It was Andy Warhol who said “sex is the biggest nothing of all time,” and whether his coy abstinence is worth comparing to the young novelists analyzed in Katie Roiphe’s New York Times Book Review piece, this much is true: a stance against sex, in any art, is a cold stance, and whether it is involved in—or inspired by—irony, or art, or any other instinct towards risk or revolution, may not matter for the audience. The reader (or, in Warhol’s case, the viewer) is left with philosophy, and perhaps an education, but is she left with depth of feeling? Should she care?
Louis Menand’s piece on Warhol in this week’s New Yorker, “Top of the Pops,” echoes aspects of Roiphe’s analysis in that it considers things Warhol leaves absent in his art, and poses the question of whether the choice to Leave Something Out might be something to be applauded. Menand writes:
The essence of Warhol’s genius was to eliminate the one aspect of a thing without which that thing would, to conventional ways of thinking, cease to be itself, and then to see what happened. He made movies of objects that never moved and used actors who could not act, and he made art that did not look like art. He wrote a novel without doing any writing.
While Warhol has little in common with contemporary novelists, it is interesting to (ruthlessly) use Menand’s logic and ask: is contemporary male novelists’ stance on sex an artistic choice? Does it devalue our experience of reading them?
Menand makes a point about Warhol working, accordingly to some critics, after “the end of art.” Could we say something similar of young male novelists today: that they are writing after the “end of sex,” at least as sex stands in relation to the novel? Will there still be sex scenes that break the mold and challenge the genre, but which qualify as high art? They may be there already, and may be simply less well known.
Still, it seems that a literary decision to confront and write about sex is less interesting than it once was. It’s highly unlikely today’s young authors are afraid. And it’s (even more) highly unlikely they’re not sexually experienced. It’s more plausible that they simply find it dull or beneath them to write about sex. Writing about sex has become a trick, an audition for HBO, not the Booker.
Willing to take risks, but ultimately more cerebral than feeling, this generation of writers could also be called the anti-Eat, Pray, Lovers. Eat, Pray, Love, now much discussed given Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up book, was about learning to love oneself, after all, and that, conceptually, is anathema to young, educated . . . men. It’s corny. It’s not literary.
And yet: there must be some rationale, some internal rationale as to why these writers are writing rather than out killing lions, or fighting wars—and that reason may have to be, in the end, that they are educating readers with what they write. They are teaching us, rather than touching us. They are amusing and provoking, and causing us to question. It this valid? Yes. Is it as much fun? I would say, more so. They don’t stoop to conquer, and their readers should be grateful.