Explaining the inexplicable

Paul Constant

September 18, 2017

At the end of a recent vacation, I decided to buy Hillary Clinton’s new election memoir, What Happened, at an airport bookstore. One bookstore didn’t have it in stock. I went to the NBC-branded shop near my gate and at first I couldn’t find a copy there, either. Finally, I found the book: it was high up on the bestseller wall, but someone had turned the display copy upside-down, in effigy.

You might think I’m being alarmist when I credit the awkward shelving of What Happened to malevolence, but it is the most obvious explanation. No other book was turned upside-down — not any of the novels, nor the right-wing screeds. It was just the kind of thing you can imagine a smug tourist doing as he prepared for his flight home: flipping the book and grunting with satisfaction before wandering off to examine the bags of snack foods.

In fact, I bet booksellers around the country over the last week have encountered any number of shelving incidents around What Happened: stacks of books placed on the wrong shelves and covered over with books written by conservative authors and plenty of other passive-aggressive acts. There’s probably a war of pettiness being enacted against Hillary Clinton in airport bookstores from coast to cast.

On my flight home, the man sitting to my right wanted to strike up a conversation. He took any opportunity to ask questions of me. While I generally don’t mind small talk, I loathe talking on planes: the cabin’s background noise is so loud that I have to ask people to repeat themselves several times and I always feel like I'm failing the person on the other end of the conversation. So I jam headphones in my ears and I cram my nose into a book and I wait for the flight to be over.

But the man was persistent. Finally, he asked me what book I was reading. I showed him the cover of What Happened.

“Uh-oh,” he said. He chuckled, uncomfortably. Then, more hesitantly: “Is that new?”

“Just came out on Tuesday,” I offered with a chipper lilt in my voice.

That was all I had to do. He didn’t bother me for the rest of the flight.

I bring these two stories up because they directly refer to the title of What Happened. Why did Hillary Clinton lose the 2016 presidential election? As she explains in the book, she lost for a lot of reasons: then-FBI director James Comey’s late-in-the-campaign intrusion, a media that refused to treat Donald Trump like a normal presidential candidate, and so on.

But Hillary Clinton is also the recipient of a very particular brand of hatred from certain men: she is the rare author who will inspire conservatives to go turn her books upside down on the shelves in a sad little act of rebellion. She has a name that can end conversations before they begin. To some men — and, yes, they are mostly men — Hillary Rodham Clinton is a disgusting human being who deserves to be punished. (Punished for what, exactly? Well, you know: Benghazi or e-mails or something like that.)

Clinton is at her best in What Happened when she talks about the loathing that some men lavish upon powerful women. Here, she explains the difference between sexism and misogyny:

We can all buy into sexism from time to time, often without even noticing it. Most of us try to keep an eye out for those moments and avoid them or, when we do misstep, apologize and do better next time.

Misogyny is something darker. It’s rage. Disgust. Hatred. It’s what happens when a woman turns down a guy at a bar and he switches from charming to scary. Or when a woman gets a job that a man wanted and instead of shaking her hand and wishing her well, he calls her a bitch and vows to do everything he can to make sure she fails.

Let’s be clear that misogyny isn’t the only reason Clinton lost. But if every man who tried in the past week to sabotage Clinton by hiding or obscuring stacks of her books in bookstores were to ask themselves why they hated her, I’m willing to bet that most of them wouldn’t be able to articulate a solid reason. They’re the people who most need to read that definition of misogyny, and they’re the ones who never will read it.

What Happened has already been pulled apart by dozens of reviewers, each with their own agenda. Progressives have admitted to being frustrated by Clinton’s refusal to endorse a single-payer health care plan. More conservative Democrats have criticized Clinton’s refusal to back away from so-called “identity politics.” Many others just plain don’t like Clinton’s tone: they want her to sit down, shut up, and never appear in public again.

The fact is, you will leave What Happened with the same opinions you bring into What Happened. Whatever your opinion was of Clinton at this time last year, that will be your opinion after reading What Happened: if you were a passionate fan, this book will stoke your ardor. If you thought she was a corporatist sellout, you’ll find plenty to confirm your suspicions here.

Clinton can’t find a single reason why she lost the 2016 presidential campaign. That’s because there is no single reason why she lost. It was the confluence of many events, combined with the once-in-a-century unpredictability of candidate Trump. The whole thing was, and is, a total mess.

By “the whole thing,” I’m referring both to the events of the 2016 campaign and the whole of What Happened as a reading experience. The book’s structure is at best confusing, at worst a mishmash of ideas in no particular order. It’s pretty obvious, given the accelerated publication schedule, that Clinton and her team rushed the book to shelves. (Those whining about Clinton publishing What Happened as an attempt to seize the spotlight from more worthy causes should at least acknowledge the important fact that she’s publishing the book well in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, when the Clinton-v-Sanders re-litigation could have potentially done actual damage to Democrats’ chances at the polls.) There’s no clarity here, either in content or in structure.

But in that way, What Happened is an accurate representation of reality. Clinton has no better idea of what happened than you or I. She’s piecing it together, figuring it out in public. Those willing to actually give the book a chance might find some solace in that fact. Clinton’s authentic bewilderment and outrage is our own. Those who rage against her attempts to figure the election out are really only hurting themselves.

Books in this review:
  • What Happened
    by Hillary Rodham Clinton
    Simon and Schuster
    September 12, 2017
    352 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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