“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?