What the F*ck is Katie Roiphe Talking About?

by Corey Robin on May 3, 2013

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.

Here’s Messud in the sentences that immediately follow the ones Roiphe quotes above:

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.

 

{ 74 comments }

1

FredR 05.03.13 at 2:41 am

I don’t know why she had to get on her high-horse about it. Everybody already knows she’s a high-brow writer of literary fiction. She can relax a little.

2

JW Mason 05.03.13 at 2:52 am

I agree Roiphe is stupid, but personally I would kind of like to be friends with Oscar Wao. And with Denise Lambert … tho definitely not with Gary.

3

RK 05.03.13 at 3:03 am

It’s worth noting that Katie Roiphe apparently isn’t the only one who read Messud’s answer as rebuking the interviewer’s sexism; David Daley makes the same speculation in that snippet from Salon you linked.

4

Corey Robin 05.03.13 at 3:09 am

RK at 3: Yes, I know. In fact, I suspect it was Daley’s spin on the response that Roiphe is really responding to, rather than to anything Messud actually said. B/c clearly she didn’t read the entirety of Messud’s remarks.

5

Anderson 05.03.13 at 3:12 am

Of all the things to go off on Roiphe about, this is pretty small beer. I think there indeed was a touch of sexism in the question; at least, I want to see where some “lit’ry” male authors were asked why their protagonists aren’t huggable enough.

(The whole issue of identification in reading is fascinating, but would take us far afield.)

… Is Messud worth reading? I picked up The Emperor’s Children but simply could not care about the problems of rich young people. I blame this blog for radicalizing me. (Hm: iphone autocorrects “radicalizing” to “radical using.” Fucking Cupertino reactionaries, man.)

6

Sandwichman 05.03.13 at 3:16 am

“There is rife right now among writers a very ferocious feeling that books are not being read…”

A ferociously passive-tense feeling is rife?

7

Corey Robin 05.03.13 at 3:23 am

Anderson at 5: “Of all the things to go off on Roiphe about, this is pretty small beer. I think there indeed was a touch of sexism in the question; at least, I want to see where some “lit’ry” male authors were asked why their protagonists aren’t huggable enough. “

I’m not taking a stand on whether there’s a touch of sexism in the question (though Roiphe does point out in her post instances where male authors were in fact asked a version of the question). My point is that Messud nowhere says or implies it, and Roiphe quite clearly is spinning a yarn based on material she has quite clearly not fully mastered. You can call that small beer if you like; I call it incompetence.

8

Dr. Hilarius 05.03.13 at 4:01 am

Not a single Pynchon character worthy of friendship? Oedipa Maas was faithful to her duties, Doc Sportello a source of slack and good weed, and who could be a more interesting travel companion than Tyrone Slothrop? But do steer clear of the Brigadier.

9

Anderson 05.03.13 at 4:26 am

Now, as to chiding Messud for not doing what she in fact does, that’s Roiphe in typical form. But that is distinct from the sexism question. Women aren’t supposed to be difficult company – that’s what men are for! I’m just surprised Messud wasn’t reproached for failing to portray a Role Model.

10

David 05.03.13 at 4:38 am

Thank you Doc Hilarius. I read that snippet on Salon and was struck by how lame the response was insofar as it implied that male authors are never asked such questions. I doubt that it would take very much work to come up with a plethora of instances. But more to the point, I can think of probably a dozen Pynchon characters I wouldn’t mind hanging out with. But I rather doubt that Messud has actually read any Pynchon.

11

Corey Robin 05.03.13 at 5:00 am

David at 10: “I read that snippet on Salon and was struck by how lame the response was insofar as it implied that male authors are never asked such questions.” Can you tell me exactly who is implying that male authors are never asked such questions? I understand that Katie Roiphe (and David Daley) thinks it’s being implied. But aside from simply making that accusation over and over — without any attention to the text or the context of Messud’s remarks — what evidence do you have for the accusation?

12

Ben 05.03.13 at 5:04 am

Seems like Messud does imply the sexism of the question.

The full interview definitely takes women authors and women in publishing as a topic. Messud herself brings it up: “Anyway, these books I love, they’re all books by men—every last one of them. Because if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” Against that background, the follow-up question about an unlikeable protagonist does have a sexist twang to it. And in Messud’s answer, what is “for that matter” doing if not pointing out the twang?

