The Essential Ellen Willis
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
From pioneering rock music critic Ellen Willis, iconoclastic essays on politics and culture
The Essential Ellen Willis gathers writings that span forty years and are deeply engaged with the times in which they were first published and yet remain fresh and relevant amid today’s seemingly intractable political and cultural battles. Whether addressing the women’s movement, sex and abortion, race and class, or war and terrorism, Ellen Willis brought to each a distinctive attitude.
Out of the Vinyl Deeps, published in 2011, introduced a new generation to the incisive, witty, and merciless voice of Ellen Willis through her pioneering rock music criticism. In the years that followed, Willis’s daring insights went beyond popular music, taking on such issues as pornography, religion, feminism, war, and drugs.
The Essential Ellen Willis gathers writings that span forty years and are both deeply engaged with the times in which they were first published and yet remain fresh and relevant amid today’s seemingly intractable political and cultural battles. Whether addressing the women’s movement, sex and abortion, race and class, or war and terrorism, Willis brought to each a distinctive attitude—passionate yet ironic, clear-sighted yet hopeful.
Offering a compelling and cohesive narrative of Willis’s liberationist “transcendence politics,” the essays—among them previously unpublished and uncollected pieces—are organized by decade from the 1960s to the 2000s, with each section introduced by young writers who share Willis’s intellectual bravery, curiosity, and lucidity: Irin Carmon, Spencer Ackerman, Cord Jefferson, Ann Friedman, and Sara Marcus. The Essential Ellen Willis concludes with excerpts from Willis’s unfinished book about politics and the cultural unconscious, introduced by her longtime partner, Stanley Aronowitz. An invaluable reckoning of American society since the 1960s, this volume is a testament to an iconoclastic and fiercely original voice.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
There’s only one word for Ellen Willis's work—exhilarating! Her essays combine passion and moral clarity, anger and a steady commitment to having fun. Best of all, she channels the secret ecstatic undercurrents of late twentieth-century American popular culture, which we need now more than ever. This anthology is espresso for the feminist soul.
Ellen Willis was one of the few great critics of her generation. She was theoretically sophisticated, historically informed, and courageous in her commitment to freedom. Her prose was lyrical and melodic and she was always unsettling!
Fearless sweet reason, exacting style, and an unbounded sensuous spirit make Ellen Willis’s radical essays among the finest that America has ever produced.
It’s incredible that decades after it first made waves, Ellen Willis’s writing is still as relevant as ever. From abortion and parenting to music and politics, Willis’s cultural critiques stand the test of time and fascinate over and again. The Essential Ellen Willis reinvigorated me and reminded me why I do the work that I do. It should be required reading for anyone interested in feminism, politics, and everything in between!
Gathering 53 career-spanning pieces, this is an act of reclamation, a reminder of what a piercing and brilliant writer Willis was.
Los Angeles Times
Willis often finds her stride in complexity, and here she intricately examines and interrogates the notions of freedom she holds dear. It’s a moving example of a wonderful mind at work.
One of the great pleasures of The Essential Ellen Willis is watching the journalist and critic figure out how feminism translates into daily life, both for herself and for other women. Willis is intellectually rigorous and deeply idealistic, but also very fun–and her combination of curiosity, wit, skepticism, and enthusiasm grounds her work firmly in the real world.
New York Magazine’s The Cut
Achieving the kind of lucidity that never flees complexity was always her goal. Spotting the antipodes hidden in seeming allegiances—and vice-versa—was one of her specialties. Re-encountering insights and stray observations of Willis’s that had stayed messily filed in my brain for 30 years or more was an ongoing pleasure.
The American Prospect
These essays aren’t ‘relevant’ in the sense that you could print them now without an explanation, or in the sense that they’re on-trend with current feminist discussions. But they’re immensely important, because they’re signposts in the evolution of a writer and of a movement.
In These Times
Reading Ellen Willis’ criticism has always been simultaneously invigorating and depressing for me—invigorating as a reminder that feminist thought can be radical and liberating and nuanced, but depressing when viewed against a 21st-century feminist landscape that too often prizes self-purification and bad-faith consensus over critical thinking and powerful ideas, which have come to seem like two more nice things we can’t have anymore.
To read Ellen Willis now reacquaints you with those attractive or pervasive fictions that obscure real power relations and halt progress.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Part of what makes Willis perennially compelling is that she was a utopian thinker, the rigorous rather than the hippie dippy kind now beloved of 1960s detractors. These essays are still capable of making you dizzy with possibility.
‘The Essential Ellen WIllis’ is just that: Essential.
Text Zur Kunst
Her writing is lucid, sociological, yet big picture, and it’s willing to go deep and personal about not just what the music meant to her, but also the words.
The Pitchfork Review
With a clarity of thought and the kind of fury that pangs and never scabs over, Willis diagnosed, snarled, and illuminated what she considered to be a central plague of her day: the way our economy limits our creative and cultural expressions.
Her complex, forceful writing on a range of knotty issues 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.
No one sounded like Willis then, and no one sounds like her now: wry, playful, humble, genuinely searching, intellectually formidable.
