Katie Roiphe interview: "There is a lot of unexamined feminist outrage against other women"

Helen Lewis talks to Katie Roiphe, columnist and author, most recently of <em>In Praise of Messy Lives</em>.

Katie Roiphe likes to provoke. The American essayist describes herself in her latest collection as an “uncomfortablist”. Considering her career began with a book suggesting that date rape statistics were overblown and asserting, “Rape is a natural trump card for feminism,” that is a small understatement.

In person, though, Roiphe has a demeanour that is quiet and watchful, although her defiant halo of tight curls and the loud print of her minidress suggest she is less of a wallflower than she might at first seem. “It’s the goal to get people to think about things in a new way and if that’s what you’re doing, you can’t then complain about people attacking you,” she tells me. “You know, we say that women writers have a harder time on the internet with the angry comments – but a lot of those angry comments come from women. There is a lot of unexamined feminist outrage against other women.”

Roiphe’s recent book In Praise of Messy Lives begins with an appropriately uncomfortable description of her divorce. Her unhappily married friends, she notices, are desperate to believe that she is miserable, desperate to think that her children are suffering; her happily married friends do not judge.

It is tempting to dismiss Roiphe as just another confessional columnist and some do. Hamilton Nolan of Gawker seems to write an angry blog every time she publishes an essay, blog with titles such as “Shut up, Katie Roiphe” and “Your rape fantasy is boring, Katie Roiphe”. (She responded with a piece about the site’s “autopilot Schadenfreude” entitled “Gawker is big immature baby”.)

Despite her personal focus and her tendency to enrage, Roiphe is more than a starspangled Liz Jones. For a start, her range is impressive. She has a PhD in English from Princeton and teaches at New York University and she seems as happy writing about why so many mothers are keen to replace their Facebook profile pictures with photos of their babies – “The choice seems to constitute a retreat to an older form of identity, to a time when women were called Mrs John Smith” – as she is close-reading a forgotten female author.

She is brave, too. In her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted”, she casually picks a fight with a generation of male American writers, describing Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel and David Foster Wallace as boringly guilt-ridden and emasculated, particularly in comparison to the “onanistic exuberance” of Philip Roth and John Updike’s ability to “do poetry and whorehouse”. (To compound the offence, she blames feminist critics for inflicting all this snuggling on us by being so hard on Roth’s and Updike’s bawdiness in the first place.)

Despite the negative reaction, Roiphe is unrepentant. “I am saying something that I think is common sense but other people think is really crazy.” She pauses. “That’s a position I often find myself in.”

The writer Katie Roiphe. Photograph: Anna Schori / Camera Press

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.