The Unassailably Bad Essay

The essay I am writing about is a few days old, and though it generated a little bit of talk on bookish blogs, I am pretty sure that everyone has forgotten about it. And that is a good thing, because it is a very bad essay.

But it has nagged at me for one reason: It is almost too wrong to argue with. The article in question is somehow perfectly wrong. Every point it makes is premised on a foundation that implies another wrong point. So to attack any of the argument presumes an agreement with an even more fundamentally flawed assumption.

The essay is called ‘The Naked and the Conflicted’. You will note that before the essay even begins, the title implies that conflict is somehow a negative instead of a driving force of fiction. In the essay’s body, Katie Roiphe attempts to, among other things, posit a series of absurd generational trends about the way men write about sex. Roiphe says that 30 years ago, men like John Updike and Philip Roth wrote about sex and it was brash and sexy and powerful. Now, apparently in some relation to that literature- and spirit- killer known as feminism, a bunch of emasculated and whining cuddlers have replaced our literary lions.

So where does one even begin? Roiphe is wrong in her generational characterization both aesthetically and historically– that is, neither does she choose historically coherent cohorts that represent distinctly different periods or styles, nor does she make a convincing case about a real difference between the two cohorts she uses as evidence. Of course, Roiphe doesn’t even to attempt to relate either of her generations to either women writers or male writers pre- Norman Mailer, as such complications and continuities thereby demonstrated would entirely ruin the neatness of her theory.

I was tempted to try to attack her on her own terms, to fault her for her major omissions and the way they would contradict her thesis. Donald Barthelme and Sam Lipsyte immediately come to mind as major countervailing figures, for example. But then I couldn’t justify that position of offense because to do so would be to allow that her argument holds up at least insofar as the canons she posits are taken as representative of their generations. Of course I can’t accept her canons as such, because they are not representative, but even if we go along with her up to the canon-making point, we must note that her observations about her key figures are all wrong. Take for example the sheer distance between Roth’s Portnoy and Updike’s Rabbit or David Foster Wallace and any of the middlebrow Jonathans that Roiphe chooses to employ as emblematic of major contemporary writers.

So that is the first fold or two of my complaints. Unfortunately to attack the essay for these above flaws lets slide the fact that the very premise of the essay is nonsense because the status of literature has drastically changed over the past 40 years – and for reasons that have nothing to do with feminism. Mainstream narratives are filled with big, ugly, brutish masculine sex stories. Mainstream narrative is now cinema. There is a whole long essay here about the need to accept that literature functions differently and so will read differently.

Yet to make the above point about mis-assessing the character of fiction in today’s society (and thus the inevitable change in or loss of the literary lion) is to admit that there has been a generational shift to wimpy sex writing by men, which I’ve already argued is a dubious claim at best. So I am caught in a circle. Everything is wrong about the essay and so I am unable to maintain a focused assault.

So this is an essay about me as much as a response to Roiphe’s nonsense. It is an account of my frustration as I found my critique broadened at every turn. And my critique broadens and broadens- I haven’t even touched on the problems with Roiphe’s chart, her own prose, her strange misreading of the function and history of transgressive literature, her total acceptance of gender as unchanging and monolithic….. The essay is almost magically bad, entrancing in its sheer emptiness. Each piece of failed argument opens into a gulf of failed logic. Sentence by sentence, Roiphe’s text accrues a mirror-field of objectionable claims from which to build and project an image of conceptual soundness.

I have realized that ‘The Naked…’ occupies a worldview and a position from which to assess literature that is not so much at odds with my own as entirely without relation. Such disjuncture is sickening in a literal sense, disorienting and dizzying. As a college professor, Ms. Roiphe is highly educated, well read, presumably privy to the prevailing academic debates and trends. And yet I cannot find a piece of ground firm enough engage her on.

The banal conclusion is ‘different strokes for different folks’ or some other way of locating beauty in the eye of the beholder. This is of course a perfectly reasonable thing. I should not be depressed that a person can both care about contemporary literature and have very different taste than my own. And yet and yet…

And yet the nagging and horrifying thing is that Roiphe’s (all too common) aesthetic is unbearably depressing. It is mean and small, criticizing without being critical, totally blind to the X (here it is again, my trouble, that her essay is blind to everything about literature – its beauty, its function, the way it changes over time, its social import, its intellectual, narrative, and aesthetic possibilities) of writing.


Note: I have too many more complaints to list. As I am writing this, they keep coming to mind and each one seems important to explain in detail. This is not a comprehensive objection. It is also without much positive content. I hope to write an essay about what is valuable in explorations of sex and the body in literature. That piece, if it comes together, will probably stand as a stronger supplement to this one



3 Responses to “The Unassailably Bad Essay”

  1. 1 johuat
    January 6, 2010 at 4:20 am

    I actually have a link to a picture of Ms. Roiphe after reading your post Ben

  2. January 8, 2010 at 3:33 am

    Let us never conclude with ‘different strokes for different folks’. This is not even a reasonable starting point. Let boring be boring and I’ll leave the boring boring up to you!

  3. January 8, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    The most reasonable starting point is the elephant, the alphabet, the turntable trickery!

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