Reliably Bad Roiphe

The always cranky (and just as often on-target) Steve Donoghue takes apart the word salad that is Katie Roiphe’s latest attempt at literary criticism.

Our old nemesis Katie Roiphe fires off a piece wailing about the dimming of John Updike’s literary reputation in the three years since his death – at least, I think that’s what she’s wailing about (the essay is more eager to push all the buttons than a kid in a department store elevator). She begins:

Exactly three years after his death, it’s sad to see that John Updike has subtly fallen out of fashion, that he is left off best novels lists like the Modern Library’s, and that a faint sense of disapproval clings to his reputation, even as his immense talent is recognized.

It’s obviously not a promising beginning (‘subtly’? ‘faint’?), and things only get worse – Roiphe spends her next two paragraphs demonstrating how a faint sense of disapproval has always clung to Updike’s work, mainly “harbored” by carping critics who are unnerved by just how exquisite that work is:

Critics and writers hold the fact that he writes beautiful sentences against him, as if his writing is too well crafted, too flamboyantly, extravagantly good.

To put it mildly, extravagant goodness was never something I associated with Updike

I bring it up since Barrett Hathcock showed similar exasperation with Roiphe’s writing in Lady Chatterley’s Brother (PDF, Amazon), where he discussed her consideration of the Updike-idolizing Nicholson Baker. Here’s Barrett on her “strange nostalgia” for the good old sex writing of John Updike:

In the Times Sunday Book Review, Katie Roiphe published “The Naked and the Conflicted,” an essay that glibly took contemporary male writers like Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon to task for failing to depict sex with anything near the verve and heroic grandeur of their generational forebearers, such as Mailer, Roth, and Updike. It’s an odd essay, even for a contemporary post-feminist scandal-magnet like Roiphe. The argument is so counterintuitive that it bends its way back to idiocy. The essay also makes the same rhetorical moves of many Times essays: it takes a convenient sampling of recent literature and plucks quotations completely out of context to constitute a trend piece from the trimmings. I call it Trend Sausage.

It’s true that the contemporary authors Roiphe cites don’t write about sex in the way that Roth and Updike did. Why should they? Times have, indeed, changed. What’s more, the books she quotes from are interested in different subjects; they might contain sexual scenes or details but they are not like Portnoy’s Complaint, which is about sex at almost all points. It’s like going to the ballet and complaining how there isn’t nearly enough kissing going on.

But aside from Roiphe’s strange nostalgia for a more brutally frank time, one might suggest that the reason these contemporary novelists aren’t discussing sex in the same way is that they are simply not as interested in sex as their taboo-busting forefathers. For Updike, there was news to be made in Couples. With Lawrence breaking down the gate, there was a quick harvest in the newly liberated field of sex studies. But now, describing the sexual act in multiple paragraphs of compound-complex English prose seems like a waste of time, or a willfully blind ignorance of what is on our televisions and computer screens, or an excursion into one’s own mental adult theater.

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