When Katie Roiphe and Dwight Garner keep me up at night

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”?



  1. Sarah November 29, 2012 at 11:57 am | #

    “our current madness about child-rearing, or desire for $900 Bugaboo strollers, Oeuf toddler beds, organic hand-milled baby food, and French class”?????Roiphe is an even more loathsome Maureen Dowd, with her devil-may-care “we.” Most people have genuinely messy lives because of the profoundly inequitable society in which we live.Roiphe seems to think that nonconformism is letting the nanny go home early and parking the kid in front of Spongebob while she drinks her third martini.

  2. Bart November 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm | #

    You cut her off after “French classes” – Did she go on to work in “Heritage Mayonnaises”?

  3. Ed scott November 29, 2012 at 2:36 pm | #

    the torque, velocity sentence might have punch if seen as follows; it’s like she’s doing 90 mph in second gear. If she doesn’t blow the transmission first, she’ll plow through any impediment till every wheel, cog and passenger is pulverized,
    It’s like saying her rants peddle to the metal, the friction is smoking and he might want to get out.

    • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg November 30, 2012 at 2:27 am | #

      But to talk about the “frightening ratio” that way seems to imply that the ratio is *high,* and thus torque is *low*. High speed, but with *low* force. So we’re talking about a car without much power, that somehow managed to get up to a very high speed.

      (Maybe it’s going downhill? Or maybe it just took a frighteningly long time to accelerate to that speed? Sounds more frustrating than frightening, though.)

      I think the phrase is embarrassingly meaningless either way, but he must have just meant “combination” rather than “ratio.” Both velocity and torque are (presumably) supposed to be positive attributes of literature, and the tone here is unqualified praise.

  4. Maggie November 29, 2012 at 11:01 pm | #

    Ugh, I hate her writing so much (though I like her sister, mother, and cousin’s stuff, if the internet cares!) The comparison to Orwell and the word “lean” are both so perverse. This is a woman who I suspect adds extra adjectives to her prose after the first draft just for for fun. I’m convinced that the ghost of Orwell cries over her writing MORE than that of Judith Butler, since Butler is at least trying to make important points.

    However, there’s a certain sense in the fact that a review of a bullshit author contains a bullshit metaphor.

    OK, now I’m all worked up too.

  5. Deborah Newell Tornello November 30, 2012 at 7:18 am | #

    The velocity of certain mediocre writers’ ascent to fame and ubiquity really torques my hide.

  6. Aaron November 30, 2012 at 11:02 am | #

    I haven’t read Roiphe, but the excerpts posted here remind me of the Drunk Uncle sketch on SNL’s Weekend Update, only lacking a sense of irony.

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