Laura Kipnis sparked a debate with her recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe," as well as her book Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. We asked her a few questions about her irreverent writing style and how people have responded to her work.
You recently wrote about the current climate of feminism and its impact on higher education, which has snowballed into a huge debate. Two students brought Title IX complaints against you, which have now been dropped. What's your takeaway from this experience so far? Has it confirmed your views, or complicated them?
I wrote somewhat ironically about the new consensual relations codes prohibiting professor-student dating (our campus instituted one a year ago), which have dialed back a couple of hundred years of progress when it comes to treating women as full consenting adults. Students then staged a protest march on campus about the essay, saying it made them feel unsafe and should be condemned by the administration. I'd argued that this new climate of vulnerability on campuses was actually increasing students' sense of imperilment while putting too much power in the hands of campus officials. I'd say I was proven right, unfortunately.
Your work brings a sense of complexity and irreverence to some polarizing subjects. Why is it important to retain a sense of irony when writing about contentious topics?
Didacticism makes for boring writing, to begin with. But the irreverent style is deeply embedded in the way I think-my attention just seems to veer toward social ironies and contradictions. Finding ways of transporting them to the page is the great pleasure of writing, I mean to the extent that it's ever pleasurable. I suppose I think of myself as writing comedies of manners in essay form? But I get horribly bored when forced to take on "issues" in a straightforward way-I really hate hearing myself on a soapbox.
Your book Men: Notes From An Ongoing Investigation takes an in-depth look at the current, conflicted state of masculinity by examining men who have made missteps. What made you want to write a book about men who behave badly?
I think I secretly envy men, or identify with them, or some combination. There's a line in the preface about men always having grabbed more freedom from the world, and despite what we all know about the destructive sides of that freedom, it's never struck me that the constraints and strictures of femininity are a better deal for any of us. It was also the case that-for reasons I can't entirely speak to!- the essays and reviews I'd written over the last fifteen years or so seemed to cluster largely around this subject, as I realized when I started rereading them. If I ever go into psychoanalysis, I suspect this would be a good place to start.
What has the response been like to your book?
I have the great good fortune of being hated by all sides of the political and moral spectrum. I've gotten hate from men's rights groups AND certain brands of feminist. It can be fun to fall between every category, but it can accentuate the finding-an-audience issue. I'd rather be loved by everyone-at least everyone who buys books.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I'm waiting for the dust to settle (mainly the intellectual dust) following the Title IX cases, then having exposed the process in a second essay, which did cause something of a shitstorm. There's been a lot of media, a barrage of email and so on. I wrote a book in 2010 called How to Become a Scandal and I half-joked in it that I could identify with James Frey (who was the subject of one of the chapters) because I was sure that if I ever got myself into a national scandal it would be because of something I'd written. I've just had a taste of it-nothing like his situation, of course, but it's still been intense. I suspect it will translate into something eventually, but hard to say. I've been toying with the idea of a book called Is Sex Bad?
Interview by Molly Long