In challenging books such as “The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus,” and “Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century’s End,” author Katie Roiphe controversially questioned the status quo of current sexual politics and women’s rights, and made a name for herself in the bargain as a no-nonsense, fearlessly thick-skinned wordsmith – a hard cross between Camille Paglia and Anais Nin. That she has continued to do likewise, whether in fiction, or non-fiction form, since that time has made Roiphe a provocateur of the highest order, a prodding she’s continued in her newest work, the aptly-titled, “The Power Notebooks.”
Due to speak at the Free Library’s Arch Street branch, but cancelled due to the threat of COVID-19, Roiphe will appear, as planned, before Women’s History Month’s end at the Library courtesy Crowdcast this Tuesday night, March 31. Visit www.crowdcast.io/e/roiphe-power-notebooks to register and participants will be notified to sign in closer to the event’s start time.
Metro sat down with Katie Roiphe to discuss Women’s History Month, “The Power Notebooks” and more:
Despite everything going on in the world of COVID-19, it is still Women’s History Month, and you are its present and future – what are you thinking or could think about the confluence?
I am finding it important and restorative to escape the hand-washing and obsessive news-checking of our current moment with off-topic pursuits (of which Women’s history would be a great one!) In “The Power Notebooks,” I look back at the lives of women writers who have inspired me—like Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Simone de Beauvoir—to make sense of some of the pressing confusions and bewilderments of my current life. In the notebooks, “Women’s History Month” is not a dry or abstract or academic thing—it’s something urgently useful and alive in make sense of our own conundrums.
You caught a lot of flak for 1993’s “The Morning After,” and its view of feminist preoccupations with college campuses. How has its criticism changed in your mind since the start of the #MeToo moment—a movement you called on more than one occasion. And how do you feel about “The Morning After” now —has your outlook or opinion changed?
I remain the same person who is suspicious of the simplifications and collapsing of nuance inherent in political language, who is wary of rhetoric that infantilizes women, however well meant. That said, I wrote that book when I was 24 and it contains the certainties and fire of a very young person. In “The Power Notebooks,” I wasn’t interested in making arguments; I wanted to delve into complexities, doubts, confusions. Rather than make generalizations which feel increasingly false or irrelevant to me, I wanted to look at how women’s ambivalence toward power, and the resentment of powerful women plays out on an ordinary Tuesday in someone’s life. I wanted to measure the real effects of sexual politics on one person’s daily experience, if I could (the only person offering up her life for this kind of rigorous and sometimes disturbing examination being me.)
I ask questions about elements of changed opinions and a reconsidering of your past, because that is part of “The Power Notebooks.” I’m thinking of your youthful relationship with an older rabbi that you discuss in the book, as one example. What can you tell me about changing your mind or finding a new mindset different from that which you penned in the past… do you look forward to setting a new record straight? To present where you are now?
To be honest, I am not very interested in the “record” in the sense that you mean it. I would be suspicious of anyone whose ideas do not evolve or move through time and experience. I did use these notebooks as a way of working through various power struggles, of unearthing difficulties and complexities that have eluded me. You mention the account of my affair with the Rabbi when I was in high school. I think at this point, I have finally been able to grapple with what that episode meant in all of its complexity, whereas earlier in my life I could only apprehend it in flashes. The account I wrote in this book was me pushing myself to be honest and to come closer to myself in that moment of time than I have been able to before. It was a very arduous and unsettling process, but I felt I came away with a richer understanding of the incident.
Critics have said that “The Power Notebooks” is the sound of you admitting you’re wrong about previous writings regarding the dynamics between men and women. I don’t know if I agree with them. “Power Notebooks” doesn’t feel like an admission as much as it does a repositioning. Why do you think critics sense this differently?
