The Brilliant Career of Rebecca Solnit

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 10:00 AM

Rebecca Solnit’s West

The prolific writer and scholar locates the epicenter of our changing world on the left coast.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit's new book is The Faraway Nearby.

Courtesy of Sallie Dean Shatz

Typically, the term “outsider artist” describes a particular kind of creator whose identity resides outside the boundaries of the widely held idea of who creates art—notably, outsider artists are often mentally ill, criminal, or very young. Since Roger Cardinal coined the term 40 years ago, many other labels have sprung up to describe the work of artists on the edges of the mainstream (indie, alternative, DIY), but true outsider art resides beyond the fringes of a market niche, in the dark chasm of the unseen, the unheard, and the unlabeled.

What to call, then, an artist like Rebecca Solnit—an independent scholar who has produced 17 books on topics varying from visual art to disaster politics, but who is by no means a household name? Solnit has a dedicated readership, but her claims and ideas often radically challenge mainstream beliefs and systems. She belongs to no institution or organization, and her work often has the idiosyncrasies of an autodidact. Her outsider tendencies are even present in her style: Her circuitous, associative, indirect mode of argument doesn’t conform to the standard assertion–evidence–analysis routine of most research-based writing. Solnit is, decidedly, somewhat other.

For many writers this position might long ago have become a liability, but Solnit has transformed her outsiderness into an asset. In particular, it’s helped her develop a compelling and unique position on her great subject, the American West. The West is a kind of lodestone for Solnit; even when she’s writing about other subjects, her ideas tend to begin or end up here. Take this passage from 1997’s A Book of Migrations, a travelogue of a journey through Ireland:

“In the West and even more particularly in the Western, silence is a sign of strength. Ireland has a different conversational economy, one in which the ability to talk well is a gift and perhaps even a weapon, for the political disenfranchisement and powerlessness of the Irish people and the Irish language under an English government are often described as silence.”

Though the volume is an exploration of Ireland as a landscape and a political entity, here we are discussing the West—and Westerns! This easy allusion to the West crops up again and again. For Solnit, in this book and in others, the West is either a subject itself or a fulcrum used to help unearth new ideas and unusual analysis.

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Perhaps this subject is so productive for Solnit because she is of the West yet outside it at the same time. She grew up in the Bay Area and currently resides in San Francisco, but in works like 2000’s Hollow City, she emphasizes her remove from the region’s changes over the past two decades. That book, a collaboration with photographer Susan Schwartzenberg, is an account of the first dot-com boom in San Francisco. In it, Solnit weaves anecdotes and images of late-1990s neighborhood-gentrification with accounts of the more sinister and systematic ravages of the same neighborhoods under the guise of “urban renewal” in the 1970s. It’s a damning critique of San Francisco’s newly wealthy, and as close to a polemic as Solnit gets.

Solnit fleshes out and contextualizes her examination of the West in River of Shadows, which won a 2003 National Book Critics Circle award and tells the story of Eadweard Muybridge (essentially the inventor of motion photography) and his pivotal relationship with Leland Stanford, then the governor of California. Here Solnit is cooler, emotionally, and also more comprehensive:

“Part of the modern world came from California, and this part was and is an amalgamation of technology, entertainment, and what gets called lifestyle. … Perhaps because California has no past—no past, at least, that it is willing to remember—it has always been particularly adept at trailblazing the future. We live in the future launched there.”

She goes on to observe that Hollywood and Silicon Valley—California’s two most visible centers of industry—have changed the world from “a world of places and materials to a world of representations and information, a world of vastly greater reach and less solid grounding.” Unlike, say, Jaron Lanier or Evgeny Morozov, Solnit doesn’t have an insider’s comprehension of the nuts and bolts of this transformation. She does not engage with technology at a granular level. She simply suggests—elegantly and through almost every topic she takes up—that we are in the midst of a sea change, and that the West is its center.

 Solnit has approached the mythic West from an impressive range of angles: through California Cold War artists (Secret Exhibition, 1990), through American Indian history (Savage Dreams, 1994), through photographic exegesis (Yosemite in Time, 2005), through cartography (Infinite City, 2010). Not every book of Solnit’s, however, has the West as a grounding element. There’s a subset of her work that leans more toward memoir, though that label isn’t entirely accurate. And when Solnit’s distance collapses—when she relies on purely personal material, that is—she can become too abstract, as in one of her best-loved books, 2006’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Field Guide is a study of the many ways the state of being lost can occur, rooted in Solnit’s memories and in occasional literary criticism. The prose is pure lyricism, as in this description of the view from Mount Whitney:

“As you step up to the ridgeline, the world to the west suddenly appears before you, a colossal expanse even more wild and remote than the east, a surprise, a gift, a revelation. The world doubles in size.”

Note that the idea, west, is still here, but it’s tellingly lowercased. It’s as if Solnit is describing her own personal, internalized version of west—a “surprise, a gift, a revelation.” Interesting and beautiful, to be sure, but rather pale in comparison to the oracular eye she brings to the larger, iconic West. The book lacks the edge of one like Wanderlust: A History of Walking, a 2001 Sebaldian exploration of landscape tempered by occasional critique of American car culture. Where Wanderlust had politics, Field Guide has only poetry.

Solnit’s new book, The Faraway Nearby, is being marketed as a companion piece to Field Guide. That’s an accurate description, both in content and in spirit. Faraway is another mostly personal book— it deals with Solnit’s mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Solnit’s own breast cancer scare, and her trip to Iceland for a writing residency. The book is a lovely one that, not unlike Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, may bring many readers catharsis or consolation. But its universality feels somewhat hollow. One loves Solnit more for her intelligence and her uprightness than for the broadness of her appeal.

Perhaps my trouble with both Field Guide and Faraway is that in them, Solnit no longer plays the outsider. There’s nothing more universal than a meditation on the human body, after all. And while there are many ways in which Solnit is not a true outsider artist—she’s engaged with a larger writing community and tradition, her work is widely distributed, she is not isolated or institutionalized—when she’s positioned as somewhat at odds and apart from her subject matter, her prose takes on an urgency that’s electric. She’s not railing at the gates in these more personal books, and stacked against her larger body of work, perhaps it’s unavoidable that they feel less immediate.

Last fall Solnit published an essay in the London Review of Books exploring the connection between San Francisco’s current tech boom and the Gold Rush. In it, she took the city’s prosperity to task:

“The Bay Area is once again a boomtown, with transient populations, escalating housing costs, mass displacements and the casual erasure of what was here before. I think of it as frontierism, with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually."

Here is Solnit at her most stimulating: pointed (even outraged), grounded in history, observing from the outside. We’re back in the West, too, and Solnit’s long study of it produces an easy familiarity here; she’s not afraid of repetition or colloquialism. Will Solnit’s message get through? Being invisible—or worse, ignored—is the risk an outsider takes. But the more specifically and critically she grapples with the systems and people that form the West today, the more crucial Solnit’s writing gets. Her message is one that a city with a tech-booster mayor, with an economic engine disinterested in supporting the arts, social justice, or community, with a guiding ethos of the quick, the flashy, the “disruptive,” and the virtual, needs to hear.

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The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Viking.

S.J. Culver is a writer, teacher, and tenant's rights counselor living in San Francisco.

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