The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love? When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds on what’s going to resonate with readers. There are so many wrong turns a book can take – even supposed sure-things. Mostly, when something strikes it big, we are left shaking our heads in wonder. Likewise, an author’s lack of success often has little to do with the relative quality of the writing. The truth is, there are so many good books that never see commercial success.
Recently, I have had the good fortune to read two great collections of essays back to back. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me. And based on the glowing reviews and, in the case of Jamison’s new book, a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list upon its debut, I’m not alone: readers in large numbers have already found their way to these titles.
Good books are inevitably compared to what’s come before – it’s an easy shorthand approach to putting new writing in context. A lot of very positive reviews of Jamison’s book have likened her to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. On their face, such descriptions are complimentary and all to the good. Yet, I keep thinking to myself that Solnit, rather than Jamison, would be the better exemplar of that type. Like Didion and Sontag, Solnit is omnivorous in her interests, responsible for a wide-ranging assortment of nonfiction books with nothing in common but the acuity of the mind behind them. Then again, why must one great female essayist be compared to another at all? These new books by Solnit and Jamison have nothing to do with each other.
Actually, on second thought, that isn’t exactly true.
The Empathy Exams deliver on the promise of the title. Jamison’s pieces center on the question: How do we view others’ pain and empathize, or not, with it? Within that sphere of inquiry, though, her essays cover a lot of ground. One of my favorites involves an ultra-marathon, called the Barclay, in which the point of the race is that very few of its uber-fit contestants actually finish. I also love her essay about the so-called West Memphis 3 (WM3). In the wake of their convictions for killing several young boys, the three young men of the WM3 became a cause celebre: Movies were made; Eddie Vedder and other high-profile celebrities got involved in advocacy for their release. Jamison tells the story without leaning one way or the other as she recounts the details of the case. Her account is moving and full of sadness for everyone involved. She’s adept at telling us a story about a story without telling us what to believe. Other pieces in her collection are much more personal in content and tone: her recollections of being robbed and having her nose broken; essays about time spent living in a foreign country, and about her work as a medical actor, and how those scripted personalities invaded her own life and mind.
The Solnit book, Men Explain Things to Me, is harder to categorize neatly. The first and title essay is both hilarious and maddening in its brutally accurate rendering of how some men treat women. The rest of the essays are in some way about violence — most often, violence done at the hands of men. As a man, her book is hard to read, because the facts are hard to argue. Yet I could feel my resistance as I read: No, that is not me. These aren’t men I know. But again and again and again it is. Or, at least, the sort of man Solnit offers up for view is part of us. The truth is inescapable: Men commit acts of violence against women, children and one another. It’s men’s aggression that forces women to walk strategically to and from their cars at night.
Solnit comes armed with a slew of statistics. She also tells stories of things that have happened to her or her friends. And yet, she is not interested in making monsters of men. Rather, she uses these bare facts as a lens for the rest of us to see what we’d rather not face, to sketch out a philosophy about cultures of violence among men that’s rooted in lived experiences.
I walked away from Solnit’s book with one question, in particular, rattling around in my head. In an essay on violence against women on college and university campuses, she asks (and I paraphrase): “Why do we have seminars warning women and scaring women and educating women? Why do we tell them not to be alone or not to leave their drinks alone on a table? Why do we tell them to lock themselves in? Why aren’t there more seminars with men, saying, ‘Don’t do this. It isn’t okay.’”
After these essay collections, in an attempt to balance the scales of my reading, I turned to some fiction. While doing time in the fifth layer of hell – a very long line at Minneapolis’ Lake Street post office – I was delighted to dip into the wicked and funny prose of Muriel Spark. Her portrayal of women in the 1940s in England reads as honest and real. Her novella, The Girls of Slender Means, is set during the war; as you make your way through the story, you bear witness to something awful that happens to characters you’ve come to love. That got me thinking about storytelling, and what separates the very real from make-believe. What is harder to digest: that which we know to be true or a story we have been told?
From Spark, I moved on to Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, a novel first published in 1932 about poor sharecroppers trying to make their way in hard times. Page by page, I found myself thinking of James Agee and Walker Evans’ 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Just last year a new book was published, written by those same men. Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Melville House) essentially serves as an addendum to the original text, but an important one, for the unflinching view on poverty and on the lingering harm such want inflicts on all involved.
So – fairly dark. All of it, real life and fiction, both.
But that’s not all I’ve been reading. I’ve been making my way through an old biography of the Negro league legend, Josh Gibson. In memory of the great Peter Matthiessen, I also began his most recent, and last, novel, In Paradise. There’s another I’d recommend to you, but it’s only available in Canada. For months, I have been wondering why Keith Hollihan’s wonderful novel, Flagged Victor, has not been published in the United States. Silly American publishers: stop being silly. Publish this book here and now.
I have also been listening to some old music from the band, Okkervil River. They take their name from a story by Tatyana Tolstaya, and because of my love for the one (the band), I have been led to the other. That is how it sometimes goes. Okkervil River has this one song that I could listen to on a loop: it weaves together the Beach Boys tune, “Sloop John B,” with the story of John Berryman and his death. There are some great Minneapolis references in the song, too. I admit, that last is an odd segue, but one that somehow works in the context of all these stories.
Finally, I am crashing through Rafael de Grenade’s Stilwater (Milkweed Editions), in which Arizona-born de Grenade takes off for the wilds of Australia to work on a remote cattle station. Her tale is so readable and the landscape so other (to me), that I want to do nothing but immerse myself in it. I have to force myself to slow down, to give myself space to allow myself the pleasure of her world seeping into my own — if only in my mind.
Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream.