Sunday, January 3, 2010

Katie Roiphe's Sex Essay

This morning I opened my New York Times (after digging around in the snow for ten minutes, in my bathrobe, in a blizzard) to find an annoying essay by Katie Roiphe about "Great Male Writers" and their sex scenes. Her thesis: the old guys were exuberant and sexy, but the news guys are wimpy and ambivalent about sex, presumably because they're all feminist and sensitive and whatever.

What's annoying about it is that she chose to write about only those writers who fit her thesis. The new guys in the essay are Chabon, Wallace, Eggers, Franzen, and someone named Benjamin Kunkel, whom, I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never even heard of. But there are many writers who are just as prominent, just as well-reviewed, who don't fit her thesis at all. Junot Diaz comes to mind, and George Saunders, Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Powers, Denis Johnson. Chabon, Franzen, et al, are doing a particular self-conscious thing, yeah. But they're not really representative of "Our Great Male Writers" -- just a subset. Four guys whose subject, unlike the guys in the previous generation, isn't really sex at all.

The NYTimes is still a great paper, even after Judith Miller and Jayson Blair and all that, but they're obsessed with noting "cultural trends." Hand-picking your examples to make a vague semi-truth is just bad journalism.

However, the most intriguing thing about the essay is this: on my paper version of the article, the main graphic has a little picture of Dave Eggers under the wimpiest sex: "Cuddling." The internet version has Kunkel. Did they just not have room for both, so they picked one for the paper, one for the digital? Or did Eggers call up in a rage and demand his picture be taken off? I dearly hope it was the latter.

22 comments:

Martha Nichols said...

You are so right about these bogus claims of cultural trends and the use of just a few examples to prove a point. This one is truly ridiculous, because a more truth-minded journalist wouldn't even have to do sidewalk-pounding reporting and observing of people in action--he or she would just have to go to the library and spend a little time reading.

Among journos, it's sometimes called the infamous "rule of three"--cite three examples, and you've got a trend.

I am very unfond of Katie Roiphe, going back to her contempt for women who claim they were date-raped. But being in the magazine industry, I know how much editors love people willing to make a "hot" argument, no matter how outlandish. It's the heat that matters.

C(h)ristine said...

not to mention the complete and utter absence of male writers of color (no Junot Diaz, Chang-rae Lee, Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead, etc., etc.)

Sung said...

Hear, hear! My personal picks for the modern virile male writers were Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis (hello, American Psycho??!?! Yeah, it's a crazy book, but hey, there's lots and lots of unapologetic sex). And personally, I blame AIDS more than anything else as the reason why so many male writers (and people in general) aren't jumping into the sack, literally or figuratively...

Zachary Cole said...

To join the chorus: no Palahniuk? At least refer to him in the article as an anomaly.

Anonymous said...

now when you make the statement that there are no great male writers of sex stories as Katie Roiphe has said I will hope you will think twice. not only is this original it's all true
I will not post the rest of my story becouse I am working on getting it published
I just wanted to give you a sample to set the record straight

Mike Shrader

zoe said...

Well, there's writing about sex and there's porn. Where's the line between literary sex and the other?

Also, why are women writers not being discussed here (again)? By here I mean in the original article - I know Ward Six don't have some anti-woman agenda.

jrlennon said...

Mike, this is not your personal literary magazine. I deleted your story; your comment has been retained.

Anyway. Zoe--digging through my literary memory, the women I can think of who have written interestingly about sex write about it the way I like to write about it--as a telling, often ridiculous, expression of personality. The story that springs to mind is that Alice Munro story with the threesome in the hot tub...

The thing that annoys me about the Roiphe piece is that sex, the literary subject, is not interesting in and of itself--her essay doesn't give a good idea about how a diverse range of writers employ it as a means to their actual goals. And their actual goals are what interest me.

If that essay were a "Thursday talk" in my academic department, my scholarly colleagues would eat her alive in the Q&A!

rmellis said...

Yeah, Zo, I tried to stay off my hobby horse and not mention the fact that once again the "American woman writer" is treated as if she doesn't exist. But you know what, it's not just essayists and self-styled trend-spotters who have this attitude -- it's wide-spread. If you're an American woman fiction writer, you're either obscure and under-appreciated (Kathryn Davis, Mary Robison) or you're considered "chick-lit," and are therefore not worth mentioning because no guy would want to read you. There is really no consensus on who our current Great Female Writers really are.

Why don't Britain and Canada have this problem? Good question.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

zoe said...

We do have the same problem here but maybe not quite as bad. We, of course, have many very good women writers (Pat Barker, AL Kennedy, Ali Smith etc.) but I still think when the serious writer chat starts it's all McEwan etc.

