How Rebecca Solnit Became the Voice of the Resistance (NYT)

How Rebecca Solnit Became the Voice of the Resistance

http://nyti.ms/2uolBX6

Solnit the oddball essayist was suddenly and unexpectedly a progressive icon, a wise female elder. Her writings on the environment, gender, human rights and violence against women, all of which went back decades, scattered among her many other subjects, seemed suddenly and remarkably prescient. Her work — both new and old — is much discussed on Twitter and cited in op-eds, and the books themselves — she’s published 10 in the last 10 years — hold prime real estate at bookstores across the country. Solnit writes a column for Harper’s Magazine and contributes regularly to The Guardian and the London Review of Books, as well as to Literary Hub, a website that she, at 56 and widely celebrated, has no reason to even know exists. She agrees to interviews, and posts long, magazine-ready treatises on Facebook, which are read and shared, effusively and often histrionically, by her 100,000-plus followers.

In other words, Solnit is a certain kind of celebrity, if a reluctant one. ‘‘I feel that it’s really important to not depend on all this in any sense and not let this define my worth or work,’’ she said on the phone. ‘‘I wrote ‘Hope in the Dark’ 14 years ago. Am I somehow better or smarter now than I was then?’’ The answer, of course, is no. Strange as it is to say, Solnit’s newfound popularity reveals more about her readers than it does her. That the book, and her other suddenly timely work, was not written in the last several months, but rather years prior, makes its ideas seem even truer, giving it the veneer of sacred text. She has become a Cassandra figure of the left, her writing, which seems magically to have long ago said the things that many Americans now most want to hear, consumed as both balm and rallying cry.

Solnit, of course, isn’t the first author of ideas that now seem eerily predictive. Figures from recent literary pasts are often reclaimed as voices of cultural presents. Three paragraphs published in 1998 by the late philosopher Richard Rorty, which seem to have foretold the outcome of the 2016 election, went viral last fall, sending sales of the scholarly book in which they originally appeared, ‘‘Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America,’’ soaring. Eileen Myles’s decades-old poetry has been seized upon lately by readers newly curious about and sensitive to discussions of gender fluidity. The art critic and novelist Chris Kraus, once an obscure favorite of female bloggers, is now the inspiration for a critically acclaimed Amazon show. In Japan, Susan Sontag’s recently translated work has become, 13 years after her death, surprisingly popular, looked to as interpretive of the bewildering contradictions of American politics.

Paul Yamazaki, the head book buyer at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which published Solnit’s first book in 1991, adds the frank, genre-defying works of Kathy Acker and Jane Bowles to the list, but can’t quite conjure a unifying theory of what all of these authors share. ‘‘I wish I had one!’’ he laughed over the phone. ‘‘I’d be a much better bookseller if I did.’’ It’s worth noting, however, that these belatedly embraced writers seem to be mostly female. Perhaps it’s because no one listens to them the first time they speak.

There’s another reason, too, that we look to the past for our current intellectual decipherers and idols. In the Trump era, Solnit, who writes against corruption of all kinds — environmental, political, social — seems herself wholly uncorrupted: by these sorts of discussions of commercial popularity; by the harried activity of online life; by the social spheres of Washington, D.C., and New York City; by the aesthetic fetishization that so many women writers are subject to. ‘‘If you think of a kind of ecology of ideas, there are more than enough people telling us how horrific and terrible and bad everything is, and I don’t really need to join that project,’’ she said. ‘‘There’s a whole other project of trying to counterbalance that — sometimes we do win and this is how it worked in the past.’’ She continued, ‘‘Change is often unpredictable and indirect. We don’t know the future. We’ve changed the world many times, and remembering that, that history, is really a source of power to continue and it doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.’’

For years, Solnit has been traveling with photographer friends to Lake Powell, a massive reservoir on the central border of Utah and Arizona that was formerly a series of magnificent sandstone gorges known as Glen Canyon. She has written about the awe-inspiring industriousness that is responsible for the lake — its creation, by damming the Colorado River, began in the late 1950s, and it took 17 years to fill to capacity — but also about the hubris that imbues it; it is, she says, ‘‘failing quite spectacularly,’’ with water levels dropping significantly over the last two decades.

The excursions come as a relief. ‘‘Writing about the politics of this moment sort of feels like being stranded in the shallows, and means not writing about deeper cultural forces and longer timeframes in history,’’ she said. As the water levels of Lake Powell have dropped, the Colorado River has begun to re-emerge in some places. ‘‘It’s not exactly hopeful,’’ Solnit said. ‘‘But it’s something that’s neither victory nor defeat. That’s really interesting to me.’’

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August 9, 2017 at 03:03AM