No Sex Please, We’re Postmodern

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01/08/2010 4:17 PM |

I wanna sex you up.

  • “I wanna sex you up.”

Presumably many of you read Katie Roiphe’s NYTBR essay about Sex and the Single Dead White Male Novelist, or at least read a blog post about it. We’re intrigued by the piece—which contrasts the (social) barrier-busting phallocentrism of Roth, Updike, Mailer and Bellow with more precious, asexual passages from sensitive new canonites Ben Kunkel, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon and David Foster Wallace—which we think makes a number of not uninteresting points about the period-appropriate risk-taking and frankness and new insight in the older novelists’ sex scenes. However, her dismissal of the younger authors seems to come out of a distaste for their self-conscious personae:

We are simply witnessing the flowering of a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in… the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.

She also establishes her dichotomy via some very selective inclusions and possibly willful misreadings (one: she cites The Mysteries of Pittsburgh but leaves out the corn oil-lubed buttsex). And she does this mostly so that she can blame it all on Feminism:

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… Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically un­toward.

Yup, Kate Millett and ardent undergrads, just cold emasculatin’ our literature.

Still, it’s true what Roiphe says about younger authors being less willing than Updike and Roth to expose themselves so extravagantly. But, then, they should be warier of it, because, you know, explicitness is not the same as exploration, anymore.

I myself do not.

  • “I myself do not.”

We haven’t seen it all before, but we had better be more judicious about what aspects of sex (including, yes, ambivalent attitudes pertaining towards) we write about, because we’ve seen a lot of it. You watch enough porn, you will eventually start to notice: those facial expressions are actually pretty ridiculous. You read enough sex scenes, you will eventually start an annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award—for which you nominate Philip Roth, the year after you’ve given a lifetime achievement award to John Updike.

Roiphe actually transitions directly from the “going through the motions” sex scenes of Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, into her accusation of sexual paralysis among young writers. And yet she doesn’t make the most obvious connection: maybe it’s because these new novelists have read a lot of sex scenes, just like Roth has written a lot of them by now. She’s right to blame these guys’ education, but not because of all those hairy-pitted student union girls excoriating their privilege (sexual and otherwise).

Education makes you more self-aware, I’ve found. Kunkel, Chabon, Wallace, Franzen, Eggers—aside from being novelists, they’ve all done impressive, wide-ranging work as essayists, critics, editors. It’d be hard to draw a more well-read hand than these five.

Perhaps they’ve decided that as much as literature needs the kind of sex writing Roiphe admires, that writing isn’t going to come from yet more educated urban white dudes anymore.

5 Comment

  • Yeah, OK, but you know what? She’s right about those guys… they ARE self-absorbed toffs. I think that Roiphe is a shallow, feminist-baiting, reactionary fool, but that doesn’t meant that she’s not right in this instance. I think the observation just hits a little too close to home for some folks.

  • “Some folks,” eh?

    Well when put all together they do seem a bit of an inner-directed piece; they and their interests are certainly very present in their writings, and ours is certainly an age of unprecedented narcissism. But I dunno, I find I need a certain amount of obliviousness to really hammer someone on that count. (Personally, and nothing more.)

    I think DFW did brilliant in work in Brief Interviews really burrowing into the nature of self-absorption and coming out in a universal place; it’s hard to see Chabon’s prolific forays into genre as anything but adventures (of a very personal kind, I guess); I’m in no hurry to read Indecision but found Kunkel’s essays about like Bob Walser and Fred Frederick Seidel and terrorist fiction and (ironically) memoir to be pretty spot-on and n+1 is a good magazine; Eggers seems to be writing about everything but himself these days (making up for earlier stuff?), as well as editing a lit mag that publishes like Graustarkian Romances and Oulipo and New Icelandic Fiction and shit (though his Wild Things screenplay was hella precious in a way that might be considered self-absorbed). (Franzen I’ve read like one short story. I liked it?)

    I guess what I’m saying is that if you don’t like a writer everything he writes seems self-indulgent, because Holy Shit Who Cares What This Asshole Thinks. For instance: “How smug and show-offy of Ben Kunkel, to edit an occasionally Marxist journal.”

    You know who was self-absorbed? Norman motherfucking Mailer is who was self-absorbed.

  • Although to clarify yeah as I said obviously they’re all very self-conscious and self-aware; I try to feel out a distinction between that and “self-absorbed”, which is a far more pejorative accusation.

  • You win, Mark! I surrender! 🙂 white flag! PS How about them Jets? ML

  • ALL writers are self-absorbed thats why they write. No? I’m a little confused as to how Kunkel got into the same category as Chabon and Franzen in terms of accomplishment. I don’t see him there yet especially with Indecision being such a disappointing debut. Also, I found some sex in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union and I personally feel Franzen dislikes people in general — not just women and sexuality so I don’t see him fitting in either. That said, I believe Roiphe’s argument holds up and extends across film and music. With Directors, like Jonze focusing on the retelling of children’s tales or Anderson’s precious diorama worlds that make my teeth hurt. Though I disagree with a few of her author choices, I can’t help but agree this IS a real thing that is happening in art right now. Lately, male artists seem more comfortable with a Sufjan style of art than a Bukowski, Roth, Mailer type of balls out sexed up one. I am not sure how Roiphe concludes the blame lies with feminism and I disagree with her there but like Mike was saying and then sort of reneged — she has a point!