THE ESSENTIAL ELLEN WILLIS sprung to life because of a remark by an irritated critic (is there any other kind?) in this very publication. At the end of her review of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the excellent collection of Willis’s rock criticism published in 2011, Sara Marcus called for another book of Willis’s writing, one that would showcase her political and cultural contributions beyond the parochial world of music writing. Marcus concluded,
Let’s see a major publisher bring out an Essential Ellen Willis anthology, uniting in one volume her strongest music criticism with the best of her political essays, offering once and for all a worthy testament to a writer who saw clearly how rock, sex, politics, and pleasure are intimately connected — not walled off from each other in ghettos, but occupying a brilliant landscape together, expansive, joyful, alive.
This is, and is not, that book. It does combine Willis’s music criticism with her political essays, but reunifying Willis’s work does not create the utopian landscape Marcus describes. At its best it feels like sex and drugs without the rock ’n’ roll — fun, but not quite transcendent, leaving you with a hangover and a vague sense of naughtiness with a dash of regret. At its worst, it is monotonous and overwhelming, all width and no depth: Willis is that person who keeps yammering about politics at a dinner party when the subject has been politely changed to restaurants.
Most unforgivingly, there are few moments of pleasure; much that is extraneous or just plain repetitive has been included here, diluting the strongest essays and inducing a weary frustration. By the end of 500ish pages I did not feel convinced of Willis’s importance but alienated by watching her hammer away at the same tropes for 40 years. (The book begins in the 1960s and ends with an excerpt from a long-form project Willis was working on at the time of her death in 2006.) Even I, a Willis fan, had grown contemptuous of her, a feeling exacerbated by the introductions interspersed throughout the chronological sections, which provide nothing but praise and awe. Ann Friedman, for example, in her introduction to Willis’s writings from the 1980s, credits her with “spotting the complacency” which marked the feminist backlash of that era: “Given the entrenched and intersecting oppressions of race and class and gender, we are all somebody’s enemy. A sobering reality. But, she points out, that means the reverse is also true: we are all allies. An intoxicating truth.” Friedman’s invocation of the holy trinity of progressive politics (race, class, gender) is hardly accidental: these are leftist obsessions, and the hierarchy of oppression is a major Willis worry. Yet they are also unsolvable problems, and 40 years of her dilating on them wears a body down.
To be clear, there are still admirable moments in Willis’s prose — her short essay on Tom Wolfe shimmers with them — but reading Essential cover to cover is an arduous task. Worn out by Willis’s stridency, I wanted to say: be a radical pro-sex feminist all day long, but please stop explaining why. And please, a bit more subtlety, especially in the parodies from the 1980s, like “The Last Unmarried Person in America,” a dystopian description of “universal marriage” and the passage of the “Down There Amendment.” There is an angry quality in Willis’s political writing, which is not to say her feelings have no provocations — being a feminist, especially in the last 20 years, would make even the most placid blood boil. Essential is not a dish too rich but a helping too generous to properly digest. It would have been better to do an encyclopedic, complete Willis or a slimmer greatest hits.
This superabundance can be blamed on Nona Willis Aronowitz, Willis’s daughter, who edited (or failed to properly edit) Essential. She was energized by Marcus’s call to arms, explaining her mother had really only written about music for seven years. Most of her work was political writing. “My mother would be mortified,” Aronowitz writes, that she was now better known for her views on Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin than on the women’s movement. What Aronowitz fails to do, however, is contextualize her mother’s work: a chronology of the major events of Willis’s life, at the very least, would be helpful. Though the book is arranged by decades, Willis often writes retrospectively, so we are left to puzzle together her time as an organizer in Colorado, her early days as a journalist, which radical feminist group she was with at which time, etc. It seems incidental that she changed her stance on marriage, which she is emphatically ambivalent about in her radical days. Willis had a short, early marriage that ended in divorce; her view in a 1979 essay on “The Family” was: “though I did not rule out marrying again if I had some specific practical reason, the idea bothered me the way the thought of signing a loyalty oath always had.” Then, sociologist Stanley Aronowitz is bafflingly identified as her husband in a contribution from him explaining Willis’s work at the end of her life. What happened to her belief (also from “The Family”) that is was “better [to be] alone than trapped?” Much of her life has to be pieced together this way: from a 1981 essay on a bus trip she took, her much earlier relationship with a married man, now remarried and religious, can be inferred. But why must we play these biographical guessing games? A list of the venues the essays come from would have also been helpful: there is a difference between the Village Voice and Social Text, which could benefit from some explanation.
As for her child — suddenly childcare is a major concern in an obnoxious, “why didn’t feminists care about this all along?” way, and that is our cue Willis is now a mother. In these days of helicopter parents and a general cultural obsession with children, this is somewhat refreshing. But it is also jarring. I do not mean to dwell on Willis’s personal life, since if this were a male figure, we probably would not hear, nor care, about his offspring at all. But the old feminist saw the personal is political gets a workout in Willis’s work, and having some sense of what happened and when in Willis’s personal and political lives would make the events in and progression of the essays less enervating and more informative.
I grant that there is the possibility of the problem with Essential being not in form but in content. To wit, Willis might have been too much a creature of her times for her work to make a satisfying collection. We simply have not processed the history she is covering in a meaningful way yet: the O. J. trial, the Million Man March, the war on drugs. Are they all still too recent to make for a coherent political program? Or is it that Willis, to her credit, remains steadfastly on the left throughout all of the changes and events she writes about, so monotony is bound to creep in after a few hundred pages? There is also the problem of making a program out of what are essentially occasional pieces. Essays, newspaper columns, personal observations are a great way into a time and a writer’s consciousness, but not necessarily a means to grand theorizations. It is unfortunate that Willis will never finish the unifying project Stanley Aronowitz tells us she was working on at the time of her death: an exploration of what she called the cultural unconscious, subtitled “Why We Need a Freudian Left.” One of the themes that runs through Willis’s work is an interest in, or a commitment to, psychoanalysis as a means of political analysis, though she was more free-love Reichian than buttoned-down Freudian in her thinking.
The major chord Willis struck in her deservedly famous piece on Dylan, which is included here, is that of apostasy. His turning away from folk music was a slap in the face; his embrace of rock ’n’ roll practically a murder (or a suicide?). Apostasy, or selling out, is not one of Willis’s sins. She remains true to the left as she interrogates it, a zealous believer in liberation and social change even as she watches American culture become way more conservative and much less compassionate. She deserves accolades for this adherence to principle, and a better book to demonstrate her rightful place among our most dogged critics.