Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

14 thoughts on “Wuss 1.0

  1. Well said, Mark. I read the essay and thought it simplified a complex issue through entirely incoherent examples– can we really pull the function of sex free from the context of those books, quote a few lines of this or that author’s sex scenes or characterization of a male character, ignoring both context and theme except when the them is explicitly dealing with sexuality and the male protagonist, and then pretend to be saying anything meaningful about Roth, Updike and Bellow, let alone today’s male fiction writers (living and dead, evidently, since DFW is discussed at length)?

  2. Arrgh – you just had to make me read that, didn’t you. Some notes:

    “Roth’s explicit passages walk a fine, difficult line between darkness, humor and lust, and somehow the male hero emerges from all the comic clauses breathless, glorified.”

    That’s funny, that wasn’t what I got from the Roth I’ve read at all.

    “It is part of Mailer’s existentialism, his singular, loopy philosophy, that violence is good, natural and healthy, and it is this in his sex scenes that provokes. As in many of Mailer’s ventures, like his famous campaign for mayor of New York, it’s not entirely clear how much he means it and how much is for fun, for the virile show.”

    +1 for writing around the time he stabbed his wife. That’s how a pro does it.

    “And of course there are writers like Jonathan Safran Foer who avoid the corruptions of adult sexuality by choosing children and virgins as their protagonists.”

    Yeah, and what’s up with Marilynne Robinson writing about rural Idaho when she should be writing about the Internet? Clearly, she’s just trying to avoid the Internet. And cable.

    “More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde.”

    I guess she hasn’t read Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I don’t think she’d like it, but I think it would answer her question.

    “These are writers in love with irony”

    Yeah, I don’t think she’s really read much DFW.

    “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.”

    OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. 1995 CALLED, IT WANTS ITS CLICHES BACK. Seriously, what editor in this day and age not only lets someone use “Starbucks lattes” and “minivans” not only earnestly, but RIGHT NEXT TO EACH OTHER? Irony might not save you from lust or “ontological despair,” but it does save you from that kind of writing.

    Also: “boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating al­fresco and women drowning their children” Fixed!

    What’s most frustrating about her essay is that she’s writing as if these writers (Wallace in particular) don’t, you know, know what they’re doing when they write like they do – that they’re so broken by “feminism” that they’re subservient to it (or, more specifically, Roiphe’s idea of it) rather than writing about a completely different world than the one Roiphe’s Big Men wrote about.

    Gah. Now I’m all angry. (Though I’m probably secretly more angry about what feminism has done to me than that essay, even if I don’t realize it.)

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  4. Let us not also forget “The Sun Also Rises”! Feminism apparently went back in time to make Jake Barnes impotent.

  5. I don’t know which was more fun to read: Mark’s post or the comment above by Whet Moser. Just a joy reading these responses all around!

  6. Oddly, considering their “critical” differences, Roth, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, etc., can thank such 50’s American scribblers as Grace Metalious and Harold Robbins for gr-easing their entrance into the fictional world of sexual realism.

  7. Sounds like Roiphe is working the same method she’s used all along. It’s funny she should mention Philip Roth in a writer who was, in your paraphrase, “proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women”.

    Is there another writer named Philip Roth who first that description? Because I associate the name with the author of Portnoy’s Complaint, about a man who jerks off obsessively and shamefully, has messy and conflicted relationships with women he can’t control; When She Was Good, about a ball-breaking bitch who destroys men because she hates them and sex, and they go down like ninepins; and Letting Go, which as I recall is another story of a man brought down by an uncaring, ununderstanding world. And that’s his pre-feminist work. The pre-1970 work of Bellow and Mailer doesn’t seem much different as I recall it, though it’s been a while. The castrating female was a popular male-lit theme in those days, wasn’t it? If it wasn’t a man’s lovers, it was his Mom, and they were kinda the same in many male writers’ psyches — in fairness, Portnoy can be read partly as a satire of that theme. I read some Updike in the 60s and after, though not Couples, and I can’t remember a damn thing about most of it. Roiphe is fantasizing, but it’s the kind of fantasy that sells reliably.

  8. You know what, kiddies? And you are the age of my children, or younger. Roth and Bellow and Updike wrote differently about women because they were (I hate these kinds of terms) pre-feminist. Thusly: thus. Who’s to say how they really felt; what was in the air then was entirely different. Men didn’t know what to make of women, and kept us rather at arms length. Nowadays I think you have more of an idea, and hell, we can even be friends. Why go back and crab about the past in terms of the present. Doesn’t work, doesn’t make sense, only gives you a place to show off your learnedness, which is, unfortunately, what a great many comments by men are intended to do. It’s possible you impress each other; you do not, when you are showing off, impress me.

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