In Praise of Messy Thinking: On Katie Roiphe by Meghan Daum

Navel-gazing with a social purpose

September 4th, 2012 reset - +

FOR A LONG TIME, what I thought about Katie Roiphe was that everything would have been different if she hadn't neglected (or was it refused?) to make one crucial point. If only, in The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, her 1994 treatise on the sexual politics of what was commonly called the "date rape crisis," she had said something like this: the problem with broadening the definition of sexual violence to the point where plain old regrettable or even unenjoyable sex is sometimes classified as "rape" is that it ultimately achieves the opposite of its intended goal. It downplays the seriousness of rape. By bestowing equal measures of victim (or survivor) status onto those who let their boyfriends go too far one drunken night as onto those who, through violence or other forms of coercion, have sex against their will, the whole notion of rape becomes a fluid concept. It becomes subject to interpretation as well as felony prosecution. And while that might not necessarily be the end of the world, it can sure be confusing.

I realize this is not the most opportune moment to attempt to justify or clarify the rather muddy message of one of the most controversial books on sexual politics of the last quarter century. As I write this, the country is embroiled in a rancorous debate about reproductive rights that has been amplified by a congressman who used the term "legitimate rape," and I do not mean to conflate the ideas of a young writer in the 1990s with the political discourse defining the run-up to the 2012 election. But when it comes to Katie Roiphe, I believed then as I do now that what she was trying to get at was the irony of the whole phenomenon. Amid the cherry-picked examples and bald pronouncements, I believed that she was criticizing women because she cared about women, that she was questioning the contours of contemporary feminism because she was a feminist herself. She just, for some reason, didn't get around to saying that part outright. Maybe it seemed too obvious, too pedestrian. Maybe, as the daughter of a prominent feminist, she felt her pro-woman credentials were so unassailable that she needn't waste her printer ink assuring her readers she knew rape was abhorrent. Or maybe, as the daughter of a prominent feminist (and, no less significantly, a prominent Manhattan psychoanalyst known for his research into early childhood sexual identity), she was playing out the oldest coming of age story in the world. Maybe she just wanted to be a bad girl.

And, as Norman Mailer said of Mary McCarthy back in 1963, Roiphe has been a very bad girl these years. At least that's the rap on her. By this I do not mean to suggest that, in the annals of legendary American literary rabble rousers, Roiphe's shoulder is anywhere near McCarthy's. There are similarities between the two; a penchant for scandalizing the polite sensibilities of their fellow intellectual elites (McCarthy's breakout hit, the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” was in some ways The Morning After of its day), a certain glee in thwarting traditional notions of domesticity (McCarthy was married four times, unapologetically prolific in her sexual dalliances, and was known to scoff when old friends went all bourgeois and Republican on her; Roiphe, a divorced mother of two children by different fathers, has written of her exasperation with peers who use parenthood as an excuse not to have sex or be interesting at parties). But Roiphe is more fluent in literature than in politics, more libertarian-minded than socialist-minded and, finally (at least this has been the grenade most commonly lobbed) more interested in herself than anything else.

Those who hated The Morning After and, by extension, hated its gamine 25-year-old author even more, tended to put solipsism high on the list of the book's faults. For all the grandstanding ("Heterosexual desire inevitably raises conflicts for the passionate feminist") and lazy drifting into watered down academese — "in generating and perpetuating these kinds of myths we should keep in mind that myths surrounding female innocence have been used to keep women inside and behind veils" — the thing that was generally thought to be most irritating was the puny size of Roiphe's data pool and, as a result, the ease with which she could gaze into it and see little more than her own reflection. The "we" she employed when referencing what she seemed to identify as, if not the culture as a whole at least her generation in the aggregate was, in fact, a tiny sliver of the culture, the most rarified of the rarified, the students of Harvard and Princeton. In so doing, she dug a hole for herself: in a famously infernal New Yorker review, Katha Pollitt wrote, "It is a careless and irresponsible performance, poorly argued and full of misrepresentations, slapdash research, and gossip." Nearly two decades later, Roiphe has not managed to claw her way out of this hole. Even as she has found a post in academia, currently teaching journalism at New York University, and has managed to publish Uncommon Arrangements, a series of portraits of literary marriages in London between 1910 and the second world war, a book that was well received by even the most spring-loaded would-be critics ("Katie haters will be sorry to hear that it's very absorbing," said one), Roiphe continues to simultaneously feed and fend off a reputation for gross, incendiary generalizations and a reporting method that often appears not to extend beyond dinner parties in Park Slope brownstones.

"I hate you, Katie Roiphe," read, in sum, of one of the first comments on a recent Slate magazine essay. The subject was the author's weariness with the faux shock value of the word “vagina,” which is now being bandied about by women in a kind of reappropriative gesture. But it could have been about anything. Cue, again, the Thing That Irritates People The Most: a Katie Roiphe piece is always as much about Katie Roiphe as it is about the ostensible subject.

Hence her new essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives. Its subject matter is anything and everything, a peevish interrogation of contemporary upper middle class overexamined life presented via a grab bag of previously published articles. Originally appearing in places like Slate, The New York Times, and The Daily Beast, these articles could be classified not just as cultural criticism but as comment bait. Indeed, the comments that followed their online versions reliably took up three, four, or even five times the space allotted to the articles themselves.

