“Shrill” is a gendered insult, as Lindy West points out early in her memoir. In using it for a title, she alludes (primarily) to the criticisms levelled at Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, when the bulk of this book was written. “Shrill” is a word applied to women with opinions stated loudly – and that should give you a pretty good idea of what Shrill is all about.

Shrill - Lindy West - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Shrill here.
(In my opinion, using the affiliate links on this page to make purchases is awesome, because it helps me keep the lights on.)

In this collection of personal essays, West combines cultural criticism with reflections on a life lived in a fat female body. Topics range from shyness to body image to rape jokes to break-ups to movie villains to abortion to airlines, so Shrill covers a lot of ground. West’s style lands somewhere between Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby – in fact, I’d love to go to brunch with all three of them. I doubt I’d get a word in, but I’d have a fabulous time.

In between taking aim at misogyny and revealing highly embarrassing personal secrets, West offers moments of penetrating insight. My personal favourite: “In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you,” (page 19-20). Any feminist who’s really looked at the lyrics to their favourite hip-hop jam will relate.

You’ll want to have a bookmark handy for the chapter How To Stop Being Shy In Eighteen Easy Steps. I plan to re-read it every time I feel a full-body cringe coming on, remembering something I’ve said or done in the past. It’s one of the most uplifting personal essays I’ve ever read, and it comes from a place of radical vulnerability. In essence, it’s thesis is that you’ve survived everything that has ever embarrassed you, so you probably shouldn’t waste so much energy on feeling embarrassed.

Undoubtedly, though, the pièce de résistance of Shrill is the chapter(s) dedicated to confronting the internet troll that impersonated West’s dead father on Twitter. You might recall her segment on This American Life, back in 2015, where not only did she have a conversation with the man, but she recorded it and shared it with the world. It’s a remarkable act of bravery, for both of them, and it’s a masterclass in compassion (for others and for oneself).

Shrill has aged surprisingly well, given how far culture has come over the past eight years; it was published pre-Covid, pre-#MeToo, and pre-a lot of other stuff that has moved the needle considerably in that time. The only part that struck me as truly quaint and outdated was one of the final essays, where West writes about the (then) CEO of Twitter conceding that they’d done a terrible job of monitoring and moderating the platform, and vowing to do better. Little could West have known how truly unwieldy that platform could become in the hands of an unhinged billionaire desperately seeking external validation from the big boys on the playground.

The thing is, I didn’t find Shrill to be a particularly funny book, despite all the blurbs and reviews calling it “hilarious”, “uproarious”, and “laugh-out-loud funny”. Don’t get me wrong, Lindy West is funny, and this isn’t meant to be levelled as a criticism. Just like I didn’t find Shrill romantic or scary, I didn’t find it funny. I did, however, find it thought-provoking, and galvanising, and insightful, and surprising, and honest. All of these are wonderful things that don’t need to make us snort-laugh. If you’re looking to chuckle, look elsewhere, but if you want to feel strong and powerful, pick up Shrill.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Shrill:

  • “vicious. for lesbians. all men all criminals.” – Erard Gilles
  • “this book is garbage and only winning awards due to an agenda like Obama’s Nobel Peace prize.” – Al Clark
  • “Awful book, it’s just cry-baby rhetoric. No real facts to counter abortion, just her ‘fweeings’.
    In fact, this book is an abortion itself.” – PJ
  • “What an immature, immoral, selfish woman!!” – Judy