June 26th, 2009

random annoyance

For the past few days, an article has been nagging at me -- it was linked from ezra klein, and it's a mean-minded little piece by Katie Roiphe (is that redundant?) about the supposed genre of "stripper memoir" and how formulaic it is. I've been trying to tease apart the different reasons the piece annoyed me.

First, of course, one of the writers being slagged is a friend. But that's merely why I think I know enough to be annoyed.

Second, duh. Pick pretty much any genre of memoir, and in a thousand word essay you'll be able to lift similar passages from most of them. That's why they call it a genre. Political memoirs: the unexpected win, the gritty defeat, the human side of this or that politico, the battle against cynicism. Stage memoirs: the big break (usually preceded by the dead-end job), the hard work in production, the other famous people, the just-plain-folks moment. Sports memoirs: fill in your own blanks, I haven't read any since Ted Williams and Jim Bouton.
Third, Roiphe manages to miss the plausible notion that some of these formulaic bits might be important. For instance, the cost of skimpy outfits -- any parallels with the excessive cost of more-mainstream businesswear? Or the fact that all the authors had more-or-less-ok middle-class upbringings and didn't do brain-destroying piles of alcohol or drugs compared to the women around them. If they had, they'd be dead or living in a crap-ass apartment somewhere, or maybe married to some random guy. They certainly wouldn't have been writing books.

Which brings me to the fourth part of the annoyance. "Stripper memoir" is a genre pretty much constructed by prudes like Roiphe. No one goes to some famous, respected stripper (not since Gypsy Rose Lee) and says, "Hey, will you write a book for us?" The authors in question are all writers with long lists of published work before and after their memoirs. They write on some of the same topics she does, and sometimes in more interesting, thoughtful ways. So when Roiphe complains that "stripper memoirs" don't meet her aesthetic criteria, she's also reminding us that these particular competitors of hers took their clothes off for paying customers while she went to Harvard and became a "respected academic". And by implication, that they should just shut up and let their betters carry on the cultural conversation.
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