But it doesn’t matter. Because Roiphe is still a dunderhead. When someone is talking about providing a character and gendered viewpoint that has been missing from fiction, and the next question uses a trope that has been typically associated with denying that viewpoint, of course it’s appropriate to recognize what’s happening, regardless of everything else. Whether that question gets asked of male authors in other contexts, and whatever grand neuroses infect writers as a class that make them prone to thinking along these lines in general, is immaterial; in this context the question is problematic and deserves to be called out.

Then there’s all that criticism of Mussad for not talking about things she talked extensively about before that question was asked. Nah. Recognizing what Mussad’s doing doesn’t excuse anything Roiphe did.

More importantly: why wouldn’t you want Michael Pemulis as a friend?

13

Hob 05.03.13 at 5:07 am

David @10: But you’re just doing the same thing Roiphe is doing: picking the least charitable interpretation of Messud’s statement imaginable, even though there’s another obvious interpretation that requires a much smaller logical leap and that fits much better with everything else she said. She listed a bunch of famous literary characters who (here is the very small logical leap) are widely considered to be memorable and well written. She pointed out that they are not likable. There you go– point made, with no need to read between any lines. That is, unless you thought maybe she actually was not interested in any of those characters or their authors, and was about to explain why they’re really no good and are being given an unfair pass compared to her, maybe because she’s a woman, etc… which of course she did not do; the rest of her remarks were all about how an unlikable character can be interesting, with nary a word about other writers. In conclusion, give me a break.

14

Ben 05.03.13 at 5:07 am

Whoops, misspelled Messud’s name quite a few times there. I will refrain from blaming structural societal factors for the mistake.

15

Hob 05.03.13 at 5:11 am

(Except, as Ben just pointed out, I’m wrong: she does mention other writers– in an entirely positive way. She just doesn’t do it in the Salon excerpt which was David’s sole basis for his judgment of “lame.”)

16

Corey Robin 05.03.13 at 5:15 am

I think you’re conflating two things here. One is whether the question that was posed to Messud was sexist; the other is whether Messud took it as sexist. The second issue is what is up for debate here. I don’t think there’s any evidence that Messud did take it as sexist. The “for that matter” didn’t seem to me to be a reference to Munro’s gender so much as to the non-hatefulness of her characters (as compared with Franzen’s, let’s say). Her characters don’t put us off in the way Raskolnikov does. Even so, Messud is suggesting, we wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be looking for friendships with them; we should be asking of them something else.

17

Corey Robin 05.03.13 at 5:20 am

My comment at 16 was directed at Ben at 12.

Hob at 15: I just re-read David’s comment and it’s actually not even clear if he’s saying Messud believes this or if it is he who believes this. Here’s what he writes: “The author’s [Messud’s] feeling some of that frustration as well, with reductive media questions about the likability of her main character — a question that might not be posed to a male author in quite this way …” It seems as if the “a question…this way” statement is being made in his own voice, that he’s not ascribing it to Messud.

18

Ben 05.03.13 at 6:06 am

Corey,

I think Messud’s listing characters who are unpleasant or disquieting to read about in some fashion. From earlier in the interview, characters who “articulate anger, frustration, disappointment” and “unseemly, unacceptable experiences and emotions, rage prominent among them.” There’s not a through-line of “hatefulness” that I can see. Antigone, Hamlet, and Oedipus don’t put us off in the same way the Lamberts do. Alice Munro’s characters match that description and fit in that set pretty well, seems to me.

The rest of the interview encourages my reading. The question was following an answer in which the issue of women authors and viewpoints was brought up by Messud herself. The interview has the introduction “With The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud boldly goes into territory more commonly embraced by her male counterparts.”

But it’s ambiguous, and I might be completely wrong. Either way I don’t see a lot at stake here. What Roiphe wrote doesn’t hang together whether Messud noted the sexism in the question or not. Albeit for different reasons.

19

Ronan(rf) 05.03.13 at 8:15 am

A little off topic, but I dont see the question being all the stupid. Anger and misery are much overused character traits these days. Whatever happened to being nice, or gentle, or optimistic?

20

roger gathman 05.03.13 at 8:22 am

Having done a number of interviews for PW myself, I would never have asked that question. But it turns out that it was an excellent question, dumb as it seems, since it provoked a great response, which is what you are trying to get for an interview. And that the interview spilled over into other outlets – this is almost unheard of, alas. So kudos to the interviewer, whose name, I notice, is never mentioned – because nobody is friends with an interviewer.

