Tag Archives: Katie Roiphe

What the F*ck is Katie Roiphe Talking About?

2 May

Claire Messud has written a novel that apparently features a character named Nora. Publisher’s Weekly posed the following question to Messud: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud responded:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

Cue Katie Roiphe:

Messud does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist, but she implies it, by listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro “for that matter” to make it clear that her list had been about men).

Though Messud implies that this lowbrow question about liking a character would never be flung at a male writer, this does not seem to be the case.

“Implies” is doing an awful lot of work here—as in a “Marx doesn’t say he hopes the bourgeoisie will crush the proletariat but he implies it” lot of work.

It hardly need be said—though apparently it does—that Messud’s point is not that the question is sexist but that it’s stupid.

The great characters of literature are a varied lot, but some of them fuck their mothers, others their stepdaughters; some of them kill pawnbrokers; some of them are so insistent on their moral duty that they threaten to bring down the whole world upon themselves and the people around them. These characters are histrionic, charismatic, brilliant, hateful, hilarious, charming, violent, vengeful, seductive, righteous, loathsome, impossible. They try our patience and amplify our condition. They expose the extremity of our estate.

What they don’t do is ask for our friendship. And we don’t ask it of them. Or at least we shouldn’t, says Messud.

How does Roiphe extract from that point an accusation of sexism? By claiming that Messud is implying that the writers—for the most part, all men—who created these and other characters would never have been asked this question about friendship. Yet Messud never comes close to saying that or even suggesting it. She simply points out the absurdity of looking for friends in a Roth or Dostoevksy or Pynchon character.

Yes, these authors are men, but the function they’re quite clearly serving for Messud is not to be men but to be the creators of the characters I’ve just described. Not even the creators: they’re the backdrop, the setting (a Roth novel, an Amis novel), in which these characters appear. (The syntax and set-up of Messud’s response also make this clear: not “Would you ever ask Martin Amis if…” but “Would you ever want to be friends with a character in a Martin Amis novel?”) I suppose Messud could have cited Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Zadie Smith, but most readers love Lizzy Bennet and might well imagine themselves having coffee with  Lily Briscoe or tea with Irie Jones, so the point would have been lost.

Roiphe goes onto chide Messud for missing an opportunity to answer the interviewer’s question in a different, more interesting, way.

It would have been possible for Messud to say something along the lines of “Well that was sort of the point of this character. She is very definitely not giving in to social expectations, she is not nice, not warm, not compromising, she is frustrated, simmering, full of unseemly longing, which is precisely why I was fascinated by her.” She could have turned the question into an opportunity to illuminate the low boil of anger or resentment at the center of the book, but it was perhaps easier, more fashionable, to imply “you would not ask a man that question.”

Yes, she could have. Which is probably why she did.

Here’s Messud in the sentences that immediately follow the ones Roiphe quotes above:

Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

And just a bit earlier in that same interview, Messud says this:

So yes, Nora Eldridge is middle aged and yes, she is angry….She has just emerged from a long period of suffering, the care for and loss of her mother to a hideous illness. She is trying—like each of us—to do the best she can.

As any of us approaches middle age, we inevitably come up against our limitations: the realization that certain dearly-held fantasies may not be realized; that circumstances have thwarted us; that even with intention and will we may not be able to set our ship back on the course we’d planned. This provokes different reactions in different people. Nora, thanks to [her new neighbors] the Shahids—or the Shahids and her imagination—has a glorious vision of life as she wants it to be. She feels it’s within her grasp. So you could say she indulges an illusion, for a time. The loss of which makes her angry—not just angry at the illusion, or at its loss, but angry also about the underlying limitations and failures that preceded the illusion, that precipitated it. Nora’s situation is not cozy or pretty, but it’s humanly true.

Now, all of these passages appear in the interview Roiphe chooses to hoist her theory of everything on. Where they don’t appear is in the brief Salon excerpt of that interview that I linked to at  the top of the piece and which Roiphe apparently based her musings on. I know it can be a chore to follow the links and read all of a writer’s words before you criticize them—believe me, I know—but if you want to have an ounce of credibility, even Roiphe credibility, you probably should.

Roiphe ends with this:

There is rife right now among writers a very ferocious feeling that books are not being read, that attention is not being paid, that the wrong questions are being asked…the world is full of interviewers who ask the wrong question, of attention paid to the wrong thing, of not being met on one’s own terms.

