Daphne Merkin read her latest collection of essays, The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags, at BookCourt in Brooklyn. She was joined by Katie Roiphe, a columnist and author, well known for The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism.
Merkin began the evening by reading an essay that first appeared in Tablet, “On Not Learning to Flirt,” that explores the power of female sexuality. Merkin originally wrote the essay for another publication that ultimately declined to print it thinking it too risqué.
Roiphe describes Merkin’s writing as being unconcerned with niceness and likeability, saying there is an uncomfortable quality to her work.
The things that excite Merkin often are uncomfortable, she explains. She is never looking to follow popular opinion, and in either case, the things that excite her are often unpopular because they make people uncomfortable.
“There is so much that doesn’t get said,” she explains. She likes the unconventional, and adds that she never understands why people always want to buy the most popular thing. The thing Merkin looks for is the thing that is more secretive.
One of the appealing elements about Merkin’s writing is the honesty about what she says, the way she opens up about her personal life, Roiphe explains. While the style has grown more common in recent years with confessional style bloggers, Merkin was writing that way first. As she points out later, most editors expect that kind of style from her now.
“You never know what’s being left out in the most ‘honest’ narratives,” Merkin says. Sometimes even non-fiction can use slight of hand to manipulate the story by eliminating elements.
“I certainly have internal censors,” Merkin explains. She came from a fairly conservative family. She once wrote a novel–212 pages of it–sold it, and then retracted it because she was concerned over the revelations in it.
Sexual candor tends to be treated differently, too, Merkin adds, especially when it comes from women. For instance, when she wrote about sexual spanking in The New Yorker, she was told that it was dangerous for her to write that way.
All our secrets are the same, Merkin says. “The last thing I think candor is, is dangerous.” However, she adds, “or maybe it is dangerous to a certain power structure.”
“Secrets usually serve the powerful.”
One of the essays that generated the most mail was a personal essay about weight she wrote for Elle, where a man referred to her as unfuckable. The man’s daughter read the article, figured out it was him, and presumably chastised him. He called Merkin to complain.
It is Merkin’s style to bring as much intellectual weight to handbags as she does to the Brontes, Roiphe says.
“I am by nature fairly intense about everything,” Merkin says. She adds that there are certain parts of womens’ lives that really fascinate her, like going online to check the price of purses. Presentation of women interests her, the performance of womanhood. She then decides she wants to write about something in an atypical way.
“I have no curiosity about sports whatsoever.”
Writing about money is often more hazardous than writing about sexuality, Merkin says. On one hand there is a cultural obsession and fascination with money. On the other hand, there is a condemnation of it.
Roiphe adds that women are often criticized for their privilege more than men. Lena Dunham is an example, she explains.
“Women are held more personally accountable,” Merkin says.
If there is one thing Merkin has learned through years of various editors: “Darkness doesn’t sell.”