21

ajay 05.03.13 at 9:37 am

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?

I certainly would not want to be friends with Martin Amis.

But Antigone sounds like a decent enough person, as, for that matter, do Oedipus and Hamlet. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them in their native settings for purely selfish reasons, because they are the protagonists of tragedies, and so a monumental amount of unfortunate shit lands on them, and I’d be worried that I would be, as it were, caught in the splatter radius. I wouldn’t want to be a crewman on the Pequod or sail with Odysseus either, for the same reason. But Oedipus in his sphinx-baffling days, or Hamlet at university, sound like they were good people.

22

Katherine 05.03.13 at 10:06 am

But you’re just doing the same thing Roiphe is doing: picking the least charitable interpretation of Messud’s statement imaginable

Why would implying sexism in the question be the least charitable interpretation of Messud’s statement imaginable? What’s so terribly wrong about implying sexism.

For the record, I disagree. I think it’s perfectly possible to read Messud’s response as implying – albeit indirectly – that the question as sexist. I think it’s also the case that the question was sexist.

23

Brett Dunbar 05.03.13 at 11:18 am

The interviewer might have been genuinely interested in whether the character was meant to be sympathetic. It isn’t exactly unknown for a character intended to be sympathetic to be annoying. Jar-Jar Binks is an extreme example of this. And many people get that reaction to Fanny Price in Jane Austen’ s novel Mansfield Park. I’m fairly sure that you can come up with other examples of annoying or unpleasant characters who weren’t intended to be annoying or unpleasant.

24

Kevin 05.03.13 at 12:01 pm

The upshots seems to me to be that, regardless of whether one agrees the question was stupid, Claire Messud gave it a splendid answer with which many novelists would agree, and Katie Roiphe turned it into an opportunity to paint her as a femi-nazi.

25

Mao Cheng Ji 05.03.13 at 12:06 pm

“I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

It doesn’t sound like a question, actually. Just steering the conversation into a discussion of character’s state of mind.

26

R. Porrofatto 05.03.13 at 12:24 pm

Good grief, let’s pretend Ms. Messud is an adult and a professional writer, and she thinks the question is sexist. Someone not Roiphe and not seeking to pick a straw man argument would expect her to say “Good heavens, what a sexist question. Would you have asked Philip Roth, or Salman Rushdie, or Shakespeare… etc. such a question?” Instead, she plainly thought the question ridiculous: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” This need to invent an argument about what a speaker implied as opposed to what she actually said reveals more about the arguer than anything else.

27

Sam Dodsworth 05.03.13 at 12:32 pm

I’ve followed the links and I find I don’t have a strong opinion on Katie Roiphe. I do feel a bit uncomfortable at the sight of so many men pronouncing something Definitely Not Sexist, though.

28

R. Porrofatto 05.03.13 at 12:46 pm

Oh the discomfort. The question itself may or may not be sexist. At issue is whether Messud thought it sexist and said so. Or whether it is legitimate to argue one’s own assumption about an interpretation about a perceived implication about something someone said, versus what they actually said.

29

Anderson 05.03.13 at 12:59 pm

22: “Why would implying sexism in the question be the least charitable interpretation of Messud’s statement imaginable? What’s so terribly wrong about implying sexism.”

Beat me to it. Wow.

30

Anderson 05.03.13 at 1:22 pm

“Any of the characters in Infinite Jest?”

Pemulis aside, Don Gately is a hugely sympathetic character. I’m beginning to suspect Messud of not finishing the book.

31

James Wimberley 05.03.13 at 1:28 pm

The question “Would you want to be friends with x?” is strange. If I suppose you can be in an unhappy friendship, as you can be unhappily in love. The question appears to ask whether your friendship with the characters mentioned would be an unhappy one. That fits Hamlet, going on all the time about his problems in the dorm.
I suppose the intended question is “Would you choose to become friends with x?”

32

Corey Robin 05.03.13 at 2:11 pm

Sam @ 27 and Katherine @ 22: Some background on Roiphe might help here. She has a long history of falsely stating that someone is making a claim of sexism in order to knock down that claim and thereby show that feminism as a whole is silly and more generally that sexism doesn’t exist. That is precisely what she’s doing here. As to whether the question itself is sexist is, again, not the issue here or at least not the point I’ve raised. The only question is whether Messud was claiming it was a sexist question. Roiphe wants to say that Messud is — in order to do the thing Roiphe likes to do — but I see no evidence for that claim whatsoever. For all the reasons that R. Porrofatto lays out at 26 and I laid out in my OP.

