Interviewing Katie Roiphe -The Toast

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Since her first opinion piece, a critique of college anti-rape activism, was published in 1993 in the New York Times, Roiphe, an academic at New York University, has embraced a stock-in-trade described in Salon by Rebecca Traister as an ‘I’m-too-sexy-for-this-movement provocation.’  The article in question typifies the literary mix which makes her both so interesting and infuriating. Roiphe wrote it at a time when anti-rape activism was growing rapidly on university campuses. At the same time, riot grrls were forming bands and making zines, often telling their own personal stories of abuse and assault. Just the year before, Rebecca Walker co-founded the Third Wave Foundation, meant to kick-start a new type of organised feminism – and one which put issues that young women cared about in focus.

But when Roiphe chose not to praise the anti-rape activism she saw on campus, but to bury it. Some of her analysis was spot on–there were pamphlets and other materials that gave the impression that all female students were naïve young things, not particularly interested in sex, and some of the tips on how to “avoid” being raped would be seen as placing an undue burden on victims today. But Roiphe’s op-ed wraps around to a conclusion that might have come out of the mouth of a hoary old man, that rape which doesn’t involve a stranger jumping out of the bushes or cornering you in a dark alley, might not really exist. She wrote: ‘There is a gray area in which one person’s rape may be another’s bad night.’ It’s a dangerous and frankly irresponsible argument, when rape victims who know their attacker are so often dismissed and disbelieved.

As if to acknowledge this deliberately provocative persona, in the publicity photo at the back of her most recent book, a collection of essays called In Praise of Messy Lives, Roiphe is lounging on a sofa, like a particularly sarcastic character from a film about literary bohemians. She is wearing an unsmiling fuck-you expression with red lipstick, legs crossed.

Yet in the introduction, Roiphe introduces herself in a different way: ‘In life I will go very far out of my way to avoid any possible conflict or argument, so it is a little surprising that in my essays I often seem to pick fights, and to offend or otherwise enrage people. It’s hard to explain how this works, and I admit that it’s fairly implausible or untenable as a way of life, but that seems to be how I go about my days: peaceably in person, fiercely on paper.’

I mention all this because as I am preparing to meet and interview Roiphe when she visited London to promote the book, I realise that she has already primed the perfect set-up for any interviewer: a chance to connect with the shy and retiring academic who might even be a bit bemused at the image she has created for herself in the pages of Slate and the New York Times.

We meet in a museum cafe in Bloomsbury, the expensive and self-consciously literary part of London that was once home to Virginia Woolf and the Bluestockings. This is where Roiphe is staying with a friend and shuttling between meetings with the press and her publishers. When she arrives I dutifully look her over to see how she matches up to the two images she’s chosen to project. But, in fact, I don’t get much sense of either. Katie’s trademark blonde curls bounce about her head. She’s elegantly dressed in black. But she looks more worried than either provocative or shy. How much of her writing is ‘persona’, created in the calculated and yet playful fashion of a literature lecturer for whom argument and rhetoric is an academic exercise? To what degree has she been–as she argues herself–caricatured by critics who don’t see the nuances of her writing? And why is she so popular?

The last question is the easiest to answer. Two reasons strike me: first, and we had better establish this immediately, Roiphe is a talented writer. Despite strongly disagreeing with so many of her sentiments, I ended up devouring her book.

Secondly, commissioning editors have a hungry appetite for any writer who enjoys breaching “political correctness,” which they imply has now become establishment. When these writers then confirm the prejudices of the actual establishment, it is so much more delicious and click-worthy if they are, for example, a woman.

Perhaps it’s because of this that Roiphe is a bit defensive. When I ask a question about how she got started as a writer, she replies, “I don’t only write opinion pieces,” and I have to reword it a couple of times before she tells me the story:

“I just sent in a piece to the New York Times, totally anonymously, with no connections, and they printed it in the opinion pages. And I encourage my students to do this because it’s actually one of the areas of life that still is kind of a meritocracy. If you send in a piece to the opinion pages and they haven’t heard that opinion or they think that the opinion is interesting they’ll publish it, even if you’re a 23-year-old graduate student. So they published that piece and it got a giant response. And the response was so overwhelming that piece got turned into a bigger piece that was turned into a book.”