This one I’ll give to Roiphe: when it comes to being inattentive to a writer’s words, she knows whereof she speaks.

Dwight Garner: Meet George Orwell

30 Nov

Dwight Garner on Katie Roiphe:

Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: lean and literate, not unlike Orwell’s, with a frightening ratio of velocity to torque.

George Orwell on “Politics and the English Language“:

…banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation.

When Katie Roiphe and Dwight Garner keep me up at night

29 Nov

I spent last night tossing and turning over Dwight Garner’s review of Katie Roiphe’s latest book of essays. Garner’s praise of Roiphe’s prose is puzzling. This is a writer, after all, whose one talent is for making you like things you dislike just because she dislikes them (and vice versa); her voice and sensibility are that grating.

More puzzling, though, is Garner’s prose:

Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: lean and literate, not unlike Orwell’s, with a frightening ratio of velocity to torque.

Set aside, if you can, the comparison to Orwell. (I know, it took me a while, too.) The sentence makes no sense. As someone more literate in physics explained to me, the only situation in which a small amount of torque could produce a great deal of velocity (and thus a frightening ratio) is one in which the mass in question—i.e., the substance of the book—is extremely slight.

It’s a strange sort of compliment to say that a writer achieves the stature of Orwell by writing about things of little to no substance, particularly since the shallow end of the pool isn’t where Garner thinks Roiphe is to be found paddling.

It’s possible of course that Garner meant this as a sly critique. The more likely explanation is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and simply liked the sound of the sentence, meaning be damned. Which may, come to think of it, explain his affinity for Roiphe’s sentences.

(Garner’s comment immediately prompted Freddie DeBoer to go on a tear on my FB page: “Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: lithe and uncircumcised, not unlike prepubescent Phylis Schlafly, with an amusing ratio of worldliness to vertical leap.” “Ms. Roiphe’s are how you want your essays to sound: gimlet-eyed and bashful, not unlike Jerome K. Jerome’s, with a enervating ratio of sinew to pomp.”)

Anyway, this is what was keeping me up last night. Luckily I awoke this morning from unsettling dreams to find in my inbox this review, which some kind soul had sent to me.  It’s not perfect but it does have some lines that set my mind at ease.

Into this cacophony, with her hands over her ears, strides Katie Roiphe. “La la la, I cannot hear you,” she bellows, producing a body of criticism that presumes culture is determined entirely by things people have said to or about her. Though her book is entitled In Praise of Messy Lives (The Dial Press, 288 pp., $25), Ms. Roiphe’s mind is neat as a pin, untroubled by the unexpected inference, the awareness of mitigating factors in television or film or literature that might unmake her arguments. If contemporary writing has shown us the dangers of having too much information to consume, one does not miss the pre-Internet era when reading Ms. Roiphe, but one also wonders how, precisely, she is spending all her time.

But Ms. Roiphe’s previously published considerations of works of art and figures on the cultural scene comprise only a minor portion of this book. In Praise of Messy Lives is a strange animal, a collection of wildly different previously published works that fancies itself a statement of writerly purpose rather than a multifarious body of work. “I am aware that there are an unusual number of people who ‘hate’ my writing, and that I have done something to attract, if not court, that hatred,” Ms. Roiphe writes in her introduction, noting that her work has a common element, namely, “[t]hemes obsessively being worked through, a worldview, sometimes actively or perversely courting the extreme.”

“Courting the extreme” is, of course, not a theme so much as a behavior;…

“I can’t help thinking,” Ms. Roiphe writes like some gone-to-seed Carrie Bradshaw, “that this particular form of moral disapproval is related to our current madness about child-rearing, or desire for $900 Bugaboo strollers, Oeuf toddler beds, organic hand-milled baby food, and French classes, not to mention …” For now, enough. Of whom is Ms. Roiphe speaking? It is impossible to tell, exactly, because she cites no examples, not a single artifact, other than the shared experience of people she personally knows.

And so it goes: Ms. Roiphe argues that “we create a cultural climate” through “casual remarks made while holding a glass of wine”—and that would be all well and good in a book of personal essays. In writing that has the purpose of clarifying the “cultural climate,” though, a co-worker telling the author “You really do whatever you want,” or the aside, “I remember hearing somewhere: ‘You have one life, if that,’” only serves Ms. Roiphe’s eternal argument: in how she lives her life, she is in the right.

