The writer Rebecca Solnit has a way of writing essays that are of the moment, but then the moment of their relevance rises again. She's published more than 20 books, including anthologies of those essays, Hope in the Dark among them.
Solnit is unapologetically of the left, writing for an audience of progressives. That 2016 anthology, published the year President Donald Trump was elected, features an essay about hope written during George W. Bush's presidency, a meditation that felt very much of the moment in 2016.
Hope, Solnit wrote, isn't a belief that everything will turn out fine—it's the determination to work toward a better future, although that future is inherently unknowable, “an account of the complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”
Solnit, who also wrote Men Explain Things to Me in 2015, is acclaimed as a feminist thinker, and is credited with inspiring the coining of the term "mansplaining."
Solnit's Nov. 13 appearance at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur was announced quietly, as the $20 tickets sold out almost as fast as they became available; the audience in the intimate bookstore space was just 27.
It was advertised as "Rebecca Solnit in conversation with special guest," and the identity of that guest remained under wraps until the moment she appeared in the bookshop in front of the audience: actor Emma Watson, who famously played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies.
(Watson more recently played Belle in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, a role about which she said Wednesday she has "mixed feelings" for how it portrays women in relation to men.)
Watson was accompanied by a professional film crew at least a half-dozen people strong, with lighting and cameras set up around the perimeter of the normally rustic Henry Miller Library bookstore. Solnit and Watson spoke through microphones—for the benefit of the film audience, not the live audience, where conversational volume would've been adequate to hear each other—a tough dynamic for that intimate environment. (A single question from the audience—also through a microphone and, full disclosure, from me—was also asked through a microphone.)
Solnit presented Watson with a map of the New York City subway system, with place names that are named after famous men revised to be named after famous women. "We still live in a manscape, and changing that was really inspiring," Solnit said.
Solnit spoke briefly about her forthcoming memoir, Recollections of my Nonexistence, and Watson about her role as Meg in the forthcoming Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig.
In a Q&A for nearly an hour, the duo touched on sex and power, social media, and Solnit spoke extensively about "the democracy of communication," or treating each person's voice as equally worthy.
But that emphasis on voice/voicelessness was ironic, given the presence of the film crew. As an audience member, I felt blindsided by the arrangement, as if I was there as an extra in someone else's movie that I'd never agreed to be cast in, nor even told exactly what it was.
No one introduced or explained the film project, and it was only after the talk, when Solnit and Watson had left the room, that audience members were invited to opt out if they didn't consent to being in the film. (In the two days since the event, two of the 27 audience members have; I am not one of them.)
I know what the film is for, only because I asked one of the members of the San Francisco-area film crew after the event: They are recording videos of Watson doing author Q&As for her Goodreads book group, called Our Shared Shelf. (There'd been another similar film made with a different author the night before in Los Angeles.)
Members of Our Shared Shelf, with 227,800 members, read one book every two months; they started Solnit's Whose Story is This? on Nov. 1.
"As part of my work with UN Women, I have started reading as many books and essays about equality as I can get my hands on," Watson writes on the Goodreads page. "There is so much amazing stuff out there! Funny, inspiring, sad, thought-provoking, empowering! I’ve been discovering so much that, at times, I’ve felt like my head was about to explode…I decided to start a feminist book club, as I want to share what I’m learning and hear your thoughts too."
My thoughts, for Watson and Our Shared Shelf members: I appreciate when celebrity power helps promote important ideas and thinkers and books. But when you invite an audience to be part of your show, you should at least invite them to actively consent to participate—especially when you're talking about consent and power, and democratizing our voices.