Single and Fabulous? Katie Roiphe’s Not-So-Friendly Criticism

This citation of an unusually rancorous remark evokes sympathy for Ms. Roiphe—what a nasty thing to have heard—but not sympathy with her argument, that what she terms “respectable couples” ought to be told to end their prejudice against single mothers rather than remain “blinkered.” (The above, it becomes clear, is one of two comments that created the aforementioned “cultural climate” that oppresses the author.) Not every married couple is prejudiced against single mothers—unless one crudely believes, as Ms. Roiphe does, that they are united as a group only by the fact of their being married. This argument could be made by a far more politically radical author; Ms. Roiphe is merely, if rightly, hurt by some thoughtless people she has met.

The second section is literary criticism. Here Ms. Roiphe abandons the self, but based on its placement, following cultural criticism that reads like memoir, we, subliminally at least, are only able to read it as about Ms. Roiphe. At the very least, the author’s essay on young male writers’ sexlessness in The New York Times Book Review in 2009 advanced Ms. Roiphe’s career as a provocateur. Citing Jonathan Franzen’s description of a female character as “beautiful at 32,” Ms. Roiphe writes, “To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our Great Male Novelists would write in the feminist utopia.” It is another offhand and perhaps insensitive remark that has sent Ms. Roiphe into a productive furor.

Consider an author she sees as closer to an equal for a sense of Ms. Roiphe’s mind: on the subject of Joan Didion, she is both nasty and almost insanely myopic. “The news was all about how the news makes you feel. And that is one of her 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).”

On the subject of Ms. Didion’s writing about herself, Ms. Roiphe concludes: “Didion did it elegantly, but many of those who followed did it not so elegantly.” She names Anna Quindlen, Maureen Dowd, Susan Orlean and Meghan Daum, though she fails to name herself. She also mentions that any female writer Ms. Roiphe personally knows (ah, there is her trademark “evidence”) has a row of Joan Didion books on her shelf, and has read her late at night until “the sky [was] streaked violet.”

In the book’s latter half, comprising two sections called “Messy Lives” and “The Internet, Etc.,” we have an attack on Maureen Dowd, again, for “pretending to cover cultural trends with journalistic accuracy” by citing examples of individual women as synecdoche for the state of things. Better to have emotional than journalistic accuracy, it would seem, as in an essay on how the generation of Ms. Roiphe’s mother—the memoirist Anne Roiphe, who wrote the proto-feminist novels Digging Out and Up the Sandbox—was better able to “achieve … dissolute fluidity.” Forget the sexual, racial and class-based inequalities Mad Men portrays—“casual and flamboyant adultery” is an achievement that makes one wistful for the 1960s. Meanwhile, a certain group of unnamed current male novelists, Ms. Roiphe argues, just likes to go to Whole Foods.

The Internet, however, is Ms. Roiphe’s biggest preoccupation. But even as she unloads on Ayelet Waldman, Internet commenters and “Gawker writer” Emily Gould (publishing a set of dated pieces has its hazards) for their cruelty, she does not seem to realize that, in aggregating the lives and purported statements of her entire social set, she is doing precisely what she claims Gawker does: plugging in “anyone to the formula.”

Ms. Roiphe’s formula, in spite of her self-proclaimed messiness, is remarkably clean: she is contra everything, all at once. This means refusal to cite examples or refusal even to become aware of them unless guided by the heavy hand of a magazine editor; this means burning every bridge; this means often blithely contradicting herself. (The Didion essay is the skeleton key to Ms. Roiphe’s reflexive contrarianism: the writer criticizes Susan Orlean for being a Didion manqué for writing a personal aside into a travel essay about Thailand, some 70 pages after an essay about male/female relations based on Ms. Roiphe’s own trip to Cambodia.) The Internet Ms. Roiphe decries at the book’s end has given us a lot of noise, but there are gems of true insight embedded in the dross. Whereas Ms. Roiphe’s essays all end neatly; she writes of Internet commenters, “I welcome, of course, any further evidence or information that would help our understanding of this fascinating and mysterious species.”

If she can’t find any writing on that subject, she should ask her friends at the next party.