Although Roiphe sent her first op-ed in as a speculative, anonymous submission, it should be mentioned that her mother is the noted novelist and feminist Anne Roiphe. Shortly after the publication of that book, the New York Times did a mother-daughter interview with the pair, which showcases how supportive Anne is of her daughter. It also sketches in some of Roiphe’s background, from private school to Harvard and Princeton, where she got a literature Ph.D. As she explains to me, “I was planning to teach. And I got distracted into – rather than analysing poems as I was trained to do – analysing the culture.”

Then came a long catalogue of literary achievements: five books and a long series of articles; and a career as an academic at NYU where she currently teaches a few classes, one on writing sexual politics, and another -surprisingly, to me – on the history of women critics.

In 2001, Roiphe married a lawyer and they had a daughter, divorcing a few years later. Later, she had a second child by another man. Many of the strongest essays in this latest collection are personal reflections about single motherhood, and particularly how single mums are stigmatised.

“In spite of our exquisite tolerance for all kinds of lifestyles, we have a wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome, our enlightened modern version of shame,” she writes, before skewering the idea with winning and human anecdotes about her own parenting struggles and joys. She talks about the resistance she experienced from friends during her second pregnancy: “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 could 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 is Roiphe at her best: emotionally real, using her not-inconsiderable talents at unpacking language to talk about the cruelty of social stigma.

When it comes to direct life experience, Roiphe seems to intimately understand the effects of sexism, and she says that women have been writing to her from all walks of life, all over the US, about those essays. ‘This larger question I’m examining in this book is what happens when a woman lives outside of conventional structures, the structures given to us,’ she explains. ‘The stigma against divorce and [single motherhood]. I don’t think it’s just people in my situation. I think you can read something, I know I do, I can read something about a coal miner in England, and feel interested or learn something about life from it, without me being: I am that coal miner. This question that you have to be, like, I am that person, in order to have took anything away from their account, is such a limited way to think about writing and about reading.”

If only that’s where it ended. Before meeting Roiphe, of course I read the book. Riding the tube, sitting down to read a chapter in my lunch break, I’ve scrawled more notes and done more underlining in it of any book I’ve read in years. By page 71, in the middle of Roiphe’s infamous essay about the Great American Male Novelist’s attitude to sex, and how it has changed between the generation of Norman Mailer and Jonathan Franzen, I’ve already made a note to myself to add up how many female writers are name-checked in the collection.

For example, in one essay, she complains and complains about how many novels (overwhelmingly citing examples written by women) have incest plots. It’s become, she says, “a paralyzed literary convention” – which may be true, you might think, until she acknowledges with a side note that incest stories have been a part of storytelling at least since the ancient Greeks told and re-told the story of Oedipus.

“One of the most talked-about bidding wars in the publishing world this year was not over a new thriller by Michael Crichton or John Grisham but over a half-written first novel by an unknown female poet who calls herself Sapphire,” she writes dismissively. Despite describing the novels written mostly by women about incest and abuse (including Annie Proulx, Donna Tartt, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker) as a fashionable zeitgeist, she goes on almost immediately to admit “Novelists, we know, have been fascinated by incest for almost as long as there have been novels.” When Daniel Defoe did it, I presume Roiphe didn’t mind because it didn’t have “the lifeless feel of a feminist textbook.” She annoyingly positions women writing boring and sensationalist novels against, for example, “an author like John Updike who writes about the human world in all of its radiant confusion.”

I’m only giving one example from the book, but it’s a common theme of Roiphe’s: denigrating female writers and celebrating male writers.

Yet Roiphe frowns, and seems genuinely bemused, when I ask about this, and before I get the question out I’ve already been treated to a counter-argument.  “Writers who are most important to me and who I teach in my classes are mostly women, so the influences I feel in my own writing are people like Rebecca West, or Mary McCarthy, or Janet Malcolm, or Joan Didion, or Susan Sontag…My own private canon of critics and of cultural commentators are mostly women.”

