There’s a type of prose piece whose main job is to be talked about. These articles or essays need not be right, or well-researched or particularly insightful but they reverberate through the chattering classes like self-satisfied church bells. Sometimes the commentariat calls this counter-intuitive journalism, usually when talking about Slate. This implies that the purveyors are gadfly-types who are chipping away at ossified public discourse by saying what everyone’s thinking but is too held back by convention to say. I like to think of it more as culture bait, calculated to jab at socially exposed nerves in order to get attention. I don’t blame the editors of the Times Sunday Book Review for thinking, “Hey, when was the last time people spent a week talking about the Sunday Book Review?” But Katie Roiphe’s article in Sunday’s Times about “Sex and the American Male Novelist” makes me wonder why writing can’t be provocative without being regressive.
Roiphe takes contemporary American male novelists to task for, well, being pussies in their writing about sex. At the same time she celebrates the likes of the Roth, Updike, Mailer and the rest for their ilk for acting as the nation’s id, exploring sexuality through their writing in a way Americans were too afraid to discuss outside their bedrooms. She sees the old guard’s frank depiction of base desire as representative of courage on the part of the authors. In Roiphe’s piece, being explicit is the same as being transgressive and edgy, whereas current authors (Chabon, Eggers, Wallace and some other white guys) find “the cuddle preferable to sex” and are just soft.
The Times essay is in many ways a response to another essay, which I guess makes this a rejoinder. Roiphe quotes from although never formally cites David Foster Wallace’s 1998 New York Observer review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time, “Certainly The End of Something Or Other, One Would Sort Of Have To Think” in which he formally denounces the “Great Male Narcissists” she applauds. But Wallace is no hack and he frames no simplistic second-wave denunciation of aggressive sex. Instead he views Updike in terms of his place as chronicler of “probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” What irks Wallace is that Updike and his lot are so self-involved that they think, like Wallace’s own Oren Incandenza in Infinite Jest, they can fuck the existential pain away.
Roiphe predictably blames feminism for the death of GMN (the ‘N’ being ‘Novelists’ or “Narcissists’ depending on your affiliation and sass) sex writing and she’s probably not wrong. I’m no fan of the simplistic line against either Updike or Roth (having not read enough Mailer to comment) that rejects their works based on a perceived misogyny. Yes, the GMN are a bunch of self-involved men with a bunch of anxiety, a lot of it around women, but so are most published writers. Updike and Roth were transgressive because they confronted readers with desire that was otherwise locked away and expressed larger fears in terms of sex. For their protagonists, Roiphe mentions the literary stars Rabbit Angstrom and Nathan Zuckerman respectively, sex was about power and control, the one place to exercise an imagined masculinity while confronted with a changing world.
Thanks in large part to feminism, these scenes of sexual sublimation in which women are toe-holds on the sheer rock face of existence ring false. This changing world is the only one a lot of us have ever known and we don’t need to fuck women in the ass or cheat on our wives to make us feel okay with it. Roiphe writes about an acquaintance throwing out a copy of Philip Roth’s The Humbling for containing a sex scene that she found “disgusting, dated, redundant.” As for disgusting, the acquaintance is right, at least as far as the scene that turns rape and kidnapping into a wild threesome is concerned, but the fact that The Humbling seems dated is what makes it worth reading. Roth is far past his prime in terms of shock value, but a book about a broken old man having sex with a younger lesbian is improved when the author thinks a green strap-on has totemic significance. We feel the age in Roth’s relish to provoke.
None of this means sex is not still about power and control, but is it a surprise it is filled with a different kind of anxiety for a new generation of writers? The feelings produced by hiding a copy of Playboy under your bed and awkwardly watching a Girls Gone Wild commercial with your parents are distinct. What Roiphe describes as “a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes” is now what adolescents see when they click the wrong link or watch television at night. How can something still be offensive if it’s being sold to us 24/7? What formally shocked adults now shocks 12 year-olds who are allowed to watch Gossip Girl. This doesn’t make us necessarily any more sexually liberated than our grandfathers, but the market managed to filter out anything redeeming, anxious or philosophical from Updike and Roth leaving only insecure masculinity with nothing but a cock to defend itself. We are supposed to live up to the controversial sex of our predecessors without anything controversial left to do. Instead of seeing threesomes as verboten, the modern men knows all he needs is to buy enough hair gel and he can have as many girls as he wants at the same time. No wonder contemporary male authors have characters who don’t know what to do when they get what they’re supposed to want.
The literary missing-link between the GMN’s and the contemporary wussy boys is Brett Easton Ellis. In his novels the reader sees what self-avoidance through sex becomes in an era of post-industrial commodity capitalism. There are no taboos Ellis’s characters can’t buy and through its realization, masculinity reveals its violence and emptiness. In American Psycho, the narrator Patrick Bateman has all sorts of transgressive sex including murderous violence that would have made any of Updike or Roth’s characters reach for the closest phone to call the cops. And he does it with the same bemused detachment with which he listens to Huey Lewis. There is nothing of free love left in Ellis, the sex may be animalistic, but it has the rationality of a stock trade. The same group of feminists who denounce Updike and Roth have fought Ellis each step of the way even though he’s on their side. When Clay shuts the door on the grotesque tableau of rape and abuse at the end of Less Than Zero, Ellis shows the reader that consummated desire is not the same as salvation. He depicts the collision between taboo sexuality and late capitalism, and it is monstrous.
In post-Reagan America, the aggressive depictions of sex Roiphe remember reek of insecurity and decay, they are commercial, cold and not very sexy. Contemporary authors are left in a different historical position vis-a-vis their sexual anxiety. Only a surface reading of Infinite Jest could yield “Characters … often repelled or uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation.” The quotes Roiphe uses from the novel describe Oren, a cerebral football player who seeks solace where the writers told him he should: between the legs of a married woman. Yet he finds no cure even as he traces infinity on his lovers’ naked sides. This isn’t a case of feminism making men weak, it’s men learning from the past. Ellis, after all, based Patrick Bateman on his father.
The fact that I identify more with Hal Incandenza than Alex Portnoy doesn’t make Portnoy’s Complaint any less a great book. The fact that it would not be written today does not make it any less a great book. Roiphe is fighting a straw-man insofar as Wallace writes about being an Updike fan and casually mentions having read around 24(!) of his books. I like Updike too, even if I prefer Roth. What they wrote is still relevant, even if it fails to provoke. If anything, men about whom those books were written still run the military. Understanding their sexual anxiety is probably not a bad idea. But yearning for a time when men wrote about how they would save themselves through the sheer metaphysical power of their conquering dicks is silly. We’re far too anxious for that these days.
Updike and Roth, as well as Ellis, wrote culture bait in their own ways, but they never pined for an imagined past. They expanded taboos outward, stretching them to the breaking point in the process. These days too much of what grabs headlines seems to point backward, as if the past will always be more controversial than the future. Young forward-looking transgressive voices exist, even on sex, but for them to get exposure publishers and editors need to stop picking fights with feminists just for the exposure. In the mean time, if you want to read some writing that pushes on contemporary ideas about sex, check out anything by Jeanette Winterson but especially Written on the Body. I know she’s a girl (and British and a lesbian!) but her descriptions of sex without gender are as erotic and powerful as anything those old guys ever wrote. And just as challenging.