Katie Roiphe’s recent essay in the New York Times entitled “The Naked and the Conflicted” calls out contemporary authors for being prude snugglers, and praises mid-century males for being pervy sex fiends. The article, complete with handy graphs, decries the current generation of literary greats as too obsessed with irony and ambivalence to let its characters (or themselves, she hints somewhat heavily) enjoy sex or their own virility. Citing David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Ames, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Chabon, among others, she writes:
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.
Now wait just one minute.
Not all contemporary authors and/or their protagonists are namby-pamby wimps without any of that manly sex drive. Yes, the first half of Roiphe’s article, analyzing the use of sex in the work of Mailer, Roth, and Updike, makes sense to us, but it’s around the third page that she begins to veer off track. Describing what she refers to as the “new narcissists,” she writes:
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. … It means that 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. … 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.
So, if a writer doesn’t choose sex as a topic, their work lacks a sense of possibility? Why can’t people write about other things and still have “expansiveness”? Sex in literature should be just another tool utilized by the author in order to achieve some kind of goal. The three “old guard” novelists she profiles happened to focus on sex as a topic as well as a means of furthering character or story — does that really make so much of a difference in terms of their virility? Sure, sex is a huge driving force in the human experience, but it’s not the only one. Plus, the fact that she criticizes the lack of real sex or interest in sex in Wallace’s Infinite Jest suggests that she didn’t get the point (or any of the points) of that book.
Maybe she didn’t get Ames, either, since the man was clearly affronted by his inclusion in the wimpy column, as expressed via this tweet:
We haven’t read it, but we will take his word for it (and pick up a copy immediately).
But onward — as far as we’re concerned, the real problem is that Roiphe just hand picked a few well-known (and mostly well-loved) authors who corresponded with her pre-conceived thesis. That’s no way to make a compelling argument — of course there are plenty of middle-century authors unconcerned with sex and plenty of great contemporary authors who discuss it in virile detail (and as she says, vice-versa). For example…
The most obvious retort to Roiphe’s article, as far as we’re concerned, is “um, what about Chuck Palahniuk?” Definitely a member of the “new guard,” Palahniuk, famous for (among many, many other things) the quote “Love is bullshit. Emotion is bullshit. I am a rock. A jerk. I’m an uncaring asshole and proud of it,” also penned a number of sex-charged novels, including Choke, which follows a con man who picks up women at sexual addiction support group meetings, and Snuff, which is about porn and has detailed descriptions of everything from anal sex to “the Goldilocks of dildos.” Not for the faint of heart, we say.
Another example is Stephen Elliott, who is definitely part of the new-blood literary movement, and is also known for his descriptions of sex, notably sadomasochism, described in much of his work, including his recent memoir The Adderall Diaries, with graphic candor. Does this not count because it’s not deviant in the traditional way (man subjecting woman to abuse as opposed to the other way around)?
Miranda July (a female author, which is a subset of this issue left completely untouched by Roiphe) certainly doesn’t shy away from the harshness of sex, or her characters’ need for it. In her story “Something That Needs Nothing” (published in The New Yorker in September ’06 and our favorite in her recent collection No One Belongs Here More Than You), the lead character is left heartbroken by her lover and turns to performing in the “and More” section of Mr. Peepers Adult Video Store and More.
I learned to be aggressive with the customers, to take my clothes off in front of strangers. It was like being on the rock, when the kids splashing below were yelling “jump.” I bought a lime-green negligee and a dildo, with which I de-virginized myself. I told involved stories about my perpetually wet pussy. Soon a stalker followed me out to the curb and spat on me. I went inside, called Berryman’s Lumber, and asked Pip to come pick me up. I could almost hear the name “Mr. Peepers” vibrating in her head… She was living in an unfinished basement with a dirt floor. I lay down upon her mattress, and she lay beside me. Soon we turned to each other; it seemed almost brutal at first. I was still in my wig… Each night she picked me up from Mr. Peepers, and I’d stay with her, still wearing my wig. One day, after wearing it for thirty hours straight, I came down with a fever. Pip tended to me, and when I took it off, I knew she wouldn’t pick me up from work again…
Ultimately, we think there are plenty of “new narcissism” authors who deal with sex in provocative and interesting (and virile) ways, and of course, like any other large group of people, some who don’t. Maybe Roiphe is thinking of the much discussed current trend of romantic, dorky, skinny-jean-sporting male leads in movies, but even Michael Cera in Juno impregnates a girl on the first go, which proves his literal virility despite his painful awkwardness. In that vein, we think this might be yet another thinly veiled attack at the “hipster” generation, decried by frustrated critics in many of the same exact terms Roiphe uses — we’re too “endlessly ironic,” emblematic of a “cultural shutting down,” too “self-conscious,” and worst of all “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” [emphasis ours].
Yes, there is some truth to the idea that current “hip” culture is self-conscious and narcissistic, but what generation of artists and tastemakers wasn’t? Please. Here’s another hypothesis: maybe our generation of literary greats is just as virile as Roth’s, but dealing with a whole new set of issues that come out in a whole new set of ways. As Wallace writes (in the same essay that Roiphe draws her quotes of his from),
But young adults of the nineties – many of whom are, of course, the children of all the impassioned infidelities and divorces Updike wrote about so beautifully, and who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation — today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness: the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.
So consider us pervy snugglers.
We’re sure there are a million more examples of writers who buck this trend. Who’ve you got for us?