Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. Hachette Books, 2016. 9780316348409.
Sarah: You sound reluctant to talk about this.
Gene: I’m so nervous! I think I told you when I was reading it that I didn’t realize how much of Lindy West’s work I had read and admired over the years. And she’s been appearing on the local KUOW radio show The Record, which I listen to regularly.
S: I’ve read her stuff in The Stranger, her stuff gets published in The New York Times…
G: I used to read her movie reviews regularly, too. I remember when she exploded at Dan Savage for his treatment of overweight people in his Savage Love columns.
S: I’m sort of sorry I didn’t read that at the time. I read The Stranger on and off, but knowing Dan Savage’s personality, if he’s your boss, standing up to him — the MOST opinionated person, the most sure of himself — wow. That’s huge.
G: It was amazing. I remember reading about her engagement. About her then-fiance asking her to marry him publicly because she’d said that fat girls never get the big proposal.
S: The big, romantic gesture.
G: Yeah. That’s in the book, too. Plus I remember the story about her taking on and then meeting one of her internet trolls.
S: Yeah, it was on This American Life.
G: It’s all in here. It’s full of incredibly well-written, very funny personal essays, that start with her life as the basis for something broader.
S: Yeah, the subtitle is Notes from a Loud Woman, but I was surprised at how personal it was. It’s not a book about being a woman, it’s a book about Lindy West. Certainly her experiences as a woman, but… I mean she and I live in the same town and have approximately the same ethnic background and (laughs) there’s not much in here I can apply to my life!
S: I mean, the ideas, definitely, but her life is very different from my life. She’s not everywoman.
G: I don’t think she’s claiming to be that.
S: No, she isn’t. But I came into this book thinking this would be a “this is us” kind of statement and it’s not. It’s a “this is me” statement, which I love, and I love her. She’s definitely one of those people where I’m really proud she’s from Seattle.
G: I was telling you, I’m a little afraid to talk about this book, as a white guy, right now.
S: Yeah, right now.
G: With all the sexual harassment shit that’s coming out, particularly about comedians, and she hits on that in here. I just don’t know how to talk about that any more. I feel reluctant…it’s probably better for me to listen right now. And read! So maybe it’s relevant that I really enjoyed this book?
S: I think it’s reasonable to say, and it’s a thread in John Hodgman’s Vacationland, there’s a time when, as a white guy, you realize that the way you think about yourself, the way you think about the trajectory of your life, is based on the fact that every protagonist of every book looks like you. Of course you’d think everything revolves around you. Hodgman had the realization that he wasn’t the center of the world. When he came to Seattle to talk about the book, one of the things he mentioned was that what he can do is amplify the voices of people who don’t get heard the same way that he does. I think that talking about Lindy West’s book is a thing you can do. Not that she needs your validation, but you’re amplifying.
G: For me, it’s less about… I’m not an issues book reader. I don’t read essays much. This book was just a tremendously great read. It was really fun, her voice is so good and the writing is so amazing.
S: It reads like a more politically-aware David Sedaris book. It’s incisive and it’s fun to read.
G: I really liked Amy Schumer’s book, the way she wrote about her dad and her childhood in particular. Lindy writes about her dad as well, and his death.
S: And that plays a role in the troll story.
G: That was just brutal. For me, books live or die on being great reads. I couldn’t have sustained myself through a book of essays about anyone I didn’t like. And I like Lindy West.
G: It makes me think about… she writes about how hard it is for her to travel by airplane, how everything’s designed against her. Spaces just aren’t designed for people her size. I was telling you about the last time I was uncomfortable about someone sitting next to me on an airplane, it was this bodybuilder guy who was well aware of his size. He sat down in the middle seat between me and another average dude and sat forward in the most uncomfortable position throughout the trip so that his giant triceps were not knocking into my head. I felt pretty bad for him but also thankful. I’m sure I had that “oh no” reaction when he sat down that West describes, though I was not as badly behaved as the guy she describes. But her book will make me think twice and have more sympathy for big folks, I hope.
The part that really got to me was her taking standup comics to task for their rape jokes. I re-watched the debate she had with Jim Norton on the W. Kamau Bell’s TV show. I have to say agree with her. There’s no call for those jokes. Words do have impact. And it’s punching down — that was the thing she pointed out that got me. You can’t make fun of folks with less power than you. Her example was that a CEO can’t make fun of a janitor because a janitor doesn’t have any power. The CEO can’t make fun of him for trying to feed his family.
G: And she’s not arguing that there’s no right to make those jokes, but that it’s a bad idea. It’s stupid. It’s a shitty thing to do.
S: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about freedom of speech issues, and that’s definitely an issue, but I think you’re going to get more traction, you’re going to get more actual change from people by saying, “Do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think that doesn’t hurt?”
S: Andrew Ti commented, on Twitter and elsewhere, that there are jokes being made by guys where the premise of the joke is that, “I’m a good guy, I’m not a racist, I’m not a sexist, isn’t it funny that I’m saying these terrible things anyway?” The thing is, the rest of the world doesn’t know that, we don’t know that you’re not racist or not sexist, or even not violent. Especially not if we’ve just met you. So it’s not funny, there’s not this mental comedy switcheroo that you think is happening because you’re a good person.
G: I think comedians are pretty transparent about working though their material, and bits do go wrong when they’re trying to choose their words, trying to hone them and their acts, but at the same time nobody is willing to say, “That was the wrong way to put it, I fucked up, sorry.” No one is willing to come out and say it. She takes Patton Oswalt to task, there’s bits in here about how she let Louis CK off the hook… She analyzes some of the jokes, and her arguments are compelling. But I’ve got to admit I found myself nodding along with Jim Norton when I watched the debate. I don’t disagree with him. I do think you can make a joke about anything. I think you’re allowed to, it’s that First Amendment thing.
S: Yeah, yeah.
G: So nobody’s going to stop you, the comedian, from making a shitty joke. But it’s shitty, and maybe more of us are realizing that.
S: They are two different arguments. People think you’re making one, but maybe you’re actually making the other.
G: What was your favorite part of Shrill?
S: Really, Lindy West is just so funny. She’s so warm and sympathetic. I feel like a lot of cultural commentators don’t go out of their way to be as sympathetic. I want to hang out with her. If I was at a party, I would totally want to hang out with her.
G: I would be a little terrified. I’m always afraid to meet writers I admire.
S: Yeah, that too! She’s so smart! And awesome! She’s the embodiment of all the things I wish I had said.
G: Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.” I read that and I was like, “Fuuuuuuck!”
S: I know! The perfect crystallization of that thought. All the things that, if I was a million times smarter, I would have said. Because we’re feeling it and she crystallizes it and it’s beautiful. If she chooses to write a novel, if she chooses to write a screenplay, all of her talent will go into it. Anything she writes, I will read.