IN THE INTRODUCTION to her new collection of essays, Katie Roiphe notes with no small amount of disingenuousness that “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.” It’s an impressive show of eyelash-batting from a woman whose first book, 1994’s The Morning After, argued that this new thing the media was calling “date rape” couldn’t possibly exist, because she, Katie Roiphe, didn’t personally know anyone who had experienced it. In an argument that prefigured the current political landscape in which terms like “legitimate rape” are parsed, Roiphe surveyed her surroundings — the highbrow-intellectual New York City in which she’d grown up, and, subsequently, the similar milieu of Harvard University — and concluded that rape itself wasn’t a problem; women who dissemble in order to deal with their shame at having sex are.
Since then, Roiphe has made a solid career of being contrarian about nearly everything related to gender, feminism, sex, and power. A show set in an ad agency in the 1960s is a hit? Katie Roiphe wants you to know that people like that show because we hunger for a time before political correctness and feminism made everything bloodless and bland. Herman Cain is in the news for sexually harassing an employee? Katie Roiphe is here to tell you that dirty jokes make a workplace exciting, and anyone who disagrees is a crusty old prude.
The ranks of Roiphe’s non-fans who nevertheless continue reading her work (raises hand) will likely continue to swell with her new book. In Praise of Messy Lives underscores that, though a nimble writer, she simply hasn’t bothered to expand her perspective much beyond herself and her immediate circle of similarly employed, respectably moneyed, self-consciously bohemian friends and colleagues. The same self-certainty that drove her, almost 20 years ago, to issue a blanket dismissal of the shockingly high incidence of rape on college campuses now compels her to look at a range of mostly unrelated topics — travel, literature, betrayal, Internet culture — from a vantage point that never extends beyond her own shadow.
The collection pulls together essays published over the last two decades; literary considerations of John Updike and Margaret Wise Brown shoulder up against thoughts on Internet addiction and remembrances of college romance. The throughline, as suggested by the book’s title, is the question: What do untidiness, conflict, and loose emotional ends bring to the project of living? Cheating, divorce, fabulism — all are explored, and in many cases lauded, not only for the necessary cultural upheaval they catalyze, but also for how they push back against what Roiphe terms “the responsible and improving endeavors” that constitute the lives of her middle- and upper-middle-class peers.
This pushback is a firmly Roiphe-approved project; the idea that American social and popular culture has become egregiously sanitized is a recurring theme in many of these pieces. In the quasi-title essay “The Perverse Allure of Messy Lives,” which originally appeared in slightly different form in the New York Times, Roiphe writes about what the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men says about its viewers. She had never seen the show until an editor asked her to write about it, but never mind — she still knows exactly why you watch it:
As one watches the feverish and melancholic adultery, the pregnant women sipping cocktails, the seven-year-olds learning to mix the perfect Tom Collins, one can’t help but experience a puritanical frisson about how much better, saner, more sensible our own lives are; but is there also the tiniest bit of wistfulness, the slight but unmistakable hint of longing toward all that stylish chaos, all that selfish, retrograde abandon?[…] If the characters in Mad Men are smoldering against the famous repression of the fifties, it may be that we smolder a little against the wilier and subtler repression of our own undoubtedly healthier, more upstanding times.
Elsewhere, in discussing the cult-turned-mass popularity of the 50 Shades of Gray series in an essay, originally appearing in Newsweek, titled “The Fantasy Life of the American Working Woman,” Roiphe posits that the gains of modern feminism — the approaching-equal pay, the female CEOs and Congress members, the women outnumbering men in higher education — are powerless when up against the erotic imagination, with its black-and-white cravings for narratives of female submission. The conclusion, is — maybe? — that the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray constitutes a cultural nose-thumbing at the ideals of feminism, in that it has forced women to admit that their desire to be equal political and workplace citizens is incompatible with an apparently stronger desire to be sexually subservient to men. There is little acknowledgment that divergent desires can and do coexist; there is a flippant conflation of S/M roleplaying with rape fantasies, and there is, significantly, zero engagement with well-documented same-sex and genderqueer BDSM practices that have nothing to do with gender dynamics. As with the Mad Men essay, there’s simply no effort to look outside Katie Roiphe for professional insight, factual backup, or acknowledgment of bias.
