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

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain