Claire Messud has written a novel that apparently features a character named Nora. Publisher’s Weekly posed the following question to Messud: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud responded:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
Cue Katie Roiphe:
Messud does not say overtly that her interviewer is being sexist, but she implies it, by listing male writers who would never be asked that question (and tacking on Alice Munro “for that matter” to make it clear that her list had been about men).
Though Messud implies that this lowbrow question about liking a character would never be flung at a male writer, this does not seem to be the case.
“Implies” is doing an awful lot of work here—as in a “Marx doesn’t say he hopes the bourgeoisie will crush the proletariat but he implies it” lot of work.
It hardly need be said—though apparently it does—that Messud’s point is not that the question is sexist but that it’s stupid.
The great characters of literature are a varied lot, but some of them fuck their mothers, others their stepdaughters; some of them kill pawnbrokers; some of them are so insistent on their moral duty that they threaten to bring down the whole world upon themselves and the people around them. These characters are histrionic, charismatic, brilliant, hateful, hilarious, charming, violent, vengeful, seductive, righteous, loathsome, impossible. They try our patience and amplify our condition. They expose the extremity of our estate.
What they don’t do is ask for our friendship. And we don’t ask it of them. Or at least we shouldn’t, says Messud.
How does Roiphe extract from that point an accusation of sexism? By claiming that Messud is implying that the writers—for the most part, all men—who created these and other characters would never have been asked this question about friendship. Yet Messud never comes close to saying that or even suggesting it. She simply points out the absurdity of looking for friends in a Roth or Dostoevksy or Pynchon character.
Yes, these authors are men, but the function they’re quite clearly serving for Messud is not to be men but to be the creators of the characters I’ve just described. Not even the creators: they’re the backdrop, the setting (a Roth novel, an Amis novel), in which these characters appear. (The syntax and set-up of Messud’s response also make this clear: not “Would you ever ask Martin Amis if…” but “Would you ever want to be friends with a character in a Martin Amis novel?”) I suppose Messud could have cited Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Zadie Smith, but most readers love Lizzy Bennet and might well imagine themselves having coffee with Lily Briscoe or tea with Irie Jones, so the point would have been lost.
Roiphe goes onto chide Messud for missing an opportunity to answer the interviewer’s question in a different, more interesting, way.
It would have been possible for Messud to say something along the lines of “Well that was sort of the point of this character. She is very definitely not giving in to social expectations, she is not nice, not warm, not compromising, she is frustrated, simmering, full of unseemly longing, which is precisely why I was fascinated by her.” She could have turned the question into an opportunity to illuminate the low boil of anger or resentment at the center of the book, but it was perhaps easier, more fashionable, to imply “you would not ask a man that question.”
Yes, she could have. Which is probably why she did.
Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.
And just a bit earlier in that same interview, Messud says this:
So yes, Nora Eldridge is middle aged and yes, she is angry….She has just emerged from a long period of suffering, the care for and loss of her mother to a hideous illness. She is trying—like each of us—to do the best she can.
As any of us approaches middle age, we inevitably come up against our limitations: the realization that certain dearly-held fantasies may not be realized; that circumstances have thwarted us; that even with intention and will we may not be able to set our ship back on the course we’d planned. This provokes different reactions in different people. Nora, thanks to [her new neighbors] the Shahids—or the Shahids and her imagination—has a glorious vision of life as she wants it to be. She feels it’s within her grasp. So you could say she indulges an illusion, for a time. The loss of which makes her angry—not just angry at the illusion, or at its loss, but angry also about the underlying limitations and failures that preceded the illusion, that precipitated it. Nora’s situation is not cozy or pretty, but it’s humanly true.
Now, all of these passages appear in the interview Roiphe chooses to hoist her theory of everything on. Where they don’t appear is in the brief Salon excerpt of that interview that I linked to at the top of the piece and which Roiphe apparently based her musings on. I know it can be a chore to follow the links and read all of a writer’s words before you criticize them—believe me, I know—but if you want to have an ounce of credibility, even Roiphe credibility, you probably should.
Roiphe ends with this:
There is rife right now among writers a very ferocious feeling that books are not being read, that attention is not being paid, that the wrong questions are being asked…the world is full of interviewers who ask the wrong question, of attention paid to the wrong thing, of not being met on one’s own terms.
This one I’ll give to Roiphe: when it comes to being inattentive to a writer’s words, she knows whereof she speaks.