33

Ronan(rf) 05.03.13 at 2:29 pm

” As to whether the question itself is sexist is, again, not the issue here or at least not the point I’ve raised”

But you can’t deal with whether Messud was pushing back against a sexist line of questioning if you ignore the question. It removes it entirely from context.

34

floopmeister 05.03.13 at 2:34 pm

I’m fairly sure that you can come up with other examples of annoying or unpleasant characters who weren’t intended to be annoying or unpleasant.

Mickey Mouse.
Any one of the ‘cute/precocious kids’ from the Spielberg canon.
And God as depicted in the Book of Job is pretty insufferable.

35

Sam Dodsworth 05.03.13 at 2:43 pm

Corey@31: Context makes a difference, of course. Thanks for clarifying that.

36

mdc 05.03.13 at 2:58 pm

Jane Austen said about Emma: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one except myself will much like.”

37

politicalfootball 05.03.13 at 3:00 pm

And in Messud’s answer, what is “for that matter” doing if not pointing out the twang?

I don’t get this at all. If “for that matter” means anything in this context, it’s specifically disclaiming any accusation of sexism. Messud gets to the end of a list that she realizes is all-male, and throws in a woman “for that matter” to make it clear that she’s not just talking about the characters of male writers.

One can read too much into a throwaway phrase (and I don’t know Munro’s work so there may be some other reason for her inclusion), so my reading may be incorrect. But Roiphe’s reading seems simply impossible. That’s not what those words mean.

38

Jerry Vinokurov 05.03.13 at 3:04 pm

Not only was the question obviously sexist, but Messud’s reply is about as good a reply to such a stupid, sexist question as one could hope for. Roiphe is only doing her Roiphe thing because her entire and only function is faux-outrage generation for page clicks.

39

Katherine 05.03.13 at 3:10 pm

Some background on Roiphe might help here. She has a long history of falsely stating that someone is making a claim of sexism in order to knock down that claim and thereby show that feminism as a whole is silly and more generally that sexism doesn’t exist.

Thanks, I kind of got that. I do however think that the best reaction to someone who disdains feminism and denies sexism is not to immediately refute the claim that someone has pointed out sexism. I don’t doubt that you genuinely believe that Messud wasn’t doing this. I however do – although since I am a feminist, radically so, I do tend to see sexism everywhere, so maybe this has coloured my view as to whether Messud has done so aswell – and I’m not going to let the nasty likes of Roiphe put me off.

40

SN 05.03.13 at 3:37 pm

I agree entirely with what Katherine said. There are dimensions to the question and the answer. One of them could be responding to the sexism of the question. The question can be read as sexist because she’s being asked a question that would be asked of a chick lit writer. And it isn’t a question a male writer would be asked about male characters.

Messud doesn’t need to be defended from responding to the question as if it were sexist. There’s nothing wrong with it if she did.

Whatever–the overt content of Messud’s response is worth thinking about. We can love characters we wouldn’t want to be friends with. There are many things to think about there. It was a brilliant answer to a dumb question.

And Roiphe’s response is similarly exactly as simpleminded and one dimensional as everything else Roiphe writes.

41

Trader Joe 05.03.13 at 3:41 pm

No view what either Roiphe or Messud were thinking with their comments, but the meme of Women authors/writers not getting fairly reviewed or being treated in a sexist manner probably gets brought up about once every two weeks on the Feminist Philosophers website (See CT Lumber Room)….most recently some commentary about how Wikipedia has separated Women Authors from American Authors.

The linked article in the Nation about two weeks ago is another recent example:

http://www.thenation.com/article/173743/my-so-called-post-feminist-life-arts-and-letters?page=full

My guess is Roiphe has picked up on this somewhere or another and chose to construe Messud’s comments in that vein….

42

SN 05.03.13 at 3:45 pm

But I should add that I get Corey Robin’s point. When I read this before this post, it bugged me as all Katie Roiphe’s writing does. And not because of whatever anti-feminist agenda axe she grinds all the time but because she missed the point and depth of the answer and because she immediately related it to some book she wrote and how she later ‘grew up’ and saw the reasons for criticism of the book even though in her youthful immaturity she was defensive of them.

The equation was–I, the mature author think that perhaps when little Claire Messud grows up she won’t be so touchy.

