Book Reviews
2:24 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

A Second Posthumous Collection From Rock Critic Ellen Willis

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 2:54 pm

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Ellen Willis was the first rock critic for The New Yorker is. She was also a radical feminist writer and activist. Her work appeared in the Village Voice, where she was a columnist, as well as in Rolling Stone and The Nation.

Willis died in 2006 and an award-winning posthumous collection of her rock music essays was published in 2011. It was edited by Willis's daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, who has just brought out a second collection of her mother's work. This collection is more focused on her explicitly feminist culture criticism.

Here's book critic Maureen Corrigan's review of "The Essential Ellen Willis."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Essays on sexuality, abortion rights, child care, the future of feminism and even Monica Lewinsky, the good news is that with minor tweaking many of the essays collected in "The Essential Ellen Willis" could've been written yesterday. That sort of bad news too, of course, because it means that the feminist revolution that Ellen Willis helped ignite and gave such an intense voice to has been awfully slow in fully arriving.

To read Willis's essays now - some of them written 40 years ago - is to feel frustrated, challenged and yeah, re-inspired by Willis's distinctive outlook of tough optimism.

"The Essential Ellen Willis" is a comprehensive collection of essays Willis wrote for outlets, including the Village Voice, Newsday, Descent and The Nation from the 1960s through 2005. Along with those of us who first read some of these pieces in an earlier life, I can think of a lot of my students from recent years - mostly young women, of course, who would just inhale these essays.

Part of what makes Willis perennially compelling is that she was a utopian thinker, the rigorous rather than the hippie dippy kind now beloved of 1960s detractors. Though, she probably wouldn't love the comparison to a 19th-century patriarch, I think she had a lot in common with William Morris, the British Socialist and artist. Morris...

...the comparison to a 19th century patriarch. I think she had a lot in common with William Morris, the British socialist and artist. Morris insisted on bread, roses and dancing in his revolution, and so did Willis. Sexual pleasure is a big theme in her thinking and writing. Morris wrote a fantasy novel in 1890 called "News from Nowhere," in which he insisted that the most liberating design for living was the commune, an idea Willis embraced, too.

Although, unlike her Victorian predecessor, Willis didn't assume that women would naturally gravitate to the domestic chores of housekeeping and cooking. In her long essay entitled "The Family: Love it or Leave It" that first appeared in the Village Voice in 1979, Willis makes an impassioned, rational argument for the commune over the traditional nuclear family.

A particular advantage, Willis says, is that communal childrearing shared by both sexes would remove the element of martyrdom from parenthood. In another essay called "The Diaper Manifesto" written in 1986, after she had become a mother, Willis makes a related argument for affordable childcare centers set up and controlled by the parents, workers and local communities who use them.

Willis concludes that essay with a call for parents and caregivers to hash out a genuinely radical vision of how to bring up children. She points out we have nothing to lose but our lonely and deadening privatism. You don't have to agree with all of Willis' visions - and certainly parent-run childcare gives me pause - to be provoked by some of the alternative ideas she offers.

Likewise, you can selectively graze through this expansive collection. I would skip the plot heavy review of "The Sopranos" from 2001 and, though it's heresy to say so, I found Willis' famous essay on Bob Dylan published in Cheetah magazine in 1967 way too long and winding and insider-ish. In contrast, the 1980 essay from Rolling Stone on Janis Joplin and how she controlled - or didn't - her sexual image as a female rock star is an enduring treasure.

After reading so many of Willis' essays in concentrated fashion, I've come to think her power as a writer didn't derive so much from a poetic way with words as it did from the passion of her arguments and her first-person witness. Thus, an extended essay called "Next Year in Jerusalem" that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1977 is riveting, because Willis is so real about her own vulnerabilities.

She writes of traveling to Jerusalem to talk her younger brother out of his infatuation with Orthodox Judaism and being swept up herself - Ellen Willis, radical feminist. Surely, some of the allure was the communal living thing again. Willis wryly says living with Orthodox Jews was like being straight at a party where everyone else is stoned. After a while, out of sheer social necessity, you find yourself getting a contact high.

You can get a contact high from reading "The Essential Ellen Willis," too. If you breathe deep, these essays are still capable of making you dizzy with possibility.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Essential Ellen Willis" edited by Nona Willis-Aronowitz. The Civil Rights activist and historian Vincent Harding, who also wrote Martin Luther King's famous speech against the war in Vietnam, died Monday. Coming up, an interview with Harding from our archive. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.