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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When people ask me what I do, I’ll often wind up giving some grand speech about criticism. I’ll say that different kinds of writers express their experience in different ways. Fiction writers re-create the world in imaginary form, while memoirists describe their lives to the reader directly. Critics write about all kinds of subjects, but through the prism of their own experience. Our creativity lies in the space between the objective thing and the subjective encounter, in writing that is about both the world and us. At this point, I’ll usually ask my listeners if they’ve heard of Ellen Willis.

Perhaps more than anyone, Willis is responsible for my aspirations as a critic. Although I never met her, she founded the program at New York University’s graduate school of journalism where I was privileged to hash out such lofty notions for three semesters. Mostly I am indebted to Willis through her writing, and through the possibilities for criticism that it represents.

In her introduction to the volume, Willis Aronowitz writes: “Mom would have a hard time crafting her ‘brand’ nowadays. She was intellectual but not academic. She was a journalist but not primarily an ‘objective’ reporter. She poached from her life and detailed her thought processes without devolving into memoir.”

I would hope that a writer of Willis’s caliber would find her “brand” no matter what. But there’s no denying that her kind of criticism would have a harder go of it today.

Writing has always been a competitive sport — who can say the most, the best, the quickest. But the Internet has changed things. Quicker is quicker, more is more, and best, well, you do your best under the circumstances. Occasionally some website will figure out a new trick — a new way to compose a listicle, or a new way to write a headline — but soon everyone else piles on and the trick devolves into parody. After a while it feels like we’re all just sprinting along at superhuman speed, going nowhere.

Willis illustrates a different kind of ethos. Reading her work, and seeing the esteem in which it is held by others, restores my faith that quality, in thought and in style, counts as much as anything else.

Like all great critics, Willis’s writing rewards reading in bulk. Going through her essays means spending time with her ideas, her intelligence, her expressive yet controlled voice. Reading Willis’s pieces together gives you a sense of her values and of the refinement of her thinking over time. You see her essential principles come to the fore — that however righteous a political position may sound, we need to examine its effect on our lives; that you should question your own experiences but never discount their value; that concern for your own interests doesn’t need to contradict the interests of others.

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