What do you want to hear when everything is apocalyptic and embarrassing, ridiculous and cruel?
Since the 2016 election, more people than ever are talking about things I care about. And yet it all falls just short of what I’m desperate to hear. So much explicitly political work comes close, but it doesn’t land the way I’d hoped or strikes a self-congratulatory note that feels premature in the wake of continuous bad news.
Lindy West’s new essay collection, The Witches Are Coming, could have veered into that territory. West’s one of the High Priestesses of the 2010s Very Online cohort, an early cornerstone of website Jezebel and a once-ubiquitous Tweeter who has gone on to be an instantly recognizable voice in a liberal commentariat. But even if the ground she covers is well-worn, both by herself and by others, West’s voice remains vital. Her collection is fresh and engaging, never remaining at a self-righteous distance from the absolute mess we’re all living through.
The opening essay is adapted from her 2017 column for the New York Times titled “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You,” and from there she writes about climate change, Adam Sandler, feminism and the experience of adapting her 2016 memoir Shrill into a Hulu show. In the fantastically titled essay “Ted Bundy was Not Charming—Are You High?,” West picks apart society’s willingness to let men, including those who literally murder scores of women, be likable while women only get the chance to be likable if they are willing to contort themselves around the many demands of patriarchy. In “A Giant Douche Is a Good Thing if You’re a Giant,” she uses South Park to explore the toxicity of nihilism and the bankrupt idea that believing in nothing somehow makes it okay to punch down. In “The World is Good and Worth Fighting For,” which discusses the Pacific Northwest and the need to address climate change, she notes that in her own lifetime the summer snow that once topped the mountains on the horizon is gone—one of those heartbreaking realizations that identifies how the world around us is already changing.
In a time when it’s easier than ever to find pro-choice, pro-environmentalism, pro-labor messaging anywhere from presidential candidates’ platforms to Instagram, what makes West different? What sets her apart when the causes she’s long championed have hit the mainstream? The reality is that West helped shape our current discourse; even though she’s off Twitter, her voice is so interwoven with the way we talk on the platform that it’s easy to forget she’s not marinating in it all day.
West’s writing is spot-on not just in politics, but in style. She can be hyperbolic yet exacting—able to craft a long sentence into a fillet knife of an insult. But she’s just as likely to dispense a single “Cool!” or “Great!” at the end of a paragraph detailing one of the many horrors taking place around us and those perpetrating them. She punches up with such dismissiveness of her targets’ self-importance that reading her work is as cathartic as a conversation with your wittiest friend after a couple glasses of wine.
But here’s the essential piece of the puzzle: West does not let herself be swept away by her own rhetoric. She’s adamant that things must change, not just the people in power and the structures which support them, but in culture, media and how we think about how we got here. And she’s just as quick to puncture any delusions about the power of words alone; in an essay on her memoir-turned-show Shrill, she writes, “Yes, I’m a witch and I’m hunting you, and so on, but catching you doesn’t liberate fat people any more than trapping one fox makes chickens immortal.” In a time full of opportunistic retweet-baiting “Let’s show the President what we really think,” overblown fandom directed at career public officials and optimism about how art will save us all, West’s unwillingness to feed any mythos about the power of words alone in the face of fascism is a glimpse of reality.
It’s a bleak reality, but it’s reality, nonetheless.
You can make the case that West, who has long been targeted by online trolls and disparaged because of her fat and feminist activism, will always be preaching to the choir. This collection doesn’t change that; she comes down hard on the inherent immorality of conservatism, for example, and even though she’s willing to cut Adam Sandler a bit of slack, few others she sets her sights on get the same treatment. But West’s not out to win over the other side. Instead, she’s hammering a stake into the cultural and political landscape.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.