Monday, February 06, 2017

The inevitability of Daphne Merkin

If you read New York institutional media - the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review section, etc. you will inevitably come upon an article or book by Daphne Merkin, or as I have referred to her for at least 10 years on this blog, the dread Daphne Merkin.

I first mentioned her on this blog eleven years ago beginning with...
I've been noticing the mediocrity that is Daphne Merkin ever since I was first irked by her a few years ago in the New Yorker. She also writes for the New York Times magazine. Her trademark is a buzzing, incessant, helpless whine. 
You could get a more original, thoughtful, 21st century-style piece of writing on the sex lives of 50-year-old women in a thousand places on the Internet. From people who are getting paid nothing to write. 
Merkin actually responded via email to that blog post, to my great surprise:
This is the whiney and unfairly remunerated Daphne Merkin reporting in, having stumbled on your blog late this night instead of sleeping or finishing reading D.H. Lawrence's THE RAINBOW. Aside from insulting me, you sound like a generally unreflective and overly self-regarding person. >From glancing quickly at your bio, I gather your own "feminist" credentials are less than wonderful, since you seem to have abandoned one early putative interest (illustrating) for another ( playacting) on the basis of meeting a "beautiful young man." Your blog makes me fshudder on behalf of bloggerdom, seething as it is with envy and bravado and received wisdom. I hope your plays are better than this.
Even her brief email encapsulates everything I dislike about her writing - wrong-headedness about feminism, tiresome literary name-dropping and absolute banality. And why shouldn't I judge her email response to my blog post? She passed judgment on mine, finishing with "I hope your plays are better than this." I mean, well, yeah, considering a typical blog post takes no more than 30 minutes and a play takes years to complete.

I am interested in moving from French self-study to actual French classes, and who should I encounter on the French Institute web site but Merkin talking about sex. What does that have to do with learning French? Je ne fucking sais pas.

I really wish she wouldn't talk about sex, she has nothing original to say about it. I did some Googling to see what she was up to, and found this piece from a few months ago in Elle, What, Exactly, Is the Future of Sex? 

The Elle piece is hackwork - Merkin threw together a personal anecdote about watching a TV show about sex; combined with random literary references: St. Augustine for Chrissake, Foulcalt of course and rounded off with Carol Gilligan; seasoned with snippets of interviews with sex workers, and concluding:
Ah, sex. To each her own, and good luck to us all.
I've gone through a lot since I first blogged about Daphne Merkin: heart-break (twice), unrequited love (twice), depression, anxiety disorder, Tinder, cancer, unemployment (twice), financial catastrophes and the election of Donald Trump, but one thing remains unchanged: I still can't believe Daphne Merkin gets paid to write.

I don't find Merkin worth complaining about solely for her mediocrity - after all the hallmark of mediocrity is its prevalence. See Sturgeon's Law for details. It's because she has regressive, sociobiology-based beliefs. And the last time I wrote about her, it was to note that she was hanging around with professional feminist-hater Katie Roiphe. Which makes her feminist credentials less than wonderful in my unremunerated book.

Here's an example of writing about sex that's original and exciting and the author almost certainly did not get paid to write it: The Dickonomics of Tinder. The topic is the immortal phrase "Dick is abundant and low value" and here is Alana Massey blowing Merkin and her leaky old boatload of Gilligan, Foucault and St. Augustine right out of the water:
In my memory, those last six words emerged from the screen with their outer edges glowing like the inscription in the Dark Tongue of Mordor on the One Ring. I was transformed, nay, transfigured, by the message. 
Conversations were governed by the same rules as matches. Lead with a pussy joke about my cat? Dick is abundant and low value. Choose a meeting place that doesn’t account for my commute there? Dick is abundant and low value. Ask for nudes too soon? Dick is abundant and low value. Cancel twice? Dick is abundant and low value. Send an unsolicited photo of your lower body in your laundry-day underwear with your hand suggestively but not sexily placed over your semi and not even bothering to crop out your poor cat? Dick is abundant and low value.
But other things have also happened since I wrote about Merkin in 2006. One of the reasons I found that NYTimes piece annoying in particular was her obvious reliance on evolutionary psychology to explain social phenomena: 
"Men move away from older women, I would argue, almost instinctively, because they sense the impending shadow of nongenerativity like a negative pheromone."
Since Merkin wrote that piece "cougars" have become a thing. The online porno industry has made it clear that men enjoy watching older women get naked and have sex. And I can testify from personal experience that contrary to what Merkin wrote in 2006, plenty of men are fine pursuing older women. Now granted, this hasn't helped me much in finding a worthwhile mate, but the problem is certainly not men considering older women instinctively repellant.

It seems that each passing year brings more evidence that a pillar of evolutionary psychology - that men want younger and women want older mates is bullshit. This week I saw this NYTimes article about a French politician Emmanuel Macron married to his former high school teacher. It may still be unusual enough for a prominent man to be married to a woman twenty-four years his senior that articles are written about it (they've been married for 10 years now), but the fact that it's happening at all indicates that the old social rules are changing and at such a non-evolutionary pace that it proves this was never about "instinct" at all - it was about men's much greater socio-economic power.

Speaking of socio-economics, it turns out that Merkin struggles with depression. I know because somebody paid her to write a book about it. The reviewer in the New York Times loves the book but even he can't help notice the same things about Merkin that I have:
Merkin was born into circumstances of plenty, the poor little rich girl; she is not interested in universalizing, though she often does so almost inadvertently. In the earlier part of her memoir, her tight focus on her own story at the expense of anyone else’s can come off as self-indulgent, even self-aggrandizing...
I have no plans to read Merkin's book but perhaps she writes better about depression than she does about sex. Having been through a serious depression I can empathize and of course I'm inclined to feel bad for anybody going through hard times. It's tempered though, by the knowledge that in spite of being an uninspired writer on the topic of sex, Daphne Merkin continues to be paid to write about it, while many less-well-connected but superior writers are not being paid at all, and their work is less well-known than hers.

Now that's depressing.