Tracking incest in modern fiction In Harper's: Writer Katie Roiphe draws examples from writers Jane Smiley, Russell Banks and others.

MAGAZINES

November 12, 1995|By Clea Simon | Clea Simon,BOSTON GLOBE

What's all the rage? Harper's Katie Roiphe spends a considerable effort this month documenting the incidence of incest in contemporary fiction. With examples drawn from Jane Smiley, Russell Banks and others, she proves her observation to be sharp, but her conclusions leave much lacking.

The frequency, she says, proves a trend, and the trend, she figures, is reason for the frequency. We've become a nation of voyeurs and, she decides, of soul-baring weaklings searching for cheap thrills in the headlines.

The problems begin with closer examination of the texts. Could anyone say that Ms. Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" is "about" incest? I found it a moving reinterpretation of "King Lear."

More disturbing still is that Ms. Roiphe ignores other reasons for a subject to recur, as if frequency automatically negates validity. Is she making light of sins against children, or of the blackout that barred such topics for so long?

While Ms. Roiphe's writing is clear and her points laid out logically, her article carries the sheen of glibness.

Courtney Love

No apologies: In the December (out now) Spin, Courtney Love gives her take on Lollapalooza. Here she responds to the accusations of star-type posings and violence leveled against her. Her comments on the Internet postings of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore bend over backward to explain the deferential treatment that Mr. Moore had griped about. (Although Mr.

Moore's tour reports had more amusing observations, Ms. Love's response makes the feud comprehensible.)

And her repetitions, backtrackings and snide asides give this the stamp of gossip, not gospel, especially when she refers to her fight with Kathleen Hanna, the leader of the "riot grrrl" band Bikini Kill. The incident was much reported as the ultimate example of Love gone bad, and early reports had Courtney swinging at the other singer for no reason. Here, chronicling the wallopalooza, she trashes Ms. Hanna and her music, saying, lTC "She's not in a band. She's a political activist who took a bunch of women's studies classes," and basically making her sound like, well, Katie Roiphe.

Ms. Love is sloppy and self-serving. But admitting, "I can't imagine a world without childish, puerile rock stars," at least she's not smug.

Smug and righteous

Camille Paglia is, and righteous to boot, as she takes on Calvin Klein in the current Advocate. Cover boy Gore Vidal spends most of his Q&A avoiding the issues. The author who said 40 years ago that "we are all bisexual" now deftly sidesteps a direct question about his attraction to women. But the fiery Ms. Paglia makes up for such discretion with her last-word essay on Mr. Klein's advertising debacle.

Yes, she says, the aborted campaign reeked of kiddie porn. But Paglia blames Klein and Co. for not stating their position proudly: "If Klein and (photographer Steven) Meisel want to borrow the iconography of pedophilia, they should have the courage to step forward and admit it," she says.

Mirabella still sassy

Back on the clock, however, is Mirabella, whose second issue in its reincarnation as a lower-budget bimonthly is thin but tough.

Gone are the big names (Jane Smiley, again, and Kay Redfield Jamison) who graced the relaunch in September, but the smart and sassy spirit remains. Where else, for example, will you find a smooch for heartthrob Antonio Banderas and a kiss-off to a sexist guidebook on the same page?

Consider it evolution: Women's magazines traditionally focus on beauty and have been rediscovered as a source for health

information. Mirabella puts its spin on both by keeping its beauty advice practical (making makeup last, adopting a wearable style) and discussing health philosophically (with a smart study of the contemporary queens of denial, called "Purification Chic").

This is a magazine that has women interviewing women (such as actress Zoe Caldwell) about their women-centered art (in this case, Ms. Caldwell's portrayal of diva Maria Callas). Perhaps most telling is a roundup of films inspired by Jane Austen's novels. "I've been fortunate in that I never actually read any Jane Austen until I was thirty," Cathleen Schine writes, "thus sparing myself several decades of the unhappiness of having no new Jane Austen novels to read."

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