” is one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve ever read, a sharp comeback to every mediocre or misogynist man held up as a good writer because of some assumed masculinity; Solnit’s brief deconstruction of Hemingway alone is a catharsis for anyone who’s ever struggled to express why they don’t like that paragon of American literature:
The gun-penis-death thing is so sad as well as ugly. The terse, repressed prose style is, in his hands, mannered and pretentious and sentimental. Manly sentimental is the worst kind of sentimental, because it’s deluded about itself in a way that, say, honestly emotional Dickens never was.
The throwaway line about Jonathan Franzen, too, is pure gold: “I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen, but I have not read him, except for his recurrent attacks on Jennifer Weiner in interviews.”
Solnit feels crucial in a way most other writers don’t. Feminism and the patriarchy are complex and mutating beasts, and it takes a steady hand and deep heart to get to the bottom of things. There are writers who struggle to express their bold ideas. Then there are writers whose ways with words aren’t matched by their storytelling. Solnit occupies the rare category of writer who presents her powerful, searing ideas in dazzlingly graceful language. The Mother Of All Questions is a joy of both form and function. It’s difficult to think of an equal.