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Culture & Religion

The Literary Possibilities of Sexual Ambivalence

Katie Roiphe’s cover essay in today’s New York Times Book Review affectionately notes one thing about several male novelists of an earlier generation—Roth, Bellow, Updike—that we should consider missing: unapologetic, uniquely masculine writing about sex.

In contrasting the Roth generation’s raw revels of pleasure, adulterous and otherwise, with the newer novelists’ nervousness surrounding sex, Roiphe points out:

The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: ‘Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm’; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: ‘We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.’

The cuddle is preferable to sex? There may be myriad reasons for this.  The younger generation’s interest in (religion of?) irony; their education; their politics; their experiences with post-feminist girls. It is also possible that their reverence, even when at times Oedipal, of their predecessors, might make them desirous of being different, in style as well as in sex, and so in style of sex. No one wants to be accused of writing a poor imitation of Rabbit, Run, after all.

What “The Naked and the Conflicted” reminds the reader is that, before we found them corny or creepy or infuriating, Mailer, Roth, Bellow and Updike were cool, and gifted. And when they wrote about sex they were provocative, and these provocations impacted the way the culture thought about sex, transgression, and the banality of a certain ideal. What takes the place of this now, if not newer, more radical interpretations of sexual transgressions?

It is hard to write well about sex. (It might be impossible. Search for the evidence.) And it’s perhaps valid to say that today, with unique access to pornography, and immediate access to what was once was hard to find, the idea of writing new sex scenes is something young novelists might rightly find absurd. How best to make sex new and notable? Perhaps by leaving it out. Yet the legacy of leaving it out is what has yet to be determined. Is it cowardly, or innovative?

And then there is narcissism, not to be confused with (but seemingly often present alongside) genius. Is it male novelists’ narcissism that results in the confidence necessary to write about sex? Roiphe resists this:

I would suspect, narcissism being about as common among male novelists as brown eyes in the general public, that it does not. 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.

Maybe one male novelist will attempt, just for fun, to write a scene causing us to reconsider Roiphe’s thesis. While sex, or smart writing about sex, does not have to be “a cure for ontological despair,” it might simply be fun.

* “The literary possibilities of their own ambivalence” is Roiphe’s smart phrase; it inspired the title of this post.


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