Today's male novelists do write exuberant sex scenes, but mostly lesbian ones by mattsteinglass
January 10, 2010, 10:40 am
Filed under: Literature

Katie Roiphe’s terrific piece in last week’s NY Times Book Review on the relative lack of sexual exuberance in today’s young male novelists’ work was marred, I thought, only by its unfounded contention that nobody likes Philip Roth or John Updike anymore. (Roth’s most recent novel got terrible reviews, but apart from that I haven’t heard anyone maligning “Portnoy’s Complaint” or his extraordinary run of work in the 1990s and early Aughts; and the tone in most Updike references I read is pretty reverent.) Apart from that I think it was pretty solid. Basically, she thinks internalized feminist critiques of aggressive, polygynous male sexuality have turned today’s young male novelists into timid, conflicted Prufrocks:

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…

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.”

It’s certainly true that men socialized in the feminist era are more conflicted about the idea of depicting their protagonists’ sexual exploits in triumphal language, or glorifying or romanticizing the outlandish wackiness of their libidos. And Roiphe is right that at its extreme, this self-censorship of politically incorrect male desire leads to Eggers’s ickily repressed moralistic scene, or to the crypto-Christianist sexual phobia of “Twilight”. [It occurs to me that “Twilight” is written by a woman. Duh.] It’s worth considering the extent to which male writers’ hesitancy about male sexual greed may edge them towards pretty dishonesty, or towards the safe cop-out of depicting their characters as nebbishes.

But here are a few things I thought of that may cast Roiphe’s point in a different light. The first is that the sexual revolution ultimately was confined to the unmarried. In the ’70s, when Updike and Roth were at the height of their powers, it wasn’t evident that this would be the case, but ultimately experiments in non-monogamous lifestyles in the US petered out. Many would have needed alternative economic arrangements to the nuclear family, which never materialized. Importantly, it turned out the vast majority of women just didn’t like socially sanctioned screwing around anywhere near as much as men did; it taking two to tango, this put the kibosh on a lot of the fun. And without any sense that society’s preferred arrangements for sexual affiliation might be profoundly changing, it’s very hard to sustain the kind of exploratory excitement that Roth, Bellows, Mailer and Updike put into their depictions of sexual experimentation.

Another point is that while many of the great libido novels of the ’60s are about the explosive experience of engaging in infidelity, we tend to remember fewer great ’60s libido novels as depicting the explosive experience of being cheated on. In fact, many of these novels do both; Bellows’s Herzog, at the opening of his eponymous novel, is lying in a hammock in the Berkshires calling himself crazy because he has just taken a gun to try to threaten his ex-wife and the man she ran off with. In this case, it is the wild and crazy experience of having your wife run off with your best friend that drives the madness and the emotional growth, made the more rich by the reader’s sense that our protagonist, sympathetic and insightful as he may be, richly deserved what he got.

But the most important way that the sexual revolution has influenced today’s writers is that it succeeded so well as to become banal, gross, obvious and commercially corrupt. Roiphe briefly touched on this in her piece, but I think it’s important to note that while this may be the moment of All the Sensitive Young Literary Men, it’s also the moment of the Bangbus. In 1969, Nathan Zuckerman celebrated his daring in whipping it out for all the world to see; in 2009, the guy doing that would be that creepy dude who invented Girls Gone Wild. Young writers today, if they’re avoiding this material, aren’t motivated only by a nice feminist upbringing; they’re motivated by trying to keep their brands distinct from those of widely accepted, commercially mainstream pornography and pornography-influenced advertising. Roiphe begins her piece with an anecdote about a friend hurling Roth’s latest novel into the trash can after reading an explicit MFF sex scene; she notes that the problem is that it fails as pornography. But the problem is also in part that pornography in 2009 is not what pornography was in 1969. Explicit sex scenes are now “transgressive” only in the most exhausted and empty conformist fashion, in the same way that football players believe themselves in some sense to be acting transgressively when they drink large quantities of beer. This is formulaic and de rigueur transgression. (Ross Douthat makes basically the same point.)

One member of Roiphe’s today’s-young-men roster who managed to do this kind of scene successfully and honestly, I thought, was Jonathan Franzen, with the sex scenes from the lesbian-awakening narrative in “The Corrections”. I am, obviously, not a lesbian, and for all I know those scenes were in fact quasi-pornographic fantasy. But they felt to me like a sincere, motivated and successful rendering of the obsessive crystal-meth alternate reality you spend your time in when you’re having new kinds of sex with someone you really, really, ever-increasingly, caution-to-the-winds dig. And, actually, I thought his depiction of the catastrophic teacher-student sexual narrative at the beginning of the novel, and its aftermath, were pretty spot-on as well, and can’t honestly be dismissed as wimpy. The sequences in which Chip circles all the letter “M”‘s in the newspaper and follows it up by masturbating onto a couch that still smells slightly of her were, I thought, appropriately Rothy. I also loved the jump-cut transformation of Miranda in Chip’s eyes from a ridiculous student in his section wearing a very uncool beret to an object of sexual mania.

But anyway, I did think it was interesting that the spot in the novel where Franzen felt free to depict transgressive extramarital sexual engagement as a liberating, uncontrollably irrational D.H. Lawrence-style voyage of the self was as part of the socially condoned (in liberal society, anyway) narrative of gay self-discovery. Which leads me to think that Roiphe is right that the moral strictures governing the depiction of sex, in general, are too tight for this generation of male writers, and that more guys need to start writing about the disgusting shit we’re actually thinking about. Though of course that would mostly just lead to a lot more depictions of lesbians.


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[…] New York Times Book Review. Matt Steinglass complements Roiphe’s line of thinking with his own piece (the title says most of it) while Sonya Chung of our go-to literary blog, The Millions, wonders why Roiphe left James Salter […]

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