The whole essay is nauseating. What I can’t stand in these anti-feminists is not just their predictability but their constant psychologicalizing of other women–this horrible projection they do on every woman of their own pathetic bourgeois narcissism.

Katie Roiphe is by far the worst but the whole thing is an industry.

43

Bill Gardner 05.03.13 at 3:58 pm

I may be odd, but when I reread a novel, it is often because I want the companionship of the characters. Andrei Bolkonsky, Dorothea & Lydgate, and Don Gately.

44

tomslee 05.03.13 at 4:33 pm

politicalfootball #36: If “for that matter” means anything in this context…

The context is an infuriated author being pushed too far and letting loose. Messud’s response is wonderfully articulate along with its anger, but subjecting what she said (or rather the transcription of what she said) to close reading as if it were prose mulled-over, refined, and edited, is inappropriate. The same goes for other commenters interrogating the list for who is in and who is out. And as for David and Anderson, using the opportunity to cast doubt on the depth of her Pynchon-reading, well please…

PS Thanks to CR for the excellent post.

PPS Myself, I couldn’t finish Gravity’s Rainbow. Didn’t like any of the characters.

45

Anderson 05.03.13 at 5:06 pm

“And as for David and Anderson, using the opportunity to cast doubt on the depth of her Pynchon-reading”

Wallace, not Pynchon. I can’t think of anyone terribly sympathetic in GR. Maybe Roger, but he does have the whiny putz thing going for him. Maybe Byron the Bulb or Enzian.

46

tomslee 05.03.13 at 5:12 pm

Wallace, not Pynchon

I was just demonstrating that quick responses don’t stand up to close reading. Honest.

47

PatrickinIowa 05.03.13 at 5:41 pm

I’ll copy and paste something I said on Corey’s blog:

Well, a lot of Pynchon’s characters are merry anarchists, and thus fairly likable, but I imagine this is just exactly the sort of thing that makes him glad he stayed out of the interview biz. (And, for those wondering about GR: Geli Tripping, Sauer Bummer, Enzian, Pokler, Bianca, Tyrone, and, of course, I’d love to be friends with Pig Bodine. I don’t expect perfection from my friends. Only my mythological heroes.)

I live in Iowa City, where there are readings four or five nights a week. You hear a lot of stupid questions if you attend them. One of my favorite moments was Annie Proulx’s response when someone asked her if it bothered her to kill off a character she liked. No, she said, they’re characters in a book, not people. She’d kill any character, any time, if that’s what the work required. She said she didn’t like her characters, she made them up.

I gave her points for not actually saying, “you dumbass” at any point during the response, but then, she really didn’t have to.

It’s not so much the sexism (although it’s probably there to some degree) but the misunderstanding about her purposes as an artist that set her off, IMO.

48

Elizabeth 05.03.13 at 6:03 pm

What’s disturbing about Katie Roiphe’s anti-feminism is not just that it’s so dumb and so dishonest, that that editors seem delighted to publish her dumb and dishonest anti-feminist screeds.

49

Lynne 05.03.13 at 6:12 pm

Corey, thanks for this post. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The last few paragraphs, in fact, I laughed with pure enjoyment.

50

ben wolfson 05.03.13 at 7:10 pm

What is the point of this post, either here or at your personal site? Is anyone surprised to learn that Roiphe said something stupid?

51

Substance McGravitas 05.03.13 at 7:26 pm

What is the point of commenting, either here or at your personal site? Is anyone surprised to learn that people have opinions?

52

js. 05.03.13 at 8:06 pm

What Katherine said (22, 39).

And wow, what a dumb fuckin’ question! Messud should maybe have pointed out the interviewer *couldn’t* be “friends with Nora” if he or she wanted to, what with “Nora” not being a person or animate being of any sort to begin with. Though I also find the somewhat more coherent, “X is not a sympathetic character,” or “There are no sympathetic characters in Y’s work” to be pretty dumb as complaints. It’s like complaining that Faulkner’s novels, say, don’t have linear plot progressions. Umm, yeah, but if you’re looking for linear plot progression, maybe you shouldn’t be fooling around with Faulkner in the first place?

53

ben wolfson 05.03.13 at 10:08 pm

The point of commenting is to indicate my puzzlement to Corey Robin, whom I consider to be worth reading and whose intelligence could, I believe, be put to better uses, why he is bothering reading, much less responding to, Katie Roiphe, whom I do not consider worth reading or responding to.