New York Times Book Review
As befitted her exceptional minority, Willis went on to transcend her entrance through the cellar’s back door and become one of the most significant writers in an era when rock writers turned into brilliant public intellectuals.
The Buffalo News, Editor’s Choice
As a feminist media scholar, I was especially struck by Willis’s commitment to recognizing the range of pleasures found in media consumption and sexual practice rather than resorting to easy vilification.
The most delightful thing about Willis is her consistent championing of the pleasure principle; she was a passionate proponent of sexual freedom throughout her life and a generous, idealistic spirit whose staunch enthusiasm for personal liberty remains infectious, and empowering.
Stunning, provocative, erudite, fun, challenging, witty, dire, brave, and above all incisive.
Jenny McPhee, author of A Man of No Moon and No Ordinary Matter
Willis was an extraordinarily clear thinker about things that matter.
A remarkably beautiful, bullshit-free passage.
[Ellen Willis] was virtually incapable of writing a poor sentence or conceiving an unsurprising insight. Her rigor was unmatched, her fearlessness an inspiration.
Throughout her work there is an unflagging sense of hope, a belief in the idea that a better world can be achieved through collective effort and social and political transformation.
Women’s Review of Books
Her rigor was unmatched, her fearlessness an inspiration. In every piece, wit lilted like an aria over a basso continuo of moral seriouisness.
Introduction: Transcendence Nona Willis Aronowitz
The Sixties: Up from Radicalism
Introduction Sara Marcus
Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal (US Magazine, 1969)
Dylan (Cheetah, 1967)
The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning (The New Yorker, September 1969)
Women and the Myth of Consumerism (Ramparts, 1970)
Talk of the Town: Hearing (The New Yorker, February 1969)
The Seventies: Exile on Main Street
Introduction Irin Carmon
Beginning to See the Light (Village Voice, 1977)
Janis Joplin (Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’ Roll, 1980)
Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life (Village Voice, May 1979)
Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen (Rolling Stone, August 1976)
The Trial of Arline Hunt (Rolling Stone, 1975)
Abortion: Is a Woman a Person? (Village Voice, March and April 1979)
Abortion Backlash: Women Lose (Rolling Stone, November 1977)
Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography (Village Voice, October and November 1979)
The Family: Love It or Leave It (Village Voice, September 1979)
Tom Wolfe’s Failed Optimism (Village Voice, 1977)
The Velvet Underground (Stranded, by Greil Marcus, 1979)
Next Year in Jerusalem (Rolling Stone, April 1977)
The Eighties: Coming Down Again
Introduction Ann Friedman
Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution (Social Text, Fall 1982)
Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex? (Village Voice, June 1981)
The Last Unmarried Person in America (Village Voice, July 1981)
Teenage Sex: A Modesty Proposal (Village Voice, October 1986)
Sisters under the Skin? Confronting Race and Sex (Village Voice Literary Supplement, June 1982)
Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism (Social Text, Summer 1984)
Escape from New York (Village Voice, July 1981)
Coming Down Again: After the Age of Excess (Village Voice, January 1989)
The Drug War: From Vision to Vice (Village Voice, April 1986)
The Drug War: Hell No, I Won’t Go (Village Voice, September 1989)
Handle with Care: We Need a Child-Rearing Movement (Village Voice, July 1986)
To Emma, with Love (Village Voice, December 1989)
The Nineties: Decade of Denial
Introduction Cord Jefferson
Selections from Decade of Denial (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
Ending Poor People As We Know Them (Village Voice, December 1994)
What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about The Bell Curve (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
Rodney King’s Revenge (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
Million Man Mirage (Village Voice, November 1995)
Monica and Barbara and Primal Concerns (The New York Times, March 1999)
Villains and Victims (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
’Tis Pity He’s a Whore (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
Is Motherhood Moonlighting? (Newsday, March 1991)
Say It Loud: Out of Wedlock and Proud (Newsday, February 1994)
Bring in the Noise (The Nation, April 1996)
Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity (Don’t Think, Smile!, 2000)
The Aughts: Our Politics, Ourselves
Introduction Spencer Ackerman
Why I’m Not for Peace (Radical Society, April 2002)
Confronting the Contradictions (Dissent, Summer 2003)
The Mass Psychology of Terrorism (Implicating Empire, edited by Stanley Aronowitz, Heather Gautney, and Clyde W. Barrow, 2003)
Bringing the Holy War Home (The Nation, November 2001)
Dreaming of War (The Nation, September 2001)
Freedom from Religion (The Nation, February 2001)
Our Mobsters, Ourselves (The Nation, March 2001)
Is There Still a Jewish Question?: Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist (Wrestling with Zion, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, 2003)
Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope (Dissent, Fall 2005)
Escape from Freedom: What’s the Matter with Tom Frank? (And the Lefties Who Love Him) (Situations, 2006)
Three Elegies for Susan Sontag (New Politics, Summer 2005)
Coda: Selections from “The Cultural Unconscious in American Politics: Why We Need a Freudian Left”