Olivia Laing describes her latest book, Everybody: A book about freedom, as one about ‘bodies in peril and bodies as a force for change’. I would describe Everybody as a biographical project, about people whose work engaged with the ideas of bodies and freedom in the twentieth century. This might seem like a subtle difference, but it’s an important one: had Laing conceptualised and framed the book in the latter way, I think Everybody would be a less frustrating read. As it stands, Laing’s biographical writing, while insightful and rigorously researched, ends up feeling like an (admittedly deft) avoidance tactic; Everybody sets out to be a book that takes a hard and uncomfortable look at the topic of bodies and their roles in the pursuit and denial of freedom, but it doesn’t quite dare to do so directly. It ends up being a book about people who have.
Liz Byrski’s introduction to Women of a Certain Rage is, among other things, a homage to second-wave feminism and a lament that feminism, ‘originally a radical countercultural movement’, has been ‘distorted into a tool of neoliberalism’. While there is no doubt that strains of feminism have been co-opted by neoliberalism to debilitating effect, this narrative – that feminism has become ineffectual since the 1970s – is one that erases many contemporary feminisms, as well as broader feminism-informed political movements and the work that they have done and continue to do.
Catherine Cho’s Inferno is the first ‘motherhood memoir’ I have read since reading Maria Tumarkin’s essay ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers (2018). The topic of motherhood has been ‘overly melded’ to memoiristic writing, Tumarkin argues; it feels ‘too much like a foregone conclusion’.
The writerly ‘I’ is notoriously fraught and political in non-fiction writing. What are the implications of writing from a biased and limited perspective (as all of us inevitably do)? How to get around – or work within – the constraints of the personal? These questions are ethical ones but also ones of craft. Many memoirists and essayists have grappled explicitly with them on the page.