54

b9n10nt 05.04.13 at 12:00 am

PatrickinIowa @ 47:

“You hear a lot of stupid questions if you attend them. One of my favorite moments was Annie Proulx’s response when someone asked her if it bothered her to kill off a character she liked. No, she said, they’re characters in a book, not people.”

I’m not seeing why this is stupid. An author can have an emotional response to the characters they imagine, can’t they? Empathy for their plight is a necessary aspect of understanding what they will say and do next. So, an interviewer might be curious about how intensely this empathy is felt. I also feel like I have heard authors acknowledge that some of their characters can be projections of their own psyche and that writing them can be difficult. So it wouldn’t be the fact that the author has an imaginary person die, but that they are imagining intimately the characters thoughts and feelings as they die. Seems like intense work to me.

Can you say more about why this was a poor question to ask?

55

Niall McAuley 05.04.13 at 12:11 am

Well, I’m puzzled as to why, if Katie Roiphe is so beneath contempt, ben has heard of her and I haven’t.

56

Niall McAuley 05.04.13 at 12:11 am

Also, where are all those, commas coming , from?

57

PatrickfromIowa 05.04.13 at 2:46 am

@b9n10nt Because it assumed that Ms Proulx, who I think we all agree is a serious artist and a very smart person, has a sentimental investment in figments of her imagination, rather than a craft person’s/artist’s interest in her tools.

Imagine someone asking Shakespeare “How many children did Lady MacBeth have?” (Go read that essay for the full treatment.)

Of course writing fiction is hard work, and emotionally intense. But it’s way more than merely fantasizing, and much more cognitive. It’s kind of silly to imagine that my relationship with a character is the same as the writer’s. Many would like to do cocaine with Sherlocke Holmes. Conan Doyle tried to kill him

58

PatrickfromIowa 05.04.13 at 2:48 am

59

David 05.04.13 at 3:45 am

There has been a marked tendency in the last 20 years or so to dismiss Pynchon pretty much out of hand with similar remarks. Obviates the necessity of having actually read any. But I suppose we would have to ask her, wouldn’t we? Perhaps to be just as dismissed. For crying out loud. Despite the “would you?” tacked on it was clearly an observation and a valid one. And even as a question it is not a silly one. Y’all have a cramped view of reading fiction. But I suspect this was just an irresistible opportunity to take another shot at Roiphe because shooting fish in a barrel is so manly.

60

David 05.04.13 at 3:46 am

“… of actually reading any.”

61

js. 05.04.13 at 4:39 am

Y’all have a cramped view of reading fiction

It’d seem to me that the people insisting on “sympathetic characters”, etc., have a cramped view of fiction. Speaking for myself, I get entirely why people would want sympathetic characters, identification, etc, in their novels. I for myself prefer The Waves and V. It’s just a bit dumb though to ask someone who’s doing one kind of thing why she or he is not doing some other rather different kind of thing.

(Ps. The contrast I draw above is pretty strong obviously. But something similar applies within styles that aren’t so far apart. The point being to take the author seriously on her own terms — and hate her for it if you must.)

62

js. 05.04.13 at 4:51 am

Having reread David’s comment @59, I fear my last was misdirected. (Still not sure who David is addressing there.)

63

David 05.04.13 at 4:51 am

Who’s talking about sympathetic characters? I don’t necessarily want or need those, but nor do I shun them or not appreciate them. Like I said, if you accept her response, cramped.

64

David 05.04.13 at 4:53 am

js: At this point I am addressing Messud and the defenders/enablers of her response.

65

js. 05.04.13 at 5:26 am

David: At this point I am addressing Messud and the defenders/enablers of her response.

Having not actually read Messud, I don’t want to stick my neck too far out, but I was defending her response because, (a) I find the comment/question, “would you be friends with X character” to be somewhere between incoherent and irrelevant, and more seriously (b) I suspect it’s forcing the author into the position of answering why she isn’t doing something that she had no intention of or interest in doing in the first place. So I’m still thinking it’s a bit of a dumb question, and an annoyed response is perfectly appropriate (hence, the “take the author seriously on her own terms” in my last comment).

66

b9n10nt 05.04.13 at 7:47 am

PatrickfromIowa @ 57 thanks for the response.

To restate what I’ve heard you say: the question of whether an author is bothered by a traumatic development in one of her characters is sentimental.

My view of creative action can best be expressed by replacing some of the words in your clear response:

“it assumed that Ms Proulx, who I think we all agree is a serious artist and a very smart person, has a sentimental investment in figments of her imagination, rather than a craft person’s/artist’s interest in her tools.”

