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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At the end of her life, Willis was at work on a book titled “Cultural Unconscious in American Politics,” the unfinished portions of which are published at the end of this volume. Here you can see Willis assembling a grand theory of modern civilization, arguing that increasing freedom from patriarchal repression has resulted in authoritarian backlashes — Nazism and fundamentalist religion both enter the picture — but the forces of conservatism haven’t been able to put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube.

Writing pieces like this — pieces that still stand up decades after they were written — didn’t come easily. Willis was known to have been a scrupulous, exacting writer. According to a caption underneath a draft of an early Bob Dylan essay, she spent seven months composing the piece.

With current economic pressures it’s harder than ever to support this kind of work. Willis felt these forces herself during her lifetime. In a depressingly prescient piece published in 2000 and titled “Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity,” she lamented the diminishing support for creative work, the adjunctivization of academia, the shrinking of journalism and publishing, and the demotion of writers to interchangeable “content providers.” Reading her recollections of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, when she could support herself with sporadic writing while living in a $50-a-month apartment, is enough to make any writer struggling with ballooning New York City rents break down and cry.

Of course there are many writers still producing great work. Willis Aronowitz cites the anthology’s contemporary contributors as proof that “in a world where deadlines come by the hour and writing two thousand blog-words a day is the norm there’s still a place for journalism that’s ruminative and not reactive.”

Still, you have to wonder if collections like this one won’t be harder to come by 10 or 20 years from now — if Willis-grade talents won’t be squandered writing thousands of forgettable blog posts.

I feel fortunate to work for a newspaper that allows my colleagues and me to aspire to serious in-depth writing, a newspaper that encourages criticism as a literary form. It’s a rare thing these days, and therefore all the more valuable. It’s something I’m sure Willis herself would have appreciated. Now the task is to live up to her example — and that is no small trick.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Contact him at glinter@forward.com or follow him on Twitter, @EzraG

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