In The Naked and The Conflicted, an op-ed piece in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times, Katie Roiphe offers an uneasily defiant defense of the sex scenes – alternately reviled and lauded for their exuberantly misogynistic perversities – of the mid-20th century's so-called Great Male Novelists. She also offers an even uneasier, if more confident, condemnation – a sigh of disappointment, really, but one that strives for salience and profounder articulation – of contemporary male writers' ostensible aversion to creating depictions of sex as outré and salacious as those by Updike, Roth, and Mailer.
The article is worth reading not because it is particularly penetrating or on-target in its attacks but because its argument makes momentary advances toward the general vicinity of what could prove more interesting territory. Roiphe's argument is all over the place; rather, her argument is quite simple, but she attempts to couch it in other trends and literary movements of various cultural and artistic significance, the ultimate lameness of which distracts from the impact of what, one senses, she really wants to say, namely: that she really likes Updike and Roth’s descriptions of sex and is disappointed that contemporary male writers do not describe the act as pruriently. The essay begins intriguingly: she wonders, wisely without immediately offering any answer, why a sex passage from a recent Roth novel is still capable, in at least one instance, of provoking shock – and in this one instance also disdain and annoyance – despite the fact that most contemporary literary scholars and trendmakers deride such passages as outdated, intellectually naïve, and essentially uninteresting. It is a worthwhile consideration: is the shock that Roth’s descriptions of sex cause any less worthy of note simply because the shock is of a condescended-to sort, because it is seen as passé and juvenile? Roiphe chose a poor example to elucidate this point – the “shock” she describes is, I suspect, actually something closer to incensed irritation, of the kind one feels when someone like Rush Limbaugh says something predictably and blandly offensive about, say, homosexuality – but this is not reason enough to dismiss the thrust of her point here (it is less a cohesive essay than an observational and perambulatory approach to an opinion she seems unwilling to let be a mere matter of taste, and of which she can’t help but try to make grander extrapolations, and thus “here” literally refers to that particular part of the essay, as it largely disappears afterwards; this "essay" is similar in this respect to hers): why is it any less "wrong," so to speak, to dismiss something as immature, cliché, or tiresome – as the sex scenes of the Great Male Novelists now often are – than it is to dismiss something as grotesque, perverse, or immoral, as the sex scenes of the Great Male Novelists once were? Why is it not wrong, ultimately, to simply dismiss something? The answer seems obvious: it is a question of quality, one may say, of thoughtfulness and ability, although the immense presumptions one must make in order to stake out a claim for the quality, thoughtfulness, or ability of one work or artist over others are staggering – and I’m sure to many it is more clear than it is to me. But it always seems a loss, in some sense, to not be interested in something that others like or take interest in. With the exception of several works by Roth, I generally can’t stand the output of the Great Male Novelists; and while a certain petty sense of empowerment comes from this, I ultimately feel much the worse off for not being able to grant their writing the proper time to, at the very least, understand and be interested in why others like them.
