In order for one to pass muster as a cultural critic these days, a certain omnivorousness seems necessary. This is not a good thing. A lot of criticism has lately been marred by the obsessive need to draw connections between everything that is currently popular, all of which the critic has quickly formulated into a set of fervent opinions. One million specious essays connecting Girls to Community to The Dark Knight Rises to Nicki Minaj, and all of those recaps in between: the arts have never felt more foreshortened by their advocates’ aggressive autodidacticism.
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.
In her defense, she is aware of a few things that have happened to the world—and not just to her—over the course of her rise in stature. Her columns in Slate, The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, culled together for this collection, demonstrate that she has heard of both the hyper-popular erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the hyper-popular television drama Mad Men—though in both cases her having heard of them was prompted by a publication looking for the Roiphe touch (“I had never watched a single episode of Mad Men” before she was called by an editor, she notes). She has heard of Facebook and of Gawker—the latter, she tells us, an outlet whose “tone itself is monotonously unvaried.” Hmm. She heard that Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008. She has heard of contemporary male writers whom she finds, in comparison with the likes of Philip Roth and John Updike, troublingly libido-free.
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; the through-line Ms. Roiphe sees is an engagement with herself as the center of the universe, her mind the source, of which all culture is merely a tributary. Necessarily, Ms. Roiphe works in extremes: what she is documenting is not culture writ large, but rather the manner in which it engages or repulses her. The book’s first essay, for instance, briefly takes on The Age of Innocence—because a friend told Ms. Roiphe that a mutual acquaintance compared her to Wharton’s tragic divorcee Ellen Olenska.
The essay is not about Wharton, really, but generally regards Ms. Roiphe’s own life as messy (ergo exemplary) and her cohort’s existence as tidy (ergo clearly papering over more fundamental flaws, like hypocritical judgment). “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.
Ms. Roiphe spends much of her book in a defensive crouch. Its first section is, in effect, a lengthy defense of her life as a single mother against assailants unknown—among those judging her are anonymous friends who merge pity with dismissive cruelty.
“Someone who was trying to persuade me not to have the baby said that I should wait and have a ‘regular baby.’ His exact words were ‘You should just wait and have a regular baby!’ What he meant, of course, was that I should wait and have a baby in more regular circumstances.”