Ellen Willis and Me

Revisiting the Work of a Critic’s Critic

On The Move: Ellen Willis at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, accompanied by her sister, Penny Froman (center) and cousin Judy Oppenheimer (far right).
Courtesy of the family of Ellen Willis
On The Move: Ellen Willis at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, accompanied by her sister, Penny Froman (center) and cousin Judy Oppenheimer (far right).

By Ezra Glinter

Published July 09, 2014, issue of July 11, 2014.
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The Essential Ellen Willis
By Ellen Willis
Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
University of Minnesota Press, 536 pages, $24.95

Ellen Willis died in 2006, but her voice still echoes in the culture.

Willis was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker, an editor and writer for the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, founder of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University and a feminist thinker of some renown. She wasn’t the most famous critic of her generation, but her political and cultural essays retain their relevance decades after they were written.

A few weeks ago I went to a book party celebrating the release of “The Essential Ellen Willis,” published in May by the University of Minnesota Press. The event was held at Galapagos, a modestly swanky venue in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.

The tone of the evening matched the space. Willis’s daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, the editor of the collection, served as master of ceremonies, and selections were read by writers who contributed introductions to the volume: Irin Carmon, Ann Friedman, Spencer Ackerman, Cord Jefferson and Sara Marcus. Other New York media types clustered in the darkness. Tavi Gevinson, the 18-year-old editor of Rookie magazine, was said to be in the building.

There are good reasons for Willis’s popularity. In a moment of feminist confidence — the #yesallwomen hashtag being just a recent example — Willis’s bold, affirmative feminism has more currency than ever. At the same time, with issues such as abortion, contraception and equality in the workplace still unresolved, her critique of cultural conservatism still has its sting.

Plenty of people have written about these aspects of Willis’s work, and about others. Her complex, forceful writing on a range of knotty issues, including pornography (she was against censorship), Zionism (she called herself an anti-anti-Zionist) and psychoanalysis (she was a big fan of Wilhelm Reich), made her a challenging writer. Her insistence on the validity of her own experience, and her oft-repeated demand for freedom and pleasure, made her an exhilarating one.

Willis was a notable rock critic, and when a previous collection of her writing, “Out of the Vinyl Deeps,” was published in 2011, I wrote a piece on that aspect of her career myself. So instead of rehashing the biographical overview, the career summary, the hits and highlights, I’d like to write about something else: what Willis means to me, personally, as a critic. In other words, indulge me for a bit while I talk shop.


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