Friday, January 8, 2010

No Sex Please, We're Postmodern

Posted By on Fri, Jan 8, 2010 at 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.

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