-sentimental & figments: “bothered”, as you refer to the interviewer saying, does not necessarily conjure a sentimental relationship with imaginative figments.

-rather & merely: the creative act will blend thought and feeling (because they’re not biologically nor experientially discreet), with an intense concentration on developing aspects of both mental productions. Why should we assume that fantasy and imagination aren’t serious for a writer?

-stupid and silly: your experience is probably accurately reflecting an inability to probe Ms. Proulx with an intellect commensurate with her own. (Or, perhaps the interviewer was sensitive enough to be in-on-the-act, a setup to diffuse the obvious presence of Female Author cliche. I’ve seen skillful interviewers dissemble a naive relationship with their questions.)

However, if the interviewer was not so clever & reflective, we do need respectful terms for people that acknowledge simpler intellectual gifts.

67

Brett Dunbar 05.04.13 at 9:26 am

As lady Macbeth actually existed we know she had a son, Lulach by her first husband. Gille Coemgáin. Gruoch’ s second marriage to Macbeth was childless.

68

Brett Dunbar 05.04.13 at 1:14 pm

The reviewer apparently disliked the character but got the impression that the author intended her to like the character. Asking about this seems like a perfectly reasonable question.

69

Suzanne 05.04.13 at 7:31 pm

Re #36: Austen was mistaken, as it turned out. Emma is in many respects intensely likable, and despite her failings and flaws many readers over the years have loved her, not just liked her.

“Would you want to be friends with X?” is a pretty silly way of putting it, but it is generally true that the character must have something that engages the reader. Humbert Humbert is a funny fellow. Raskolnikov has a fascination that makes you want to know more about him and find out what happens to him. (I’d say that Mickey Sabbath is a very poor example for Messud to choose – just the kind of jerk to make you toss the book aside.) Not having read Messud’s book, I can’t judge, but it’s possible her Nora isn’t just angry and unlikable but tediously so.

“We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

I look to life for life. Literature is providing something else. It enriches my life but it is not life, and indeed it’s that sort of confusion which may lead to questions like “Would you want to be friends with X?”

70

Kevin 05.04.13 at 9:55 pm

Well, thanks Suzanne. That comment certainly made the thread as far as I’m concerned.

71

PatrickinIowa 05.04.13 at 11:33 pm

Just to be perfectly clear, although I think JS and Suzanne have made the points I’d want made exceedingly well: what I think is sentimental is not that writers are bothered by bad things happening to characters. What I think is sentimental (more accurately, ontologically incoherent) is demanding that writers regard fictional characters as sentient things that can have traumatic things happen to them. Yes, affect and cognition are inextricable, but I think really good writers tend not to subsume themselves into fantasy, except maybe when they’re reading.

This whole thing goes all the way back to Aristotle’s distinction between history, “what happened” and poetry, “the kind of thing that happens.”

To return to Shakespeare, cuz that’s how I’ve thought about it. I imagine he was pretty pleased with himself after he wrote the scene where Gloucester gets his eyes gouged out. I don’t imagine he was cheerful if he ever witnessed an Elizabethan execution.

The questioner was not terribly skillful. Proulx mentioned she had sat in the plane for while in the Minneapolis airport before takeoff, and I agree she could have been less dismissive.

And, by the way, I love reading fiction, from Dickens to Austen to Joyce to Pynchon to Woolf to all sorts of genre fiction, especially SF and noir.

72

merian 05.05.13 at 12:46 am

It seems quite obvious to me that the question had some gender-bias overtones and as noted by Ben in #12 Messud signals she picked up on it. But it’s much more stupid than it is sexist. As several commenters now have wondered, what should be wrong with acknowledging that these things have different components to it? Also, the anti-feminism itself sounds pretty sexist to me.

(I went here looking forward to some long-standing commenters but maybe they’ve been driven off by previous unpleasantness. A pity for CT.)

73

pedant 05.06.13 at 11:09 am

72

Of course, some of the long-standing commenters *were* the previous unpleasantness. And the one previous to that one, as well. Twas ever thus.

74

Kenny Easwaran 05.07.13 at 6:53 am

Anecdote warning – on starting to read this post, before I had any idea of what the topic was, starting to read Messud’s response I immediately thought that Messud was charging the questioner with making a sexist question. I can’t point to what made me think that, but something did.

Comments on this entry are closed.