This queenly take on cultural criticism gets most discomfiting in the essay “Making the Incest Scene,” originally published in Harper’s back in 1995. In it, Roiphe surveys the subject as it pertains to the plot of a number of critically acclaimed books of that decade, from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride to Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin to Sapphire’s Push. Incest scenes, sighs Roiphe, have just gotten so common. Their descriptions of abuse are predictable, their visceral horror is trite, and, worst of all, when viewed as a group their indictment of men can be read as political. “After a while,” she assures us, “we read these scenes with the same numbness we feel watching people being blown up in the movies.” That these books have been successful because readers relate to them is not interesting to Roiphe. And that someone who has, in fact, experienced incest may read them with a distinct lack of numbness seems not to cross her mind.
What defines In Praise of Messy Lives, ironically, is the tidiness of its author’s approach. It’s as though she can’t bother with genuine curiosity because she already knows she’s going to end up tearing down her subject, whether that subject is Joan Didion or mothers who use their children’s photos as their Facebook avatars. The one topic she treats with some nuance and care, not surprisingly, is her own life as a single mother of two children. Two essays in particular — “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice” and “Love Child” — grapple with the societal judgment that accompanies single motherhood. In the former, she writes of hostilities visited upon herself and her single-mother friends by a scrum of coupled acquaintances who, in some combination of pity and fear, have closed ranks against them:
Part of what seems threatening or unsettling about the single mother’s household is precisely that sense that the mother may be glimpsed as more of a person, that these children are witnessing a struggle they should not be seeing, that their mother is very early on a regular, complicated person, rather than simply an adult who is part of the opaque, semi-separate adult culture of the house.
“Love Child,” meanwhile, parses the meaning behind that phrase and its lurid media deployment in the 2011 revelation that Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with one of his household employees. The mocking phrase, she finds, appeals to her as a way to describe her own child born out of wedlock: “Is there a sense that we are not apologizing for our children by resorting to the silliest, most tabloidy phrase in circulation?”
Both essays even flirt, just a bit, with advocacy: Roiphe notes in “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” for instance, that since an estimated 53 percent of children are born to unmarried women under 30, treating single mothers as outliers, and their children as illegitimate, is increasingly backward. And yet, all the graceful, measured parsing of what society misunderstands about single motherhood and its presumed effect on children is, ultimately, in the service of showing that a specific kind of messiness — specifically, Katie Roiphe’s own messiness — is on balance more daring, more real, somehow, than the anodyne family life of the safely, predictably coupled-up.
The book’s sheen of confident exceptionalism is buffed up most tellingly in Roiphe’s consideration of Didion. In a close read of how Didion’s voice reverberates in contemporary cultural criticism, Roiphe delivers this backhanded compliment: “The writer’s own psyche became a delicate radio station channeling the outside world. The news was all about how the news makes you feel. And that is one of [Didion’s] most dubious legacies: she gave writers a way to write about their favorite topic (themselves) while seeming to pursue a more noble subject (the culture).” That this dubious legacy includes her own work must have occurred to her, but she’s disinclined to include herself in the group of writers —Maureen Dowd, Elizabeth Kolbert, Meghan Daum — whom she pegs as mere pretenders to Didion’s new-journalism throne.
In Praise of Messy Lives makes it clear that Roiphe knows exactly why she has rubbed so many the wrong way. The question is whether someone who so staunchly holds herself apart from the very culture she surveys can be an effective critic of it. Her writing does make a case for valuing the unkempt, wherever it might be found, but her unwillingness to be of her surroundings, rather than above them, results in sloppy conclusions far more often than it does sublime mess.