I have to be careful here. What I disliked the most about Lucy Ellmann’s book of “essays,” Things Are Against Us, is that much of it reads like intemperate off-the-cuff ranting about things Lucy Ellmann doesn’t like. (These include electricity, men, travelers, Americans, bras, crime fiction, people who object to her ill-informed criticisms of crime fiction, and teenaged girls who make or watch YouTube videos about their morning routines.) If I start ranting intemperately about the book, I won’t be doing any better myself! But at the same time I honestly don’t think Ellman’s screeds are either stylish or substantial enough to warrant the time it would take to respond thoughtfully and meticulously to each one.
I certainly laughed at some of the acid humor and sharp one-liners in Things Are Against Us, and Ellmann addresses topics about which most of us are probably also concerned: racism, sexism, climate change. She deals primarily in hyperbole, though, and her favorite literary devices are long lists and irruptions of ALL CAPS, neither of which constitutes an actual argument and both of which quickly get tedious. (An example from the essay “Ah, Men”: “MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH.”) I was intrigued by the concept of the essay “Three Strikes,” inspired by Woolf’s Three Guineas, but within a page or two it was clear that Ellmann’s version would have none of the artistry, complexity, subtlety, or surprise of Woolf’s:
Patriarchy did this.
These people hate us! These people are trying to kill us! I don’t know why we’re all so goddam nice about it, but nothing is ever done about the way men carry on. Instead, it is feminism that is for ever in retreat.
OK, yes? but also, no? Not no to every claim, not no to anger at patriarchy, but no to wanting to be yelled at about it for pages, especially because I already basically agree. Woolf is furious in Three Guineas but her prose, her design, is never anything but sophisticated. The book’s title essay says nothing of any real interest but Ellmann capitalizes THINGS every time, so I guess that’s clever or funny or something. “The Woman of the House,” about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie series, seemed the most thoughtful and grounded of the collection; the one on bras was kind of amusing; the five pages generalizing angrily and ignorantly about crime fiction and its readers strongly suggest Ellmann had either no or very weak editors.
“In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to shticks,” Ellmann says at the outset of the collection: “let’s complain.” That’s really what this book is: it’s performance art, posturing, venting. Ellmann can write like this, publish the results, and convince people to pay for them because of who she is, not because what she’s offering is either good writing or good thinking. Some readers will certainly enjoy it because it is, in its own way, entertaining. I think I would have been more able to take pleasure in the spectacle if Ellmann didn’t seem so self-satisfied, didn’t hold herself up (especially but not exclusively in those insufferable pages about genre fiction) as such a special contrarian snowflake. We get it: you aren’t taken in like the rest of us sheeple!
I bought Ducks, Newburyport a couple of years ago because my curiosity about it overcame my skepticism. So far I have started and stalled out in it three times. I am determined not to let Lucy Ellmann be the reason I give up on it altogether, even though in every interview with her that I’ve read I have been put off by her posture of superiority and Things Are Against Us more than confirms all my previous bad impressions. Could the person who says and writes these tiresome things actually write a novel that transcends the snarky small-mindedness of the persona they project? I want to believe that’s possible: I have always argued that someone’s writing, someone’s work, can be better than they are. I think there’s hope for all of us in that idea, given how imperfect we all are. So I’ll keep Ducks, Newburyport on my shelf. I need to let my irritation with Things Are Against Us fade before I try it again, though. It might take years.
I am grateful to Biblioasis for the review copy. I hope they don’t regret sending it along. All publicity is good publicity, right?