In this book I am very deliberately not addressing our current political moment. I decided to write with a kind of intimacy that I have not written with before. It was like teaching myself a new language. I am not revisiting my political views, so much as interrogating the world with a different method. I think there is room to think about the questions of women and power from many different angles, using many different approaches. In this book, I tried the intimacy of notebooks, the honesty of exposing difficult episodes, the discomfort of facing vulnerabilities and the limitations of intellectual analysis. I feel like there is room for both my new book and my old book in the world. I don’t like the rigidity (or boredom!) of having just one way of writing. I wanted to do something new.
When you read or hear criticisms of your self – not your work – how do you normally feel?
As you can imagine, I am not very thin-skinned. The media bubble is not very interesting to me. Twitter is a dystopian playground. I don’t really take any of the attacks all that personally though of course, it’s not fun to have strangers hate you. But there is a large swath of smart readers who do not have the same narrowness and prejudices and group think, and that’s who I am writing for.
When, how and why did you come to, or decide on, the mechanics of “The Power Notebooks” – its bolts of text, its jottings, in notebook form designated around specific themes?
I have kept notebooks since I was twelve and I’ve loved reading notebooks since I was a graduate student doing archival research. The form has in some sense always been in my head. It suggested itself for this book because I wanted to have the effect of something raw, unfinished, notes. I wanted to take on some of the larger questions of the book, without the neatness or linear argument of an essay. I also authentically think in references, in little snippets of biography, and quotes and highly analyzed stories, so this form is closer to how I really sort through my life. The form was hard to get right because it is a little unusual and strange. I didn’t have many models in my head. A couple of times I thought, am I crazy? But I went ahead with it. I do sometimes feel as if my publisher broke into my house and stole my actual notebooks though of course that’s not what happened.
You allow many moods and feelings to seep into “The Power Notebooks” that you had not in your past work – is that a furthering of the self, or part of a design that you made for yourself as an author – a new way into the work process?
This book, with its strange form, is definitely new for me. I found it very hard, sometimes almost impossible, to write. I woke up early in the mornings, at 4:30 or 5, to write most of it because I needed to feel totally alone and free from the criticisms and conventions and nagging of the world. At certain points the honesty of the book seemed a little terrifying or insane. I have in my mind the photograph of Simone de Beauvoir in the bathroom naked in heels, seen from behind, which is that first page of the book. I find her independence from public opinion, her absolute honesty about what she calls “women divided,” about contradiction, inspiring. She has a quote, “I am sorry to disappoint the feminists, but you can say it is too bad so many of them live in theory instead of in real life.”
What can you tell me about your choice of writing in the stream-of-consciousness style that “Power Notebooks” traffics in – did it feel more direct?
I don’t think of these notebooks as stream of consciousness, exactly. More like notes. I felt like I could get across the contradictions and multiplicity better in the fragments. The questions I was asking myself—for instance “why could I be so strong in certain situations and so weak in others?”— were better answered in little vignettes. Why don’t I know how to drive? Why can’t I be relatable in my writing? Why is it so hard to ask for a raise at work? Why did I fall wearing very high heels carrying a newborn? These tiny mysteries unpacked in vignettes felt like a more honest way of approaching and working through the abstract questions that I was engaged with.
Why was it crucial to include your daughter’s power dynamics into “Notebooks?” And what did she think of your decision to include her – was this all discussed in advance?
I asked her if she minded if I quoted her, and she gave me a kind of bored ‘no,’ so that was that. The section involving her—”How to Ride the Subway’— is one of my favorite sections of the book, so I was happy to be able to include it.
What are you most looking forward to in this virtual book discussion/interview happening between yourself and the Philadelphia Free Library audience? Is this new normal – daunting – or just another bridge we must cross?
Given how isolated I am—we all are—I especially cherish the idea of talking about the book at (but not at) the Philadelphia Free Library. I cancelled a whole book tour. I stay in my house like everyone else and disinfect door knobs, and somehow it is a bit of solace that the book is going out into the world and having its own little life—it socializes, strikes up conversations, mingles, brushes up against strangers. Someone wrote to me that reading the book felt like we were sitting in the dark having a conversation, and that cheered me.