I feel sorry for teens nowadays; they can’t break into their parents’ bedroom, riffle through their bookcase and look for the books with the “dirty parts.” Because when they open any magazine, turn on any TV channel, rent almost any DVD, or open their laptop, the “dirty parts” are thrust in their face. Why break a sweat to search for it?
Not much, according to journalist Katie Roiphe, writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review recently. Cuddling, maybe, as today’s generation of male writers are “too cool for sex.”
You’re not going to get David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon or Jonathan Safran Foer to describe their, uh, member like this: “he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam, bursting with weight.”
Well, maybe that’s a good thing, no offense to the late John Updike, of course.
But, Roiphe does offer an interesting take on how male authors today write about sex versus those of Updike’s era — Norman Mailer, Saul Bellows and Philip Roth (although, as usual, she’s managed to piss off a lot of feminists):
“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 untoward. 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. … 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 beautiful vanity of “I was warm and wanted her to be warm,” or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.”
As for the erotic-charged works of Roth, Mailer, Bellow and Updike:
“In contrast to their cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic heirs, there is something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen. … These passages are after several things at once — sadness, titillation, beauty, fear, comedy, disappointment, aspiration. The writers were interested in showing not just the triumphs of sexual conquest, but also its loneliness, its failures of connection.”
We still have sexual conquests — and a lot of sexual loneliness, even as we flaunt hookups and booty calls — but society doesn’t look like it did back in those days; we are inundated with sexual messages, and porn is so ho-hum it has to get weirder to titillate. We live in an age when, as Tina Brown put it, “everything is known and nothing is understood.” It’s almost impossible for us to be shocked by anything sexual, least of all in a book; all you have to do is Google “lonely naked housewives” and see it for yourself.
But, it did get me thinking about who does write well about sex, who “gets” it.
- Who does it for you?
- And, are male novelists accurately capturing today’s sexual angst?
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