The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West
Published by Hachette Books
Publication date: November 5, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Essays, Humor, Non-fiction
So fine, if you insist. This is a witch hunt. We’re the witches, and we’re hunting you.
November and December are my months of backlist reading—the time of year when I abandon ferreting out great new reads from publishers and instead read based on my mood or other people’s recommendations. By-and-large the 2020 iteration has meant nonfiction and fiction about crime and thrillers. However, I stumbled upon Lindy West’s The Witches Are Coming and felt as if it’s one more nonfiction choice I need to share. It’s an incisive, fiery look at the world today from the vantage point of a woman tired of the status quo. If that’s something you’d rather not contemplate, avert your gaze.
West is a writer and contributor to the New York Times. Despite living in Seattle for five years (where she lives) I had not heard of her or read her writing before. She wastes very little time stating her case in this collection.
We must not just examine but actively counter the disastrous, narcissistic death grip of mediocre white men on our past century’s art, media, and politics.
Well, all right. No mincing words there. West goes on, in 17 succinct essays to strip the walls, pull up the floorboards, and in every other construction metaphor I can think of, pulverize the foundation of the insidious societal bias towards white males. Unfortunately for those who fall in that category she has an easy target in America with the current president. She makes quick work of him and turns her ferocious gaze on the entertainment industry where 94% of film executives are white, 96% of directors and 76% of writers are men. She questions whether several big names in acting would be so big if they were women or people of color.
The Witches Are Coming is not simply a flaming diatribe against white men. West’s intellectual curiosity leads her beyond gender and into wealth and politics. She goes to a ‘health’ expo presented by Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand. There she learns that the higher the admission price paid the more health you’re entitled to—included potentially basking in the supernatural glow of Paltrow herself. The essay Do, Make, Be, Barf is one where West’s sharp humor shines as she goes so far to attempt living by one of Paltrow’s diet cookbooks. A feat that costs more for food in a week than most people spend in a month.
Politically, West doesn’t hold back (surprise!). After first recognizing that liberals are imperfect and with their own set of policy and attitude problems she offers a scathing repudiation of the current Republican party. She succinctly sums up where we are now:
Political parties do tell you what they are and what they think a society is for, maybe not in their words but always, always, always in their actions.
It may sound as if this book is a minefield of topics guaranteed to cause discomfort, and in some ways, it is, because many of us have contributed to where we are today—even if only by being unaware. It’s the awareness that I found to be the best part of The Witches Are Coming. West made me think and in doing so put words to feelings and/or experiences I’ve never articulated. In both my personal (dating) and professional life I was often told to smile more and be nicer. Personally, I was able to shrug it off a bit more even if it stung. Professionally, it came at a cost and was not so easy to ignore. West’s take on likability is one that resonates.
So, no, excuse me, we will not play likability anymore. It’s an endless runner—a game with no progress and no finish line—that women are expected to chase, that keeps us from doing the real work, accruing real power. Chasing likability has been one of women’s biggest setbacks, by design. I don’t know that rejecting likability will get us anywhere, but I know that embracing it has gotten us nowhere.
She feels, instead that “witch” is a moniker we should embrace.
“Witch” is something we call a woman who demands the benefit of the doubt, who speaks the truth, who punctures the con, who kills your joy if your joy is killing. A witch has power and power in women isn’t likable, it’s ugly, cartoonish. But to not assert our power—even if we fail—is to let them do it. This new truth telling, this witchcraft of ours, by definition cannot be likable. We cannot pander or wait for consensus; the world is too big and complicated and rigged.
The Witches Are Coming isn’t easy reading, but it is energizing. West expresses clearly what, for many of us, has been a morass of bottled-up feelings. She illuminates the darkness in subjects we might prefer to ignore and in doing so, sounds a call to action. Acerbic, thought-provoking reading for anyone interested in better understanding how we got here and what needs to change.
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