Katie Roiphe has a very long, very erudite diatribe in the New York Times comparing the great and virile male novelists of yesteryear (Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer etc.) to our overthinking dude writers of today (Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Benjamin Kunkel etc.). In short, her argument is that, oh-so-uptight feminists derided the former, but really they should be celebrating them; the new class, as she frames it, has lost their verve for sex, and therefore, for life.
Never mind that Roiphe seems incapable of looking beyond the most white, most privileged, most male novelists in exploring the landscape of sex in fiction–past and present. Never mind that the amorphous villains in this essay are the same nameless enemies (with the exception of Kate Millet) that she has invoked in her writing since day one: those no-fun, scared-of-fucking feminists. What I find most disappointing about this article, written by someone who obviously possesses a truly fine-tuned intellect, is that it claims to be interested in complexity while totally overlooking it.
Sex is not liberatory when it is male-authored, hyperbolic, and written in bold prose. That’s plain old sex as we’ve known it for year after boring year. Sex is liberatory when it is surprising, layered with meaning and flesh, acknowledges the humanity of two people. Sex in novels is exciting when it’s authored by someone with genitalia and a conscience, when it sheds light on something universal and fundamental through the most specific, unique circumstances and characters, when it doesn’t shy away from the constant negotiation between our lust and our values. In this regard, I would say that the older generation often fell into tired cliches and easy objectification, while the latter struggles to create books that bravely look at sex with both craving and caring.
In signature Roiphe style, she goes on and on–as if passionately writing a literary criticism essay for a sexist professor she has a major crush on–and ends in grand over-generalizations:
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?
Because these “Great Male Novelists,” as Roiphe calls them, didn’t invent the airplanes of prose. They sometimes soared, but they also repeatedly built novels like blimps–full of hot air and easy to puncture.
I’ll take my thoughtful, sometimes hesitant, but truly committed generation of male novelists any day. I think their complexity is damn sexy.