Roiphe dutifully admits that these writers – with Upike, Roth, and Mailer as their primary embodiments – deserved much of the condemnation they received for their enthusiastic sexual repression of female characters; but this comes across in her essay as almost a platitudinous given, as something that has, through a kind of well-meaning but hollow acceptance, lost its moral urgency and weight. This flippancy allows her to implicitly re-embrace the misogyny exercised by the Great Male Writers; where she severely errs – where her essay embarrasses itself most, really – is in her treatment of contemporary male writers, then: “The current sexual style is more childlike,” she states; “innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” This is a grand generalization – most of Roth’s notable male contemporaries, say, Bernard Malamud and Walter Percy, weren’t much concerned with sexual salacity; and many contemporary male writers, say, Jonathan Ames and T.C. Boyle, have written some pretty kooky sex scenes – but what’s worse is how she uses it: essentially, to poke fun at these “cuddly” contemporary male writers, who, she deigns to suggest, have been cowed into their aversion to frank descriptions of wild sexual behavior simply because “their college girlfriends denounced” the sexuality of the Great Male Novelists. It is as if she is trying to emasculate them, as if the responsibility of a true “Great Male Novelist” were to think about sex a lot and then describe it in breezily exotic detail. She seems to think that contemporary male writers have essentially failed as interesting writers for precisely this reason. And she also avoids an unavoidable element of the discussion, if one quite taboo to bring into ostensibly scholarly conversation: the personalities of these writers. Few of the contemporary male writers she mentions have the chauvinistic, phallocentric, wife-stabbing Weltanschauungen of the Great Male Novelists; she does not consider the likely possibility that their disinterest in the particular world views of the Great Male Novelists may come less from a reaction against these figures and more from their simply having entirely distinct approaches to and understandings of the world. That the writers she discusses are male is, of course, of central significance, but she avoids making this essay a concerted effort of gender analysis, which could certainly have helped it; should she have wished, it would certainly have been possible and potentially interesting, if necessarily flawed by its tremendous ambition, to have made this an exploration of the post-1970s feminist and gender equality movement male mindset. Instead she chooses, without articulating why – popularity, presumably, is what connects her chosen authors –, several male writers out of time and artificially coagulates their variously representative parts into what she presumably believes to be a coherent and solid whole.
These are bewildering tactics – of emasculation and coagulation, that is – but what is most lacking in her essay is a comprehension of what, other than describing sex in a straightforwardly salacious way, these Great Male Novelists were, at their best, doing. When not using sex as a ploy for readers' attentions or just for novelty's sake, these writers used it as a forum for investigating a variety of relationships, not just between the acts’ participants but also within them and, as with Roth at his finest, around them, culturally, socially, even politically. What Roiphe misses is that many contemporary male authors have eschewed sex as the forum for these investigations; they have moved to other fora, perhaps in part because the Great Male Novelists, so often not at their best, besmirched much of what could be intelligently and provocatively culled from examinations of sex. They have moved to workplace exchanges; they’ve moved to housing projects; they’ve moved to hunger and eating, to fear and drowning. They’ve moved to tennis courts. She calls these writers "cuddly." And while more people may cuddle in their novels than in those of the Great Male Novelists – and the work of the latter camp, in their interest in the ménage à trois, in penis length, and in acts of sexual degradation, is certainly not where one would want to go to read a great passage about cuddling – this designation – in which she takes these contemporary writers' treatments of sex and makes them emblematic of their entire approach to the world and literature – is myopic, offensive, and incurious. Little in David Foster Wallace's examinations of addiction and depression is cuddly; little in Dave Eggers' depictions of his parents' deaths, the life of a "Lost Boy of Sudan," and the horrors that a family faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is cuddly. Some of the authors she chooses – Jonathan Safran Foer stands out most notably – are easy targets for this attack, and I would not jump quickly to his works' defense; but to lump people like Foster Wallace and Eggers into the same category as Safran Foer or Benjamin Kunkel – who is somewhat more curious and intellectually engaging – simply because their work is alike in a shared absence of giddy depictions of sex is so reductive as to effectively derail all the analytical potential that her initial premise had promised. Personally, I think people like Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and Junot Díaz explore their terrains far more fruitfully and exuberantly than Roth, Updike, and Mailer ever did beds, couches, and the backs of cars. What Roiphe seems most upset by – and what she has every right to be upset by – is that sex is not as exciting to her in Saunders, Foster Wallace, or Díaz’s texts. I wish I could be as excited by the Great Male Novelists as she is, or that I could at least find them interesting; I wish, too, that she could see what the value of sex is in the best of Roth, Updike, and Mailer’s work – beyond the exuberance of their prose – and locate in contemporary writers where and how these valuable explorations have been taken up. The sex scenes of the Great Male Novelists will always be there for her, and Foster Wallace's tennis courts will always be there for me; how nice it would be if they could all always be there for all of us.
The illustration for this – which Roiphe's analysis sparked but doesn't quite live up to – is by Paula Scher and was published with the Times article.