In fact, she explains that the article comparing generations of male authors wasn’t her own idea: she was commissioned to write about American male novelists and sex. Knowing she didn’t pick this topic at random does give a slightly different impression: one of the most infuriating things about the essay was the implicit assumption that there is a younger generation of all-male writers about to inherit the mantle of the serious American novel from their forefathers. But of course she still chose to write the essay.

It is true that the collection includes a fascinating essay about Sontag, a portrait of a harsh intellect. But it may not be an utter surprise that practically the only female writer mentioned in the collection with no qualms or critiques is Jane Austen. Of course, Roiphe, who writes in precise and perfectly balanced sentences, appreciates Austen. Austen – the safely-dead exception rolled out by many a literary critic not that interested in women’s words – is the female writer Roiphe admires with the fewest caveats.

Roiphe is particularly defensive when I ask about her negative references to feminism and feminists in the book. Almost in one breath, she tells me: “I totally consider myself a feminist, and I’m not antagonistic towards the word in context. I consider myself a feminist in the rich and flexible tradition of Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, great feminist writers and thinkers. Rebecca West. I don’t identify with certain strains of feminist thought which I feel are too narrow or the political language is not adequate to describing the complexity of human life. I would never be where I am if not for the feminist movement, and my mother was a feminist in the ‘70s, and was very active. My child is a feminist and she’s ten years old. I in no way distance myself from the word feminist.”

Roiphe’s inclusion of Germaine Greer among her feminist role models seems particularly unsympathetic to a UK reviewer – although Australian, the controversial figure appears frequently in the British press and on television – given Greer’s history of transphobic comments,  particularly directed at trans* women, which culminated in a confrontation last year during one of her book signings in New Zealand by a group called The Queer Avengers.

It’s hard for me to replace the impression of the book – that Roiphe is mostly a fan of novels by Great White American Males and little else – with the impression she gives during the interview, that she is anchored and inspired by a personal canon of female writers. But is it possible, given Roiphe’s precise and controlled use of language, and her skill at a close, textual analysis of both literature and culture, she doesn’t know that she is responsible for this misunderstanding? Is it, in fact, it is a misunderstanding?

One obvious answer might be that she’s being intentionally contentious. When I ask if the negative reactions to her essays bothers her, she replies, “I’m used to my work being controversial. Because I’ve been writing controversially for a long time. So I don’t,” she says, before pausing to reconfigure her sentence. “And I think, if you write deliberately to make people question received ideas, you’re always gonna encounter people being angry. So I don’t take it that personally. I don’t feel…I don’t really view negative responses, I just don’t take them that personally.”

In some cases, it does seem like Roiphe’s ultimate point gets missed – for example, she wrote a review of Mad Men called ‘The perverse allure of messy lives” which suggested that one of the reasons for the show’s popularity is that it reminds us of a less prissy time, which has been understandably interpreted as nostalgia for more overtly sexist, racist and homophobic times.

It may be credible that Roiphe thought she didn’t need to spell out that she wasn’t “in any way saying we should go back to 1963 and be smoking five packs of cigarettes a day and drinking all the time and sleeping with secretaries. Or saying that world, that was better. Or even that my mother’s world was better. I’m saying there might be a way to import some of those attitudes into our current world. I don’t really think we should go back to the uniformity of the ’50s or the convention, all that conformity, we should be able to kind of look at our own preoccupations with healthiness or with the right way to live, or with the idea of a balanced life, and instead thinking a little more creatively about that. I don’t feel a nostalgia for that time.”

But at the same time, if she doesn’t take negative reactions personally, perhaps it’s partly because she’s not always that personally wedded to the arguments she puts forth? The question she poses for us in the book is: who is Katie Roiphe? As she is a fan of ambiguities and literary nuance, perhaps she’d be pleased that after meeting her, I’m no closer to finding out.

Jess McCabe is a journalist. Most of the time she writes about affordable housing, sustainability, feminism and social justice. You can find her on Twitter, on Tumblr and in some other places.

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