Sunday, January 03, 2010

Bitter grapes of Roth

Reading Katie Roiphe's flimsy, rambling and generally pointless essay about Male Novelists [1] then and now in the New York Times Book Review, my first thought was that Ms. Roiphe pretty much answers the question she's set out to explore in the first paragraph. Why do New Male Novelists not write like Old Male Novelists? Because that's the way Old Male Novelists write - why would you want to repeat what's already been done?

But that isn't the point of this post. The point of this post is to take issue with what I see as Ms. Roiphe's misrepresentation of David Foster Wallace (henceforth DFW)'s take on the Great Male Novelists. In her piece, Ms. Roiphe has DFW quoting a friend describing Updike as "just a penis with a thesaurus" [2] and going on (in what Ms. Roiphe describes as a vitriolic review) to dismiss the anguish of one of Updike's protagonists, saying "I'm not especially offended by this attitude, I mostly just don't get it."

The essay in question, is called 'Certainly the end of something or the other' and can be found in DFW's Consider the Lobster (a version of it that appeared in the New York observer can be found here, and is well worth the read[3]). Several points about this essay, and the way Ms. Roiphe twists it to serve her own ends, are worth noting.

First, the "penis with a thesaurus" crack is quoted by DFW as an instance of the kind of irrational dislike some people have for Updike, a dislike that DFW feels is undeserved. In the essay, DFW describes himself as a fan of Updike, and praises some of his early novels as being "all great books, maybe classics". And even as DFW criticizes Updike's latest novel, he goes to great lengths to highlight what he considers to be its redeeming features. Hardly what you would expect from a 'vitriolic' reviewer.

Second, it's instructive to read the sentence that follows the line about not getting the protagonist's attitude that Ms. Roiphe quotes. DFW writes: "Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull's unhappiness is obvious right from the novel's first page." DFW doesn't get Turnbull's attitude not because (as Ms. Roiphe, with her cherry-picked quote would have you believe) the idea of sexual emasculation as existential crisis is unintelligible to him, but because it's clear that Turnbull's crisis precedes and is independent of his loss of virility.

What's noteworthy about the DFW essay, moreover, is how much clearer an explanation of the movement away from the Great Male Narcissists DFW offers. He writes:

"There are, of course, some obvious explanations for
part of this dislike -- jealousy, iconoclasm, P.C. backlash, and the fact
that many of our parents revere Mr. Updike and it's easy to revile what
your parents revere. But I think the major reason so many of my
generation dislike Mr. Updike and the other G.M.N.'s has to do with
these writers' radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical
celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their

and again,

"But the young educated adults of the 90s -- who were, of course, the children of the
same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so
beautifully -- got to watch all this brave new individualism and
self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and
anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation. Today's sub-40s have
different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a
peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without once
having loved something more than yourself."

There, in two short paragraphs, is a more concise and, to my mind, more plausible explanation for the repudiation of the old ways than anything Ms. Roiphe manages to come up with in four long pages of text.

One final point: about Narcissism. DFW's critique of the GMNs is three-fold: that their characters are inherently narcissistic, that they are closely modeled on the author, and that the writers themselves seem to celebrate this narcissism. The first two, it seems to me, are hard to argue with; it would be a brave champion of Roth or Updike indeed who would argue that their characters are not self-absorbed. Certainly Ms. Roiphe presents no evidence to counter this claim.

DFW's third assertion is shakier - possibly true of Mailer and to a lesser extent of Updike, but not so much of Roth (and certainly not of Bellow). Portnoy, Zuckerman, Sabbath - these are immortal narcissists, but I would argue that Roth is keenly and critically aware of their narcissism and of the potential for caricature inherent therein. It is hard to read Portnoy's Complaint as an "uncritical celebration" of its protagonist's self-absorption.

It is unclear to me whether DFW really meant to lump Roth in with the other GMNs (the essay is, after all, a review of one specific Updike novel) and whether he did not, perhaps, get a little carried away. But even if you take his assertion at face value, and even if you grant that the assertion that the GMNs are uncritical of their character's self-absorption is contentious, it is worth noting that Ms. Roiphe's critique of contemporary male novelists as also being narcissistic really doesn't follow. DFW's criticism of the Updike & Co. is that their characters are narcissistic and closely modeled on the authors themselves, and that the authors seem to see this narcissism as a positive quality. Even if you disagree with that last claim, and even if we grant that the characters in novels by younger male writers are narcissistic in their own way, it is hard to argue that the younger writers are creating characters who are reflections of themselves (unless Ms. Roiphe is seriously suggesting that young male writers today are either lousy, nervous lovers or children / virgins), and harder to argue that these young writers see self-absorption as praiseworthy.

