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Is Maureen Dowd Any Good?

It seems that a lot of people took issue with Maureen Dowd’s report on the war between the sexes in her new book and the excerpt from same recently published in the New York Times Magazine. This does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that so many critics seem surprised by their own displeasure.

Early in her contemplative and carefully argued critique, Katha Pollitt notes that she reads Dowd’s column and adds “We all do,” a sentiment echoed by Echidne of the Snakes when she writes, “Yes. We all read Dowd. We all read thirstily the few female political columnists we have, and we listen to what they have to say about women.” And, before she commences to rip Dowd a new one, Katie Roiphe (I’ve got to tell you, I never imagined the day when Katie Roiphe and I posted opinion pieces with the same title) pauses to lavish praise:

She is, at her best, a brilliant caricaturist of the political scene, turning each presidency into vivid farce. As a caricaturist, she has a fondness for punchy one-liners strung together, and for the one-sentence paragraph: “Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival of the fakest”; “We had the Belle Epoque. Now we have the Botox Epoch”; and “As a species is it possible that men are ever so last century?” Her style evokes a brainier Candace Bushnell, whose oeuvre she frequently refers to, but it is given extra weightiness by her position at the Times.

“Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival of the fakest”: That’s brilliant? Katie, you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s cheap, barely clever, and—if you give any credit at all to evolutionary psychology—just plain wrong. This kind of stuff is precisely why I can’t—physically cannot—read Dowd. Half a column inch of that preciousness, and I’m too agitated to read anything.

Kathryn Harrison—who reviewed Are Men Necessary? for the New York Times Book Review—is the only critic I’ve seen who has any problem at all with Dowd’s style:

[S]mart remarks are reductive and anti-ruminative; not only do they not encourage deeper analysis, they stymie it…. Producing one of her trademark staccato repetitions—for example, on cosmetic surgery: “We no longer have natural selection. We have unnatural selection. Survival of the fittest has been replaced by survival of the fakest. Biology used to be destiny. Now biology's a masquerade party”—Dowd effectively dismisses a subject by virtue of proclamation. Does she let loose three arrows instead of one because she can't choose the cleverest among them? Typically, her formula is to articulate a thesis, punch it up with humor and then follow with anecdotal support or examples taken from TV shows, advertisements, overheard conversations—all cultural detritus is fair game. Often she quotes from reputable sources, CNN or The Times or a professional journal like Science; more often she applies witty asides, snippy comparisons (“Arabs put their women in veils. We put ours in the stocks”) and tabloid-style alliteration (e.g., “dazzling dames” and “He mused that men are in a muddle”).

From time to time, I’ve thought that maybe I was missing something, that maybe I’d just tried Dowd on an off day—or, rather, several off days. Now, having Harrison’s corroborating opinion, I think I can just relax, secure in the belief that I was right all along.

November 15, 2005 | Permalink

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