Katie Roiphe at NYT:
For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century. It has become popular to denounce those authors, and more particularly to deride the sex scenes in their novels. Even the young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.
After reading a sex scene in Philip Roth’s latest novel, “The Humbling,” someone I know threw the book into the trash on a subway platform. It was not exactly feminist rage that motivated her. We have internalized the feminist critique pioneered by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics” so completely that, as one of my students put it, “we can do the math ourselves.” Instead my acquaintance threw the book away on the grounds that the scene was disgusting, dated, redundant. But why, I kept wondering, did she have to throw it out? Did it perhaps retain a little of the provocative fire its author might have hoped for? Dovetailing with this private and admittedly limited anecdote, there is a punitive, vituperative quality in the published reviews that is always revealing of something larger in the culture, something beyond one aging writer’s failure to produce fine enough sentences. All of which is to say: How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?
In the early novels of Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the ’60s, with books like “An American Dream,” “Herzog,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Couples,” there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes — all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed. When “Couples,” John Updike’s tour de force of extramarital wanderlust set in a small New England town called Tarbox, came out in 1968, a Time magazine cover article declared that “the sexual scenes, and the language that accompanies them, are remarkably explicit, even for this new age of total freedom of expression.”
These novelists were writing about the bedrooms of middle-class life with the thrill of the censors at their backs, with the 1960 obscenity trial over “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” fresh in their minds. They would bring their talent, their analytic insights, their keen writerly observation, to the most intimate, most unspeakable moments, and the exhilaration, the mischief, the crackling energy was in the prose. These young writers — Mailer, Roth, Updike — were taking up the X‑rated subject matter of John O’Hara and Henry Miller, but with a dash of modern journalism splashed in.
And so we come back to the copy of “The Humbling” in the garbage can on the subway platform. The problem with the sex scenes in Philip Roth’s late work is not that they are pornographic, but that they fail as pornography. One feels that the author’s heart is not in it, that he is just going through the motions; one feels the impatient old master mapping out scenes (dildo, threesome), not writing them. The threesome in “The Humbling” has none of the quirkiness, the energy, the specificity of the threesomes in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” either the one where “the Monkey” eats a banana and gets her name, or the one where they pick up an Italian prostitute who later brings her son, all dressed up in his Sunday best, to see them. In the stripped-down later novels (“Everyman,” “Exit Ghost,” “Indignation”), Roth seems to have dispensed with the detail and idiosyncratic richness of his earlier work. As he writes about old men failing at sex, and raging about failing at sex, we see the old writer failing at writing about sex, which is, of course, a spectacle much more heartbreaking.
t this point, one might be thinking: enter the young men, stage right. But our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm”; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: “We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.”
Characters in the fiction of the heirs apparent are often repelled or uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation. In “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace writes: “He had never once had actual intercourse on marijuana. Frankly, the idea repelled him. Two dry mouths bumping at each other, trying to kiss, his self-conscious thoughts twisting around on themselves like a snake on a stick while he bucked and snorted dryly above her.” With another love interest, “his shame at what she might on the other hand perceive as his slimy phallocentric conduct toward her made it easier for him to avoid her, as well.” Gone the familiar swagger, the straightforward artistic reveling in the sexual act itself. In Kunkel’s version: “Maybe I was going to get lucky, something which, I reminded myself, following her up the stairs to our room and giving her ass a good review, wasn’t always a piece of unmixed luck, and shouldn’t automatically be hoped for any more than feared.”
The younger writers are so self-conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically untoward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé. More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life. These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced. (Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”).
This generation of writers is suspicious of what Michael Chabon, in “Wonder Boys,” calls “the artificial hopefulness of sex.” They are good guys, sensitive guys, and if their writing is denuded of a certain carnality, if it lacks a sense of possibility, of expansiveness, of the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love, it is because of a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.
Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon:
Her argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of the claim that sexually aggressive college girls are scaring guys soft or that the lack of retro dating rules has rendered young men fearful and weak (read: feminine). As overblown as these arguments can be, I suspect they provoke so much ire because they have a strain of truth (just as I admire Roiphe as a polemicist with a keen cultural understanding, despite her tendency to cherry-pick evidence). Feminism has culturally upended many things, including our notions of masculinity, and that can be frightening. I’ve had too many candid conversations with too many guy friends over too many pitchers of beer to have any doubt about that.
It has to be said, though: These are not all guys. These are not even most men, except perhaps among the sensitive, liberal and well-educated set to which these male novelists and fictional protagonists belong (a rarefied group indeed). Widen the cultural scope just a wee bit, and you will find no dearth of jack-hammer sex (see: Mary Elizabeth Williams’ essay “How Not to Make Love Like a Porn Star”). Plenty of men still happily rely on old-school stereotypes to pick up ladies. But, fine, Roiphe has picked a very particular and personally relevant focus for her essay. Limitations aside, I read the piece and thought: There’s something there there.
So, I e-mailed the article to a guy friend in his late 20s to see whether he identified with these confused and cuddly protagonists, and did he ever. He wrote back: “In college, my somewhat obtuse interpretation of feminism coupled with my desire to be perceived as a ‘great guy’ made me averse to appearing sexually aggressive or dominating in any way.” For him, that meant reading books like “She Comes First” and letting the woman lead in the bedroom. Unfortunately, at least in one case the response to all this sensitivity was an exasperated: “Are you gay?” He explains, “I was just trying to avoid being the stereotypical tin-eared, jack-hammering brute that I was fairly certain women didn’t respond to.” Eventually, he learned “to dial in a more context-dependent, sensitive and confident approach.” Still, he says, “that shit messed me up for a little while.”
