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.”
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.