Sex and the American Male Novelist

Katie Roiphe has an interesting article at the New York Times suggesting that if American Male novelists like Updike, Roth and Mailer wrote about in sex in graphic, yet sexist terms, newer writers such as David Foster Wallace and Michael Chabon have only gotten rid of the graphic element, but are implicitly navel gazing authors who make their women characters at best flat. Not having read any of these authors (perhaps I should one day) I can only go with the quotes she mentions, but she does have a point.

In this same essay, Wallace goes on to attack Updike and, in passing, Roth and Mailer for being narcissists. But does this mean that the new generation of novelists is not narcissistic? 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.

After the sweep of the last half-century, our bookshelves look different than they did to the young Kate Millett, drinking her nightly martini in her downtown apartment, shoring up her courage to take great writers to task in “Sexual Politics” for the ways in which their sex scenes demeaned, insulted or oppressed women. These days the revolutionary attitude may be to stop dwelling on the drearier aspects of our more explicit literature. 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.

Kate Millett might prefer that Norman Mailer have a different taste in sexual position, or that Bellow’s fragrant ladies bear slightly less resemblance to one another, or that Rabbit not sleep with his daughter-in-law the day he comes home from heart surgery, but there is in these old paperbacks an abiding interest in the sexual connection.

Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike’s notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur. The fluidity of Updike’s Tarbox, with its boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating al­fresco, has disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time. Why, then, should we be bothered by our literary lions’ continuing obsession with sex? Why should it threaten our insistent modern cynicism, our stern belief that sex is no cure for what David Foster Wallace called “ontological despair”? Why don’t we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?

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