Katie Roiphe’s latest book, In Praise of Messy Lives, has been similarly divisive, with critics clamouring to applaud or admonish her in almost equal measure. I talked to her about dealing with criticism, the conservatism of modern life and how we can escape the trap of complacency.
A recent New York Times review compared In Praise of Messy Lives to Orwell’s essays and, while Roiphe’s critics may have something to say about that, there are certainly facets of the two writers’ work that can be compared. Like Orwell, the subject of Roiphe’s essays are broad, and range from the personal to wider cultural phenomena. So, what attracts her to a particular topic?
“I don’t know the answer to that, exactly,” she responds. “The process is a bit mysterious to me. It’s like attraction – I’m drawn to things sort of the way I am to people. I do notice that I’m often attracted to topics or ideas that make people uncomfortable – which is perhaps not the easiest way to make a career.”
We are always affected by cultural values. They shadow us, exert their influence, even if we don’t wholly accept them.If you’re familiar with Roiphe’s work, this is somewhat of an understatement. She describes the driving force behind her work as a desire to “get people to question received ideas, to interrogate the accepted view of many intimate, charged topics.” This, she admits, means “people are [often] ruffled.”
Although Roiphe does agree that “women writers attract a greater and more colourful vitriol than male writers”, she takes it in her stride. “I myself don’t take negative commentary very personally,” she says. “If anything, over the top attacks fuel and energise me. The worst thing you can do as a writer is bore people, so anger doesn’t really scare or bother me.”
A great example of this hardiness comes in the form of a letter she received in response to a New York Times piece, saying “It represented ‘the end of civilisation.’ I loved it. I pinned it to the wall in my office for inspiration on a slow day.” Indeed, she likens neutral responses to her work as being “like when someone who is used to living in the city with car noises and garbage trucks at six in the morning sleeps in the [country]. I wonder: where is everyone?”
In Praise of Messy Lives, like much of Roiphe’s work, covers both personal and cultural topics. The book constantly rails against what she sees as the conservatism and complacency of modern culture – something she admits she cannot completely protect even herself from:
“We are always affected by cultural values. They shadow us, exert their influence, even if we don’t wholly accept them. Even for someone like me, who is critical of these attitudes, they are inescapable … I often find myself feeling like I have ‘failed’ because I haven’t lived more conventionally.”
So, how can we escape this dull bourgeois landscape we’ve found ourselves in? Roiphe advises us to “try to think more broadly, with more historical sweep. I think about writers and artists I admire and the way they lived, rather than, say, the way the people down the street live.”
While Dylan Thomas‘ “rage against the dying of the light” is applicable for Roiphe’s next project, which will be focusing on writers’ confrontations with death, it also sums up the rest of her work: considered but angry, and full of passionate power.
In Praise of Messy Lives, published by Canongate, is available now. Get it here.