Of course that shit messed him up — there is some real contradiction here. Thing is, young women are also coming up against conflicting cultural influences. Many of us are trying to reconcile feminist thinking with … basically every other cultural message out there. Social change brings about growing pains. Where Roiphe and I differ is that she favors a return — at least in certain relational respects — to an earlier time when things were simpler, more straightforward. I, on the other hand, would like to see us keep on maturing.
Roiphe’s dismissal of today’s sexually confused men is proof of just how far we have yet to go. It feels like she is shaming these male authors for failing to keep up their end of the bedroom charade. (You know, the one that makes it possible to have sex without either partner revealing any vulnerability or authentic, unrestricted emotions. The one where he “takes” her and, on cue, she quivers with passion.) She seems to believe that men, be they real or fictional, are supposed to emerge cocksure on the other side of young adulthood — or at least convincingly appear to. Even the hot pink graphics accompanying the article practically scream: C’mon you sissies — grab your balls, be a man! But I dare say the real issue here — for men and women, too, clearly — is growing up, not manning up.
Emily Temple at Flavorwire:
So, if a writer doesn’t choose sex as a topic, their work lacks a sense of possibility? Why can’t people write about other things and still have “expansiveness”? Sex in literature should be just another tool utilized by the author in order to achieve some kind of goal. The three “old guard” novelists she profiles happened to focus on sex as a topic as well as a means of furthering character or story — does that really make so much of a difference in terms of their virility? Sure, sex is a huge driving force in the human experience, but it’s not the only one. Plus, the fact that she criticizes the lack of real sex or interest in sex in Wallace’s Infinite Jest suggests that she didn’t get the point (or any of the points) of that book.
Maybe she didn’t get Ames, either, since the man was clearly affronted by his inclusion in the wimpy column, as expressed via this tweet:
We haven’t read it, but we will take his word for it (and pick up a copy immediately).
Steve Almond at Gawker:
But wouldn’t a cultural critic writing a think piece for the NYTBR want to consider something a little less, uh, conjectural. Such as the role of sex itself in the culture at large? Might it be worth observing that, in the days of Updike and Roth, a certain brand of sexual candor still felt taboo, whereas today lesbian bondage and interracial blowjobs are pretty much a standard marketing tool for most Fortune 500 companies?
Roiphe – who has spent her career writing about sexual mores, as far as I can tell – seems unable, or unwilling, to entertain the notion that certain writers may be reacting to the broader pornofication of our discourse, the ubiquitous vulgarity, the way in which sex is immediately received as a public pitch, not a private activity.
We need look no further than the parade of best-selling memoirs in which former frat boys discuss beer and its formative role in the promotion of their ejaculate as evidence of this dark tendency. Why make good porn, when there’s so much bad porn already out there?
I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m not grateful to Katie Roiphe.
I happen to believe that literature would be a happier and more honest place if writers were braver about sex. But I can also pretty much promise you that writing about sex as it actually exists – as a complex and dangerous emotional experience – will not help your literary career.
Or you can do me one better and ask Stephen Elliott. He’s been writing about sex for years. It’s searing material that deserves to be widely read, particularly in light of how neurotic and unforgiving we’ve become, as a nation, about the compulsions of our bodies.
But you see, part of the reason Katie Roiphe can point to Eggers and Foster Wallace as “acclaimed” is precisely because they keep it above the waist. For the most part they keep it above the neck, and that makes the critics – who tend to be bigger prudes than anyone – happy.
Yes, we’re in the presence of another Big Irony. It’s not really those big bad feminists who’ve made male writers cock shy. It’s nasty little critics. Imagine.
I wonder, though, if what she describes as the “puritanical” streak in contemporary fiction — an artifact of what Roiphe describes, elsewhere in the essay, as our “more conservative time” — has more to do with the exhaustion of the transgressive impulse than with any real return to the kind of moral-aesthetic strictures that a Roth or an Updike helped to overthrow. A jaded and self-conscious caution about the transformative possibilities of sex, after all, isn’t really the same thing as a revived puritanism — and what’s more, I think, it doesn’t provide anything like the same opportunities for would-be literary adventurers looking for something to push off against.
Updike wouldn’t have been Updike, for instance, if he had started out as a novelist in the age of Lady Gaga and streaming online pornography. “Lolita” wouldn’t be “Lolita” if its shocking story were set in the America of Tila Tequila and “Jersey Shore,” instead of the America of Dwight Eisenhower and the Hays Code. And one of the reasons, perhaps, that Roth’s later sex writing has met with frequent derision — rather than the delight that greeted, say, “Portnoy’s Complaint” — is that there’s nothing new about his polymorphous couplings anymore, nothing remarkable or revelatory or shocking, nothing that you can’t find online or cable television at almost any hour of the day.
In their wild quest to overturn every conceivable taboo, in other words, the Great Male Authors of mid-century may have succeeded a little bit too well. By tearing down every possible stricture on fictional representations of sex, they abandoned their successors to the vicissitudes of a world where anything could be written, but nothing could really shock. Great art depends on walls as well as open doors, on constraints as well as cultural blank checks. And anyone who’s nostalgic for the exhilarating transgressiveness that once animated American literature should probably be at least a little bit nostalgic for the taboos that made transgression possible.