I have no real argument with Ms. Roiphe's piece per se. I think it's uninteresting and ends up severely caricaturing contemporary male novelists in order to defend the old guard that Ms. Roiphe clearly values, and while I tend to agree that there is something to be said for the older writers, I don't see why it's necessary to take cheap shots at the younger ones to do so. Mostly, though, I just don't like the way she represents DFW's views, setting them up as a convenient strawman.

[1] A group that is not, and, I would argue, has never been, as homogeneous as Ms. Roiphe would have us believe. Four writers (with Bellow's inclusion being questionable) is hardly the sum of Great Male Novelists.

[2] A quote which, you have to admit, is pretty funny.

[3] If it isn't already obvious from all these footnotes, I'm very fond of DFW.


Space Bar said...

i got this thing as a link and i refused to trawl through 4 pages of it. so thanks for this.

and please go take this one down. pretty please.

Falstaff said...

SB: Nah. Shooting fish in a barrel. That piece is too idiotic to even dignify with a response. Anyone who thinks Hammerklavier is difficult to listen to is clearly brain dead.

Falstaff said...

P.S. To see what I mean, just listen to this.

Subjective judgments aside, it's hard to think of a piece that does more to "venerate harmony, and order". One can't help feeling Bach would have approved.

Veena said...

SB: I should have known Falstaff would bite. And I didn't even have to send him the link :)

Falstaff: Love it. I hated the way she used my all-time fav DFW review to further her silly views and I couldn't have put this better.

Also, I don't think her intention is to defend the old guard (like they actually need any defence). She is using all these writers + DFW to doing what she has made a career out of - be a contrarian for the sake of being one.


Some "feminists" think date rape is bad, so I shall write a book that shows how none of my friends ever got raped on a date and hence it never happens.

Or some women don't want to have kids or don't make much of motherhood. So I shall write about how no mother would ever trade her baby for the possibility of writing House of Mirth. And such nonsense.

km said...

I read this last evening and instantly pictured you posting a response of sorts :)

Such awful pap.

Apparently, the editors thought a diagram would make the article interesting.

Falstaff said...

Veena:'ve clearly been following Ms. Roiphe's career for some time. Me, I'd barely heard of her before yesterday.

It could also be argued, actually, that Ms. Roiphe is significantly misrepresenting Millett. Kate Millett did not, after all, write Sexual Politics to "take the great writers to task" with or without her nightly martini. Her purpose was the far less trivial one of documenting and exposing the patriarchy, she just picked Mailer as a convenient example that embodied a certain male attitude towards women. Which, if you think about it, is actually quite a compliment to Mailer. Millett tends to ignore the possibility that a writer may not share his character's views (which may be true for Mailer, but is certainly not true generally), but this isn't a criticism of Mailer per se, only of the version of masculinity that he channels and represents. Annoying as Ms. Roiphe's take on DFW is, her sniping at Millett is even more so. Kate Millett doesn't "prefer that Norman Mailer have a different taste in sexual position", she prefers that men stop treating women as objects to be used for their own gratification.

I wish I could find a link to the passages from Mailer that Millett actually quotes. Then we could see if there really is "something almost romantic in the old guard's view of sex".

km: That diagram!! I can only conclude that the NY Times Book Review is now run by a bunch of first year analysts who got laid off from their consulting firms.

equivocal said...

Serves you right for reading a second-rate mag like the "New York Times Book Review". Why do you do it?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I have to disagree with you a little bit. Not about DFW. Not at all. And thanks for posting that link. I think I'm going to go read IJ again.

But his review? Not vitriolic enough for you? Note also that Ms. Roiphe said "vitriolic attack" not "vitriolic reviewer". Consider this Lobster:

" Toward the End of Time is also, of the let’s say two dozen Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.

I’m afraid the preceding sentence is this review’s upshot, and most of the remainder here will consist simply of presenting evidence/justification for such a disrespectful assessment."

You cannot believe that (and the rest of the review) is not caustic, scathing, searing, world-weary vitriol that only DFW can do.

I quite liked Roiphe's essay, too, so would be interested in why the others think its pap. I mean its not of the DFW calibre (what is, ever?) but as an essay in a mainstream mag? I enjoyed it.
Of course the "oooh bring back the real men" thing she does at the end is depressing. I LIKE irony, dammit, and those Starbucks lattes aren't half bad either.

Oh and that link about people not listening to Beethoven's 9th? I'm in so much pain.


Anonymous said...

sonia said...

Nicely done:

Here's a link to a post that makes some smart points (extraneous to the ones already made on your post) that I think you might appreciate...