And now I can move onto my day.

Update (11/30, midnight)

Someone on Twitter just reminded me—and I’m kicking myself for having not seen this—that one of Orwell’s pet peeves in “Politics and the English Language” was the use of “not un.” Here’s the man himself: “banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation.” How perfect is it that Dwight Garner would use the phrase “not unlike Orwell’s”?


Making Love to Lana Turner on an Empty Stomach (and Other Things That Caught My Eye)

25 Jul

Kirk Douglas

In my first year of grad school, I read Naming Names, Victor Navasky’s study of the blacklist in Hollywood. That, and Michael Rogin’s The Intellectuals and McCarthy, made me a permanent junkie for all things McCarthy. The blacklist was a shameful episode in American history, but it had its bright spots.  One of them was Kirk Douglas, who helped break it by insisting that the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive the screenwriting credit for Spartacus.  The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is now honoring the 94-year-old Douglas with its Freedom of Expression Award. Douglas discusses his experiences with Spartacus—as well as being Jewish in Hollywood—here.  Best quote from Douglas: “I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked on the movie set, but I fasted. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to make love to Lana Turner on an empty stomach.”

A Sculpture of Two Women Kissing

Bill DeresiewiczOne of my favorite critics is Bill Deresiewicz. He’s got a newish book on Jane Austen, writes reviews for the Nation, and blogs at The American Scholar. “Severity of judgment is a great virtue,” wrote Blake, and Deresiewicz’s judgments are severe. But he’s also an irrepressible enthusiast, capable of a tremendous warmth and generosity of spirit that are infectious. As you can see in his take on who the real Greatest Generation is, and the monument to them he’d like to see in DC: “a sculpture of two young women kissing—right there, right on the National Mall.”

Terrorist or Talmudic Scholar

Islamophobia is hardly new, but the terrorist attacks in Norway have  shone new light on it and the hard-right ideologues in the US  (and elsewhere) who promote it. The attention is welcome, but this lead in today’s New York Times—in a piece strangely titled “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.” (“thought” seems an awfully fancy word for what goes on in those corners of the blogosphere; would the Times call something comparable “Anti-Semitic Thought”?)—caught my eye:

The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them, as well as copying multiple passages from the tract of the Unabomber.

“Warned” is a peculiar choice. Warnings tend to come from one of two quarters: those with authority (cops) or those with vision (Cassandras).  These racist anti-Muslim bloggers have neither. “Warned” grants them both, suggesting they are in a position to see something coming down the road that the rest of us can’t, won’t, or don’t see. That combination of “small group” and “for years” only enhances the suggestion, conveying a sense of a lonely band of brothers, prophets without honor in their own country, steadfastly preaching the word to those who can’t, won’t, or don’t listen.  Then there’s that “deeply influenced,” as if the terrorist were a Talmudic scholar, immersing himself in the texts of Ibn Ezra late into the night.

If you think I’m making too much of this, just imagine reading the following sentence about Mohamed Atta a few days after 9/11:

The man accused of leading the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was deeply influenced by a small group of Arab bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from American power…


One of the most painful scenes to behold is an encounter—a conversation, debate, colloquy—between  individuals of mismatched intellect. In the past week, I’ve had occasion to witness two.

Wendy KoppDiane Ravitch is an educational historian and former under secretary of education; Wendy Kopp is the founder of Teach for America. No one knows more about education in America than Ravitch; no one knows more about hucksterism than Kopp. Ravitch is sharp, Kopp a charlatan. The two were brought together at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Take a look, have a listen, and pour yourself a drink.

Janet MalcolmJanet Malcolm is one of the smartest, shrewdest, and most disturbing voices in American journalism today. Katie Roiphe made herself famous in the 90s with an anti-feminist attack on the idea of date rape, which Katha Pollitt summarily dispatched in the New Yorker. She has since tried to reinvent herself as a woman of letters.  She could give Norman Podhoretz—of Making It fame—a run for his money (except that Podhoretz really did hoist himself up the greasy pole of success; Roiphe has always depended on the kindness of connections). Malcolm and Roiphe were brought together by the Paris Review. Have a look, and pour yourself another drink.


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