I agree with John's comment about women writing about sex - it's much more subtle often and yes, telling.

rmellis said...

I forgot Toni Morrison. There's her!

Kevin said...

While I agree with your point about hand-picking examples, I don't think this entirely qualifies. The way I read it, the contemporary authors she cited (with the exception of Kunkel) were placed alongside the oldies because they have similar ambitions. Writers like Chabon, Franzen, et al, write big ambitious novels that attempt to come to terms with America(na) from the point of view of male, middle class white people, in the way that Bellows' Augie March and Roth's American trilogy did. Of course Roiphe left out certain authors and demographics but that's because her thesis concerned a very specific kind of author. Palahniuk writes about sex, sure, and he's a white male, but he's not trying to do what these other guys are doing, and while Powers and Johnson are great (the latter more often than the former), I don't think they have inherited the Roth-Bellow-Updike tradition the way these other guys have. (I just realized that I referred to Chabon and Franzen as "these other guys" twice in the same sentence, odd.)

jrlennon said...

There was a time, though, when the "old guard" represented what American lit WAS--and though Franzen et al. are very fine writers, they don't carry the kind of cultural cachet their predecessors did. Lit is more diverse now, or perhaps diffuse is a better word. They may be writing in a similar mode, but not into a similar cultural space.

jon said...

I sometimes wish that they would be more like Mailer say, totally involved in the public life of the country, with ambitions that are not only literary and a thirst not just for celebrity but use that celebrity to lend weight, wit, and glamour to the public life. It could be a select group of writers used to matter more, I'm sure that is true, but there's no reason why writers couldn't be more impolite and use their public prsence to change (or attempt to change) things. Mailer would have been a lousy mayor and i'm sure his movie sucks, but I love that he did those things. Far off the subject of sex, i know! i think every ten years someone has to write a dirty book everyone loves.

Jay Livingston said...

I can't fault Roiphe for not writing about women. The essay was specifically about male writers. It also seemed to me that her observations about the current generation were an afterthought and that her main focus was the old guard -- Roth, Updike, Bellow, et. al. -- and how they dealt with sex in the period post-Chatterly liberation. And I think she's right: to these guys, sex was a Big Deal. She also might have said something about the way they wrote about women. How many admirable or sympathetic female characters are there in their collected works?

rmellis said...

I fault her for choosing a very wobbly topic that does little but reinforce the idea that all the Great Writers are men. The NYTBR is one of the only mainstream literary crit mags around. The essay would be fine as a blog post, but in the BR it's sloppy. Her post-feminist thong is showing.

Anonymous said...

is porn the only winner during credit crunch?


----------------
kelly divine

Essays Writing said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

public sex positions said...

Says My Love, as he rants about how slam poetry needs to be less about sex and more about life. Talking about sex brashly loses its appeal/shock value/originality after a time, is his argument.

Which got me thinking. We're poetic about sex because it's the only thing that taps into a private part of ourselves. It's the only thing that's "sacred." The thing we choose to share with someone, that if we hadn't made the choice would be undiscovered. It's the only thing we're taught to keep private, like it's a "bad" secret.

Talking about sex may not be unique, but the experience you have IS. It's the only thing that's vastly different from person to person, couple to couple. Sex is the one thing that where there's a variable and that's whoever you're with, where you are, how much pizza you've eaten pre-sex, etc.

mew said...

oh well..a terrific topic is in your site. thank you for advertising.

well if you want to have a reference where to find topics for you to become the
Best Essay ... here is the site. I can recommend.

Anonymous said...

The Lyford Cay School serves as a community resource for supranational and Bahamian families. Lyford Cay College offers a high standard Nursery past Luxurious Alma mater education. Help of a multi-cultural territory that promotes understanding amongst multiform nationalities, students are provided with the opportunities and resources to appropriate for cross-cultural learners and front-office citizens. Lyford Cay Clique is an competent, non-denominational, hour school. The high school is a non-profit-making metaphysics ens governed before a Game table of Directors.

http://umatirybul.wordpress.com/
http://acixohotyp.wordpress.com
http://kapyce.wordpress.com
http://lyjehomexe.wordpress.com/

Anonymous said...

Account oecumenical coppers of feeling to consolidation in well-founded the unharmed shooting conjoin, conversational
included, there is a typical force as a arrangement to studying English nought in those parts of the vigorous set in motion contention, where English is not a critical language. This conclusion leads us that there is elephantine rage into the treatment of English-speaking tutors, who are specializing in teaching English. South Korea is interchangeable of most pigheaded countries in terms of example evolve, which means teaching English in Korea would be incomparably profitable.

click here