What the F*ck is Katie Roiphe Talking About?

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.


  1. agentmule May 2, 2013 at 10:18 pm | #


  2. Pat Dolan May 2, 2013 at 10:28 pm | #

    Well, a lot of Pynchon’s characters are merry anarchists, but I imagine this is just exactly the sort of thing that makes him glad he stayed out of the interview biz.

    I live in Iowa City, where there are readings four or five nights a week. You hear a lot of stupid questions if you attend them. One of my favorite moments was Annie Proulx’s response when someone asked her if it bothered her to kill off a character she liked. No, she said, they’re characters in a book, not people. She’d kill any character, any time, if that’s what the work required. She said she didn’t like characters, she made them up.

    I gave her points for not actually saying, “you dumbass” at any point during the response, but then, she really didn’t have to.

  3. Mich May 3, 2013 at 11:20 am | #

    Didn’t Mr Rodgers ask Richard III to be his neighbor?

  4. John Doe May 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm | #

    I agree that “implies” does a helluva lot of work here. Miracle work. Roiphe is acting like a fool who is concerned with scoring points, truth be damned. Remember that time when she wrote that “the similarities between the moral syntax of Randianism and of fascism become clear”? No? Well, she tacked it on the end of this clunky sentence:

    “The ‘it’ in question is the German nation, not the Randian individual. But if we strip the pronoun of its antecedent–and listen for the background hum of triumph and will, being and nonbeing, preservation and elimination–”

    Total fucking hack. You’re spot on; Roiphe needs to actually study her subjects before writing about them.

    (You wouldn’t want Alyosha as a friend? I would’ve thought a neo-Marxist would’ve found him charming. Or is it Smerdyakov that’s more your type?)

  5. Hampus May 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm | #

    Isn’t her shtick cashing in on being a female reactionary? My guess is she just crow-bars it in wherever she can.

  6. Mara May 3, 2013 at 4:50 pm | #

    What is this ‘Katie Roiphe’ that you’re always going on about? Is it something from Brooklyn, or Manhattan, or Connecticut? Does it live on Salon.com?
    It doesn’t sound like it’s worth anyone’s time.

    However, as always, I support your sustained and incisive efforts to out the ever-venal and -obtuse conservative marbling of liberalism, in all its over-exposed, over-paid, festering morass.

  7. Michael Allan Slaughter May 4, 2013 at 12:01 am | #

    C’mon, landsman, don’t censor yourself.

    If you can’t write “fuck,” at least write around it. It’s really chickensh*t to call attention to your hed by using a non-word euphemism.

    “What the Hell is Katie…” would have worked just fine, don’t you think?

    For better usage,

    Vaivecchio Press
    Pacifica, California

  8. ASY May 4, 2013 at 9:26 pm | #

    Do you not think it is possible that the question itself arose from an expectation that women writers (and their presumably female protagonists) be companions for their (presumably) female readers? You concede as much yourself in saying the Austen, Woolf, or Zadie Smith would not have made the point as well.

    It seems to me that probing *that* question–of whether or not the expectation of writing companionable protagonists is gendered–would be more productive than simply destroying Roiphie (no matter how expert and satisfying the takedown might be).

    As a brief side note, I remember Katie Couric gushing in a 60 Minutes interview that she wanted to be girlfriends with then Sec’y of State Condoleezza Rice. So, my sense is that much more is at stake in this likely burden than how we consume our literature. I would wager that it applies very much to the obstacles women face in being seen as leaders. (Not that I’m advocating for Rice herself, who used her powers for evil).

  9. debmeier May 11, 2013 at 5:57 pm | #

    You lost me Corey. I thought Roiphe was right on–whether she meant it as a response to what she perceived as sexism or just a poor understanding of what a writer and reader are up to. Deborah Meier

    • Corey Robin May 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm | #

      Which part did you think Roiphe was right on about, Deborah?

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