Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs sounds interesting, certainly more so than her previous one, The Emperor’s Children (oh no, another novel about young people obsessed with David Foster Wallace!). The title makes me think of Hilary Mantel’s early novel, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, which is one of my favorites, an Orwellian gaslight mystery set behind the walls of purdah, but it could also fit well into my next “Boston-area novels” series, if there ever is one. But on the Internet, there’s been much brouhaha over the interview Messud did with Publisher’s Weekly, part of which, presumably edited down from something a bit longer, they published online. As the interview presented, the interviewer, a woman, asks Messud, “What are we to make of Nora Eldridge, [the protagonist]? Because she is angry, really angry.” Messud answers at length, talking about the kind of novel she intended to write. The follow-up question is, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” To this, Messud replies, in essence, that the question is a mistaken one.
Writing a brief piece in Salon, David Daley characterizes Messud’s response as a statement that the interviewer’s question was sexist. Let’s leave aside the definition of “sexist.” Obviously what is meant is that the question wouldn’t have been asked of a male novelist, and that it’s wrong to have different standards for women and for men. Messud alludes to this question herself, earlier in the interview: she explicitly says that she had decided she wanted to see a book about a woman who has characteristics she only sees in novels (which she thinks are very good, and in fact loves) that are written by men about men. In other words, she recognizes that there’s a kind of novel that’s generally written only by men. She also explains that she doesn’t believe that fact equates to a prescription that has to apply to her.
At this point in the interview (as it was published), the interviewer suggested that she thinks characters in fiction ought to be likable, and that Messud’s character isn’t. Messud responded by objecting to the question. She listed, again, some of the same novels she’d mentioned earlier: those she’d already identified as the kind only men, and not women, are thought to be able to write. There are two ways of taking this. First, she could be saying, “Surely you think Sabbath’s Theater is great? Then why do you criticize me? It must be because I'm a woman.” Or, she could be saying, “You must think Sabbath's Theater is bad, too, and it isn't.” I think it’s more likely she intended to say the second of those, which is a common enough sentiment. But it was actually Messud who’d brought up the question of gender in the first place, and it’s not that surprising if people took her to be saying the first.
But then Katie Roiphe chimed in, linking to Daley’s piece. Where Daley had mildly noted that Messud implicitly criticized the reviewer’s question for being sexist (Daley mentions Laura Miller’s review of the novel in his own publication, though he doesn’t link to it), Katie Roiphe attacks Messud for implicitly criticizing the reviewer’s question for being sexist. It’s worth noting that Roiphe doesn’t only attack Messud for the accusation of sexism, Roiphe actually goes on to attack Messud for being insubordinate towards the interviewer.
( For that matter, it’s odd that Slate has a column called “Double X,” which is written by Roiphe, and a blog called “XX Factor,” which is written by a slate of four women.)
And as is usual for Roiphe, she gives a whole pseudo-Freudian explication of why Messud might do that and why it’s wrong. What she says about Claire Messud is, in short, this: that she displays a “tendency to blame the world for a blanket, raging sexism that only partly exists,” that she unfairly “devour[s] her interviewer with her superior, more sophisticated literary approach,” that she throws a tantrum at the injustice of being subjected by a journalist to “indignities, like being asked if you would be friends with your character.” This is vaguely less insufferable, actually, than Roiphe’s columns so often are. Here, at least, she’s attributing to Messud attitudes that other writers have laid claim to, in similar situations. She simply describes those attitudes in a one-sided way that makes them and Messud all look like whiny adolescents—that misunderstands the situation entirely (as if the idea that novelists might know more about literature than book-journalists do, for instance, was entirely novel)—and sets Roiphe up, if only for the amount of time it takes the reader to finish her column, as a voice of reason, almost as a saint. No one will ever blame Katie Roiphe for seeing sexism where it doesn’t exist, especially if she accuses every other woman of that failing first (though you’d think she’d already secured herself on that point by now). The most infuriating among Roiphe’s columns, at least for me, are those where she attacks women she simply doesn’t like, for some reason she doesn’t bother to articulate, but has something to do with some domestic task they do and she doesn’t herself think is necessary. Then, she tars them with the “probably a man-hating feminist” brush, not to mention the (I am not making this up) “probably watches TV with her husband instead of having sex with him, which is a thing I’d never do” brush. This one is just barely normal enough that many readers, following the link from other mentions of the column, won’t know why Roiphe’s name arouses such outrage.
The really bizarre thing in this case is that Roiphe goes on to give Messud publishing advice. I suppose what’s going through her mind is, “She’s a writer (a little like me), I have a newspaper column, maybe she would like to someday have a newspaper column, so I’ll tell her what she would need to change if she’d like someday to be me.” And the advice that Roiphe gives Messud, who’s just published her fifth novel (and is two years older than Roiphe is), is based on Roiphe’s experience with her first book of nonfiction, which she published when she was twenty-five. Roiphe made such and such mistakes, she says, she learned some lessons in such and such a way, and made such and such changes, and she’s sure Messud can profit from making exactly the same changes. What it comes across as, however—at best—is tribalistic defense of a journalist (the Publishers’ Weekly interviewer) against a perceived attack from an outsider.
Scott Esposito and D.G. Myers have literary responses to the fracas. Myers’ is colored by the fact that he habitually defends exactly the kind of novel Messud would seem to be defending in the interview, as here, in a discussion of Roth’s The Human Stain, which happens to be just about at the point in Roth’s career where I started questioning my ability to go along with what he seemed to be up to. -via For that matter, so does Mr. Claire Messud, James “hysterical realism” Wood.