At the end of Katie Roiphe’s valentine to the Roth and Updike-branded era of aggressive males writing aggressively about sex, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, she declares that the younger literary voices have mistakenly shied away from explicit sexuality because “our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time.” Huh? Hold on a second. I think someone needs to show Katie Roiphe Jersey Shore or at least an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
Steve Almond has already astutely (if somewhat angrily) defended himself at The Rumpus, as well he should, being in the category Roiphe attacks: the new and supposedly castrated generation of white, heterosexual males. But I would like to pick up on a few of the very clear and very relevant points Almond lays out, which Roiphe ignored in her essay.
Roiphe argues for the explicit sexual conundrums in Portnoy’s Complaint and Rabbit, Run, and waxes poetic for “something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least.” But she fails to examine the most obvious of counterpoints. First and most glaringly: that endorsing Portnoy’s penis as a guide post for literary sex is like saying guys these days should act more like Mad Men’s Don Draper. It ignores the blatant sexism of the era’s context, which renders the whole endeavor impotent. This isn’t to say Portnoy and Draper aren’t interesting. They are—indeed, they are mysterious and powerful—but they aren’t in any way meant to be ideals.
Second—and Almond vociferously defends his peers in his essay—Roiphe missed a whole swath of white, heterosexual male writers who do write dangerously and beautifully about sex. She wrongly accused Jonathan Safran Foer of avoiding sex when his first novel, Everything is Illuminated (one of the more successful of the decade), takes its title phrase from the idea that people having sex and having orgasms transmits a glow out into space, “coital radiance.” Similarly, some of the most tender and transcendent moments in Ron Carlon’s short fiction occur at the moment of marital and extramarital copulation. And Steve Almond himself is the author of a few of the most discomfort-making and exacting passages about sex, specifically in the novel he co-wrote with Julianna Baggott, Which Brings Me To You.
Which brings me to my third point: for God’s sake, what about all the women? Those writers that aren’t white and male? Don’t they, too, contribute to the literary conversation? By not including women writers and their subjects, Roiphe assigns 100% of the power to Updike and Roth and their minions. But we can’t forget the horrifying and pornographic inner lives of Mary Gaitskill’s characters, or the confused sexual liberation in Joy Williams’s stories, or the eternal sexual curiosity of the characters of Julianna Baggott, who, appropriately, just wrote a crystalline editorial in the Washington Post about how much easier it is to get recognition as a male author than as a female author.
Fourth, Roiphe offers no cultural examination aside from “we have landed upon a more conservative time” for a newfound approach to sexuality. Sex is for sale everywhere and anyone who has ever taught an introductory creative writing course knows that young would-be writers know that sex is for sale everywhere. Often, as the symptom of a chronic disease, it pops up in their poems and stories as very bad, clichéd, self-indulgent, and sexist sex scenes. When sex becomes less shocking and slightly less sacred, it becomes harder to write about as the transcendent or transformative moment—because maybe it no longer is. So, perhaps the Roth-ian style of explicit sexuality isn’t so much (as Roiphe calls it) “threatening” to our modern sensibilities as it is just no longer relevant.
The solution is not Roiphe’s solution—we should not return to the romanticized ways of the irreverent and overly sexed old guard. If we did, we might not even recognize it. Just as Updike and Roth moved forward the sexual conversations of D.H Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin, we must also find a new way of writing about sex, a way that speaks to us through the ugly noise of Jersey Shore hot tub hookups and Gawker crotch shots. In this context, the masturbation of the Zipper King’s daughter doesn’t do it anymore. But I’m not worried: there are writers out there doing just this kind of work, writers like Steve Almond, Julianna Baggott, Alexander Chee, Junot Diaz, Amy Bloom, Mary Gaitskill, Ron Carlson, Ian McEwan, and the list goes on. This is serious business, sex, but it is also beautiful, and we should treat it as both.