It's almost anticlimactic, then, to read them in the uncluttered, heckler-free zone of an actual book. It's also, much of the time, quite pleasurable and thought provoking. For one thing, Roiphe is a sharp and lovely writer, a gifted stylist with an ear for the pace and rhythm of sentences. It's clear that she's careful not to repeat words too many times, that she's either possessed of a capacious vocabulary or not afraid to use a thesaurus. For another, she doesn't talk down to us. In a media environment in which "cultural criticism" is often code for counterintuitive appreciations of Justin Bieber or ironic deconstructions of reality television, Roiphe just goes ahead and assumes we've read Tolstoy or Flaubert or Pauline Réage — or are at least willing to nod along as if we have. Katie haters will call that elitist and name droppy, which I suppose it is. But it can also be exciting to be pulled into her intellectual rabbit hole, to come along on Roiphe's bumpy, meandering ride, even if half the time it's not really going anywhere.

In Praise of Messy Lives goes places sometimes. “The Alchemy of Private Malice,” an argument against reductive assumptions about single motherhood, has some stirring moments: a friend telling an unmarried and pregnant Roiphe to "wait and have a regular baby,” or a 6-year-old stumbling upon the logic that "it's impossible to be normal." In an essay about Joan Didion Roiphe analyzes the degree to which the rhythms and idioms that characterize Didion's prose style have been borrowed, if not outright ripped off, by younger writers. And she makes some cogent, if not exactly revelatory, points about the depth of Didion's influence. "Navel-gazing with a social purpose," is how Roiphe describes Didion's recipe for the merging of the personal and the political. She allows that Didion "did it elegantly" and then closely inspects the sentences of some who "did it not so elegantly." Among the guilty are Anna Quindlen, Susan Orlean, Maureen Dowd, Elizabeth Kolbert, and, much to my amusement, myself. Roiphe is right, of course; we've all got some Didionisms stuck inside us like songs we can't get out of our heads. I for one, am happy to cop to the charges. I'm just sorry Roiphe herself doesn’t want to belong to our club. With sentences on the order of "Facebook is the novel we are all writing" and "I spent more time than was strictly necessary in the plush red corridors of the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi," she is a shoe-in for membership.

In the introduction to In Praise of Messy Lives, Roiphe makes a case for the essays' cohesiveness by suggesting that the book is an inquiry into her status as "a failed conventional person." As with McCarthy, I'm not quite convinced that Roiphe's lack of convention isn't about being perceived as a rebellious bon vivant more than the lonely, unsettled, occasionally reckless living patterns that can mark the genuine eccentric. She is, at the end of the day, a person who wants to raise children, have a nice home, and be liked; she is not a weirdo as much as a mostly normal person with a small handful of freak flags that she's sewn into a point of view. As such, In Praise of Messy Lives, like much of Roiphe's earlier work, seems to me less a platform for the author's contrarian outlook than a lament about a culture that has grown too accustomed to agreeing and being agreed with, that's become almost compulsive in its amenability.

"It is a good sign and a positive sign and a healthy sign when you write something that enrages, irritates, and appalls so many people," Roiphe said in a video interview defending “The Fantasy Life of the Working Woman,” an essay that appeared in Newsweek and The Daily Beast last April before landing, verbatim, in Messy Lives. The fact that she was enlisted to "defend" and not simply "discuss" her article points to what I imagine (though perhaps it's a fantasy) is the meatiest of all the bones Roiphe is picking in this book; it's not just that feminists are prissy and sex averse, young male novelists are angsty and sex averse, and single motherhood isn't as bad as you think. It's that spheres like feminism and literature and parenthood have become so monolithic in their message, such echo chambers for the party line, that even the mildest form of dissent is seen as radical and in need of defending.

"We have to see past the rules of discussion," Roiphe wrote in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Morning After. "We have to invent ways to talk about politics and sex and responsibility that allow for independence of thought." One can imagine how fresh her battle wounds would have been at that time. When I think of Roiphe back then, I think of a writer people hated because it was the thing to do; branding her as the enemy (of feminism, of cultural criticism, of the New York media scene, of whatever) was part of the rules of discussion. But I also remember someone who was right. Not on every score, but on a few things that no one was talking about and that absolutely shaped what it meant to be on a certain kind of university campus in the mid 1980s through the 1990s. She was right about the way some of the rhetoric of rape crisis activism represented an uneasy alliance between feminism and victimhood. In her next book, Last Night in Paradise, she was right about the way some of the rhetoric around AIDS awareness fueled paranoia and self-deception among people who perhaps didn't need to be so paranoid. "Maybe Roiphe's classmates really are as she portrays them," Pollitt posited in the excoriating New Yorker review — "waiflike anorexics, male-feminist wimps, the kind of leftish groupthinkers who ostracize anyone who says Alice Walker is a bad writer." Well, yes, actually; many of them were. Not that they stood for anything more than the small sample they were. And not, I now suspect, that some version of my aforementioned "clarification" about the message of The Morning After would have really made a difference. But as far as small samples go, Roiphe got that one right. In fact, she nailed it.

In the years since, Roiphe has been right as often as she has been wrong (personally, I agreed with her on the fatuousness of the vagina trope). She has been exhilarating as often she has been exasperating. And that is because, despite all the blogospheric axe grinding, despite the oppressions of the Tear People Apart Online Industrial Complex and its subsidiary, the cottage industry known as Tear Katie Roiphe Apart On Comment Threads, she writes without apology, without justification, without looking over her shoulder. For all her fretting about bloggers and commenters and internet enabled haters, she seems, like a mean girl in the cafeteria, able to render them invisible when it's time to get down to business. She writes like no one's going to read her except the people from the Park Slope dinner parties. She writes like the world of New York old media is still the only one that matters. She writes like crowd-sourced fact checking and bullshit calling doesn't exist. She writes like it's still 1994 — and sometimes even like she's still 25.

That is why I most definitely do not hate Katie Roiphe. I actually love her a little bit. I have never spotted her byline and not stopped to see what she's up to. Even when she's off base she's almost always on to something. And that's not nothing.

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