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Monday 18 November 2013

Review: Katie Roiphe, In Praise of Messy Lives

I picked up this book because of its interesting title and because instead of the usual head and shoulders author photograph, there's a three-quarter length of a very attractive woman pressed into the corner of a sofa and displaying what used to be called rather a lot of thigh. It's a challenge - Do you have what it takes to sit down and hold a conversation with me? Well, perhaps not -  buying the book felt like a compromise.

The thirty essays which comprise it - only one previously unpublished - are the work of someone who is, I suppose, a New York Critic. They include essays on parenting, on being a single parent, on childhood, on women writers, on All-American male writers, on contemporary feminism, on the Internet and on sex and power - the final essay is a study of one professional Dominatrix.

The essays are short, lucid and well-crafted. They are meant to be provocative though the provocation is directed at a rather restricted group - not so much the New York chattering classes as a whole but New York chatterers who have two kids and eat wholefood and are a bit to the Right of Katie Roiphe who is an anti-parenting parent rather in the same way that she is an anti-feminist feminist.

On children and parenting, I think she is broadly correct. Children are born into worlds not of their choosing and have their work cut out to make sense of them and to make their way in them. They need their parents to engage with them and to support them - but not to be on their backs all the time. Children deserve to be left alone, left to their own devices. There is nothing more delightful than to observe a young child absorbed in an activity which may seem quite pointless to the adult and yet which clearly is very important to the child. Nothing worse than for an over-active parent (or teacher) to distract the child away from what they find absorbing towards something more "educational". Schooling does a terrible thing when it devotes itself to destroying children's attention span, constantly moving them from one worthy activity to the next. You can see where surfing the Internet comes from.

One essay, Profiles Encouraged - a critique of celebrity profiles in gossipy magazines and not-so gossipy newspapers - reminded me of early Roland Barthes,taking a cultural institution and demystifying it, pulling it apart between what it does and what it says it does. 

Other essays express frustration with other people's ridiculousness or evasiveness: if there is a Leitmotif it is expressed at the end of an essay on Mad Men:

we are bequeathed on earth one very short life, and it might be good, one of these days, to make sure that we are living it (p 152)
I raised an eyebrow in a few places, notably when the author assumes a level of ignorance in her readers which seems out of place. Thus, in the final essay, "We are talking about Story of O, a famous French novel from the fifties about sadomasochism" (page 257) and again, "Venus in Furs, written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch" (page 259). These turns of phrase either imply that New York is not so much a cosmopolitan city as a  bit of a Sunday School or that the habit of writing for the Internet (which Katie Roiphe does) leads all of us to avoid easy cultural assumptions since our audience could be anywhere. I know that whenever I look at my Google dashboard, I make a mental note that half the time I am not being read in the countries where I assume I would be read.

Looking at that Dashboard I can see that I have published over 800 Blog posts on my three on-going Blogs. On top of that, there's a website with sixty plus essays from my past. Sometimes I imagine putting together a book of my own very much like Katie Roiphe's - thirty selected essays, the lines on the page widely-spaced (thirty to the page in this book), so that it feels easy to read. Curiously, I imagine this at the same time as thinking that my Blogs probably have more page views than a book would have readers. Ah, yes, but the book would have more Reviewers. Indeed, you might say that the secret ingredient of Katie Roiphe's book is that it lends itself to being reviewed.

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