I learned about Shrill piecemeal, from excerpts and readings on podcasts and NPR, and I assumed that it was a collection of West's excellent online writing, maybe with a light rewrite to bring it all together — on the lines of, say, Kameron Hurley's must-read Geek Feminist Revolution. I thought it would be one of those great books to dip in and out of, reading an essay, putting it down, picking it up, reading another.
Boy, was I wrong.
I picked up Shrill from my teetering pile on Friday, thinking that I had a few minutes that I could productively spend with West's work. West is a comedian and comedy-writer, I knew that I'd be getting something funny; she's also political as hell and unapologetic about it, so I knew I'd be getting something energizing, too. But what actually happened was that I proceeded to read Shrill in every spare moment I had for the rest of the weekend, until I finished it, yesterday afternoon, with tears rolling down my cheeks.
Shrill is composed of essays that stand alone, and these essays contain lengthy quotes from her online work, but it's much more than that: it's a story, one that sets some deep hooks early on and yanks them out without mercy in the final third.
It's the story of how West became one of the strongest, most uncompromising and most humane writers online: how she learned to talk about being a fat person, a woman, a funny person, a person who's had an abortion, a person who thinks rape jokes are bullshit — while being targeted for vicious harassment by some of the meanest, most broken people online.
It's a remarkably frank and fearless book. West breaks all the cardinal rules of web-writing, especially rule number one: never tell the trolls that they got to you. In so doing, she plumbs the trollish psyche with enormous delicacy, empathy and insight, and connects the online harassment of women to the wider social questions of misogyny.
One of West's claims to fame is the time she confronted a troll who impersonated her beloved, recently dead father on Twitter, and ended up engaged in constructive dialog with him. This episode, which you may be familiar with, is an excellent microcosm for the book: West being convulsively funny while talking about something deadly serious in a way that sheds much-needed light on it.
As these essays are threaded together by West into the tale of her adult life, she lays down a template for how to talk across deep divides to create dialogues with people who do bad things, but who are not, themselves, irredeemable. Her contributions to the fierce and awful debate about whether rape jokes are good comedy are a prime example of this. West's essays and tweets about the subject — which asks comedians to confront great hurts they have thoughtlessly caused to many in their audience — led to her being conscripted as a spokeswoman, and then a hate-figure. Her response to the outpouring of threats and vitriol that followed was so stark and irrefutable that it actually changed the debate.
Throughout Shrill, West shows herself to be anything but shrill: canny, never cunning; brave, never boastful; empathic, but never compromising.
If you want to read a book about dead serious issues that will make you laugh your ass off, and then leave you thinking for weeks afterward, this is it.
Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman [Lindy West/Hachette]
(Author photo: Jenny Jiminez)