For a certain group of readers, the name Daphne Merkin instantly brings to mind the spanking essay. Published 24 years ago in The New Yorker, “Unlikely Obsession” disclosed that next to Merkin’s dictionaries and thesauruses sat a treasured stock of books on sadomasochism; that she not only fantasized about spanking but had indulged her desire; and that she felt a mix of relief and shame, not unlike the experience of being spanked, in putting all this on paper. Writing in 2012, the journalist Virginia Heffernan recalled the literary public’s takeaway: “Something is wrong with Daphne Merkin.”

Today, many readers would not view Merkin’s confessions as particularly scandalous or subversive. Her politics are another matter. In 2018, Merkin wrote a New York Times op-ed suggesting that many women, “including many longstanding feminists,” are publicly joining in on the #MeToo chorus, but privately “rolling [their] eyes, having had it with the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception.” (More recently, Merkin has expressed skepticism about cancel culture, or the “shunting aside of every public figure who does not maintain a spotless private life.”) The Cut issued a reply, headlined, “Daphne Merkin widens the Feminist Generation Gap.”