Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Sex, or the Lack Thereof, in Contemporary Literature

Just in time for my Five-Foot Shelf project comes a a fascinating article about sex in modern literature in yesterday's New York Times Magazine!

The article, written by Katie Roiphe and entitled "The Naked and the Conflicted," essentially accuses the most recent generation of male novelists of being prudes, and it backs up its claims. Citing the work of Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel and Jonathan Safran Foer, and comparing them to male novelists of the previous generation such as John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow, the author makes a case that male novelists have become a lot more hesitant to explore sexuality than their prececessors.

Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing. Compare Kunkel’s tentative and guilt-ridden masturbation scene in “Indecision” with Roth’s famous onanistic exuberance with apple cores, liver and candy wrappers in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Kunkel: “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.” Roth also writes about guilt, of course, but a guilt overridden and swept away, joyously subsumed in the sheer energy of taboo smashing: “How insane whipping out my joint like that! Imagine what would have been had I been caught red-handed! Imagine if I had gone ahead.” In other words, one rarely gets the sense in Roth that he would throw away his penis if he could.

The literary possibilities of their own ambivalence are what beguile this new generation, rather than anything that takes place in the bedroom. In Michael Chabon’s “Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” a woman in a green leather miniskirt and no underwear reads aloud from “The Story of O,” and the protagonist says primly, “I refuse to flog you.” Then take the following descriptions from Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections”: “As a seducer, he was hampered by ambivalence.” “He had, of course, been a lousy, anxious lover.” “He could hardly believe she hadn’t minded his attacks on her, all his pushing and pawing and poking. That she didn’t feel like a piece of meat that he’d been using.” (And of course there are writers like Jonathan Safran Foer who avoid the corruptions of adult sexuality by choosing children and virgins as their protagonists.) (…)

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; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically un¬toward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé. More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life. These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced. (Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”).

This generation of writers is suspicious of what Michael Chabon, in “Wonder Boys,” calls “the artificial hopefulness of sex.” They are good guys, sensitive guys, and if their writing is denuded of a certain carnality, if it lacks a sense of possibility, of expansiveness, of the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love, it is because of a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.

I live at the crossroads of being a sex geek and a literary geek (as well as several other kinds of geek, to be perfectly honest) and I have been feeling exactly what this article is describing this way for a long time, without being able to express it so well. I’m a fiction writer and lately I’ve been wrestling with the question of how to incorporate my interest in sexuality into my work. I’ve been having a hard time. While I’m certainly familiar with all the great writers who have talked about sex in very interesting ways I can’t get over the feeling that sex is not literary. Or at least not appropriate in contemporary literature.

Roiphe does an eloquent job documenting this, but doesn’t go looking for the causes (except for suggesting at one point that novelists of the past generation might have been emboldened by court decisions to explore topics formerly banned under obscenity laws). It’s nothing but speculation but I wonder if it’s a side effect of the proliferation of writing workshops, and the homogenizing effect they have had on the most recent literary generation. The creative writing workshop has moved novel-writing into the academic sphere. When Plato separated intellectual rigor from physical pleasure, he bequeathed a stuffy attitude about sex to modern academia.

I also wonder if the publishing industry has something to do with the decline of sex in contemporary literature. It’s difficult to prove that publishers rule out publishing authors write about sex—but the fact that most books that take a serious look at sex are published by small presses is People’s Exhibit Number One. With the exception of a few smaller presses like Cleis or Greenery that publish erotica that is also well written, major publishers are not especially eager to take literary writing that includes sex.

A personal experience also makes me suspicious of publishers. A few years ago, I had very little trouble getting a story I wrote about a political topic published in a major literary review. My follow-up story was about polyamorous teenagers and I shopped it around to a dozen major reviews without any luck. Maybe they just didn't think the story was as good as I thought it was -- there's no way to know -- but I couldn't help feeling the topic played a role. It seems likely that the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, coupled with fall of obscenity laws, created a brief period when writers who talked about sex were welcomed by publishers. The backlash of second-wave feminism and political correctness may have set up the opposite effect. Today’s writers may want to write about sex but concentrate on other topics because they just can’t get those books published.

In any case, I greatly recommend you read the entire article and not just the excerpt posted above, and kudos to the Times Magazine for choosing to publish such a thought-provoking piece.


  1. Really, really interesting article! Thanks for posting it.

    I wouldn't put the blame on publishers for the lack of sex in literature. It's a well known fact that sex sells, and publishers are interested in what's salable. In the case of your two short stories, which I happen to know, I would say that both stories were well-written, but one had a timeliness that the other didn't. At the time you submitted the polyamory story, there wasn't anyone beating a door down to read it. Give it a year or two. Poly has been in the press so much lately, that it won't be long before that's the next literary trend.

    What I find interesting is that this article focuses on men not writing about sex as much (or as graphically) as they used to. Are women shying away from it in the same way? Or are women writing more sexually charged fiction, and no one cares? I'd be interested in looking into THAT.

  2. Also, I think a big reason people aren't writing about sex the way they used to is that the novelty has worn off. There is truth in the fact that all of those writers who wrote about sex so graphically and freely were raging against a society that wouldn't let them express their sexuality in a mainstream way. Now, anyone can "grab their dick and double-click" for whatever they want, Sex in the City encouraged a generation of women to talk about dildos and one-night stands over brunch, and so there isn't the same desperate need for a sexual outlet. The dearth of sexuality in fiction could mean good things for sexuality in real life! People don't need to WRITE about sex, because they're too busy having/pursuing it in life! Isn't that a nice thought? :)

  3. Funny how liberalism is blamed. I'm sure the puritanical, right-wing cultural shift we've had over the last decade or so has had at least as much, if not more, to do with attitudes towards sex than the vanishing specter of "political correctness".

    Yes, irony and self-conscious coolness are also partially responsible. But I think these things, just like "political correctness", are just symptoms of a lack of healthy eroticism. And that lack can be laid at the feet of puritanism, just like always.

    I think it's a false social construct to blame sexual uptightness on liberal values. Even the most rabidly unerotic PC-ness was just a reaction to the real problem--sexual repression and the violence it led to.

    Maybe some male writers (female writers don't seem to be focused on here) are afraid of what their PC girlfriends would say if they wrote balls-out. But I doubt it. That might be the excuse given, but it's covering up a deeper problem--ignorance and squeamishness, brought about by abstinence-only sex ed and a repressive, sexually cheapening culture.

    Talking about dildos over lunch isn't necessarily sex-positive, any more than refusing to talk about sex is a sign of being a "good guy". Overcompensating and avoidance are two sides of the same repressed coin.