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Literary Sex

PUBLISHED: January 20, 2010

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.


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Grant Faulkner's picture
Thanks so much for your wonderful, thoughtful post. I agree, Roiphe’s article provides so many things to think about—some that she addresses directly and others that easily extend from her essay (e.g., it’s too bad she didn’t spread her wings a bit and discuss the writers who are exploring sex in interesting ways–they exist, as you mention). Although she writes compelling stuff, my main problem with her essay is her notion of literary legacy. She selects a few contemporary, well-regarded authors—all white, male, and straight—and designates them as heirs to Updike, Roth, Mailer, etc. simply because they’re white, male, straight, and critically esteemed. This is where her comparison (and that god awful graphic that accompanied her article) is flawed. Roiphe’s essay implies that as heirs, authors like Eggers, Chabon, and Franzen should pick up the mantle of Mailer, etc., and vigorously and provocatively write about sex in the same vein. I’d doubt that any of these writers sees themselves as heirs in this sense. In fact, it would be interesting to ask any of them if they’re writing in the tradition of Updike, Roth, and Mailer—simply because of their racial and sexual orientation. Is one, for example, a literary heir by such limited criteria. What if the main authors who influenced them were James Baldwin or Marguerite Duras or Kenzaburo Oe or Milan Kundera? Why should they have to write in the confines of Roiphe’s comparison? (e.g., I’m of a similar generation and ilk of of the Eggers/Chabon crowd, and I’ve never read Roth or Mailer and haven’t read Updike since high school. Literary heirs? Not.) So, instead of critiquing their writing about sex, perhaps she could have designated them heirs of Hemingway and critiqued their war coverage. That doesn’t seem to be the subject of any of these young novelists. Does that mean they’re lacking? I don’t think any of them write road novels like Jack Kerouac either, or alcoholic trailer park stories like Raymond Carver come to think of it. Gosh, so much literary legacy for a young man to live up to. Do you see what I mean—in the end, Roiphe’s comparison criteria is without logic. Beyond the fact that genetics and sexual orientation shouldn’t define literary legacy these days, her essay begs the question, what young, male, straight authors did she leave out? Why should Eggers, Chabon, Franzen, etc. be carrying a baton handed off by Mailer and company? Roiphe’s essay ends up being similar to a playground taunt. She’s taken the macho high ground and is essentially teasing Eggers, Chabon, and Franzen for their sexual inadequacy. I’m happy for the reconsideration and celebration of writing that was deemed politically incorrect, but Roiphe should take her thought a step farther. I wrote more in my blog post on the subject:…
clancy sigal's picture
clancy sigal · 14 years ago
Golly, gee, sex. Roiphe’s essay was a pretty good takedown of Eggers, Chabon, Wallace etc. They deserve it. “Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life.” Right, what’s wrong with these guys anyhow? Too cool and ironic, Roiphe says. Probably she’s right. I guess. Oddly, something is missing. Ah yes, that’s it, Abigail Adams to her husband John on his way to make a revolution: “…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them…” Dear Katie, where are the women in all this? I’m straight hetero, but the last I heard fucking had a lot more to do with a relationship with a woman, and her responsiveness and her aggression and her orgasm and her attitude to the whole thing, no? Isn’t that what the “transporting effects of physical love” is all about? But I’m all with Katie when she exhorts, “Why don’t we look at these older writers who want to defeat death with sex?” All depends what you mean by older. Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, sure. How about REALLY older? O gosh, Hemingway and Catherine, Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe and Aline Bernstein, Henry Miller and June and Anais, even James Gould Cozzens’ Arthur and Clarissa Winner - the latter an extraordinary meditation on marital sex in the midst of a big potboiler. One tango-ing isn’t very interesting; two tangoing gets really hot. Or did I get this wrong all this time? Clancy Sigal

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