When you think about Great Thinkers—those old white men with their Great White Thoughts on politics, society, morality, religion, science war—you’ll gradually recognize how they’ve tried to sell their thoughts to the entire world. And yet not a single one could sell their ideas with the passion and verve of E. Jean Carroll, the eminent Elle advice columnist.
Carroll’s new memoir/manifesto, What Do We Need Men For?, is a master class in making a person believe. Perhaps it’s because she has years of experience solving real problems, keeping her grounded in a way others cannot, extraordinary life notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s because she was an amazing journalist before she was an advice columnist, a job that demands empathy and ego, creativity and truth, all the hallmarks of a potential polemicist. It’s definitely because she has the voice—the stylized, unmistakable, read-her-writing-about-anything kind of voice—to make a reader want to pick up whatever she’s putting down.
Carroll’s book offers a modest proposal: we eliminate men. Poof, gone! Carroll’s smart, though; she knows this proposal is tough to take, as the radical ones are, and What Do We Need Men For? is her attempt to answer that question before she does anything drastic.
Her first lesson? Give agency to the people you want to convince.
Stopping only in towns named for women, dining only at restaurants named for women, eating groceries and drinking wine named after women, Carroll travels the United States in a Didion-like quest to get a big answer to her big question. She asks women from all walks of life; she even asks a few men! She receives pushback; she receives answers; she receives support; she even changes minds.
Which brings us to her next lesson: if you want people to see your way, show them what you’ve seen.
Threaded throughout Carroll’s travels are her own experiences, built around The Most Hideous Men of My Life List. Always written in bold so it’s easy to pick out, these men make for compelling case studies, showing the damage we could avoid if we take her proposal to heart. They are handled with a swashbuckling ease, even in the face of rape and grievous assault, even when that rape comes from a future President in a Bergdorf’s dressing room. And they are enraging. Carroll strikes chords that should reverberate in any empathetic person, which makes selling the proposal of turning men into chemical scrap seem like a good idea.
Carroll’s makes you feel that way because she has a voice, which brings us to number three: if you want to write something that changes the world, you better be able to write!
Her rhetoric flashes by with the speed and power of a Formula 1 car. Fantastically written but so friendly to follow, and broken up with lists and photos, Carroll’s book is readable in a way the Great Thinkers are not and can never be.
In the end, Carroll herself even softens her stance, which brings us to her final lesson: do not think you have all the answers, keep the ego on an extendo-leash, and take to heart the suggestions of those you are trying to reach just as you’d have them consider yours.
I won’t reveal her final solution; you’ll need to hear her out for that. What I do know is that in the end it is pretty damn fair, all things considered, and the capital required need not come from crowdfunding or her pocket alone.
After all, I can think of a few hundred thousand dollars walking around that could be put to good use for once.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Verge, The Atlantic, Quartz, Hazlitt, VICE Sports, Chicago Magazine, Sports Illustrated, New American Paintings, the Myrtle Beach Sun News and numerous other publications.