On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below belong entirely to the author.
Gray Lady’s office of eight columnists and one public editor, she is the only woman. I love her for knowing how to be sexy, smart, and every shade of the spectrum between the two.
But I did not like her book.
For the past three days, I have dragged myself through Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide in direct opposition to the way I usually race through her column. I have had to admit disliking the book even as I agree with about half the things she says, and feel my blood simmer with disappointment at the other half. It is quite a thing to dislike a book when you like both the author and the premise.
The main reason I sadly object to Are Men Necessary is the tone Dowd takes. Throughout the book, I found myself reading passages aloud to my husband and visiting house-guests. But they weren’t Dowd’s witty repartees or Carrie-Bradshaw-esque clever punning. They were quotes from experts, writers, feminists and politicians. To put it bluntly, what most engaged me about the three hundred pages weren’t Dowd’s words. Which is, again, saying something. In column form, Dowd’s wit and energy is captivating. Look how here, she decimates the current administration’s foreign policy and cleverly thinks up a new dicey nickname for the scandal du jour! Look there, how fearlessly she pairs her lifelong insider’s eye of Capitol politics with her acerbic wit! And look here, in three hundred pages, where she just can’t stop doing it!
Dowd admits, at the start of the tome, that she’s not gunning towards any great theoretical finish. She admits she doesn’t have the answers, just a lot of questions about a lot of information. Her coworker, Thomas Friedman, also tackled some difficult, solution-less questions in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalism. But he divided his queries, his logical paths through thorny problems, into succinct and well-organized trees of information and rhetoric. He wrote the book – whether you agreed with him or not – so that you could fully understand the problem in front of us all. Dowd is taking an issue equally fraught with questions and misunderstanding. But rather than an arrow-straight approach, she wanders from idea to idea. She touches here, or there, on the questions, but is happy to break off and offer witty side stories, or talk about something completely different. At one point towards the beginning of the book, there’s an open parenthesis that has no partner, a typo I am sure. Or, it signifies the problem with the book – it reads like one long thoughtful aside.
Have I said I love Dowd? I do. The strongest components to the book are in fact those very sections of other people’s words. She has a good hand at stringing together disparate points of views on complicated ideas, like the almost-stellar chapter on the question of the evolutionary decline of the Y chromosome. Dowd’s intelligence and understanding shine here, in a chapter where she knows enough to move from a doom-prophesizing geneticist to her friend, Leon Wieseltier (literary editor of The New Republic), with a fascinating counterpoint about promiscuity and the disassociation of sex with procreation. Well done, I thought, as I finished the chapter.
Dowd also knows her political broads like the back of her hand. Her expertise is apparent, as is the long hours she’s spent thinking and discussing the sword of Damocles that hangs over the women in power today and their approach to a more equal future. As in her columns on the subject, I trust Dowd to walk me through the pitfalls and disappointments of feminism and politics.
I don’t, however, trust her in this book with some numbers and bald truths. On page 62, Dowd refers to a survey where young women in New York replied overwhelmingly (68 percent) that they’d “ditch work if they could afford to”. Did she ask young men in New York? Isn’t it sort of de rigeur amongst us youth of disenchanted Cubicle World that we’d love to not work? Won’t we eventually find our true career paths and overwhelmingly dedicate ourselves to them, even at the decline in our personal lives? Is it fair to mention one, and not the other? And on page 101, when Dowd talks about the new Pope and how he was a “youthful Hitler Youth”, I nearly threw the book across the room and cried. For shame, Ms. Dowd. For all you can rail against his archconservative views, Ratzinger was a member of Hitler Youth because he was conscripted like every other young man in town, not because he chose it. His father was such an outspoken anti-Nazi that the family was forced to move several times. The irresponsibility of both “truths” from Dowd made me furious.
But in the end, it was not on such a furious note that I ended the book. It was on a disappointed one, made more bitter by my usual (and hopefully, continued) respect for Maureen Dowd. I think the book means well, and I don’t deny that the premise, the research, and the clever turns of phrase are all fascinating material. Just not together, in this book, and by her.