Roiphe at it Again

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.

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13 Comments

  1. Jessica Girdle
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Katie Roiphe: For When One Camille Paglia Isn’t Enough to Make Your Soul Cry.

  2. sess
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Having firmly established her foothold in the grand tradition rape apologism, Katie Roiphe is now a crusader for the revival of cliched depictions of macho arrogance and (male) sexuality. Awesome. Damn those nameless feminists for ruining literature and emasculating our next generation of Great Male Writers!!

  3. ryang
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, I read this article and was infuriated. If she’s worried about sex disappearing from novels written by white straight cis men, where should she look–at a book written in 1968, or at a culture that HATES SEX? Last I heard, my Federal tax dollars were still going to abstinence education; women who have sex before marriage, consensual or not, are still being slut-shamed to the point of suicide; and Bart Stupak is still running amok in the House, with plenty of support. Feminism isn’t the problem here, it’s the solution.

  4. SillyCat
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    For me, the most problematic item of Roiphe’s article is this idea of a literary continuity which privileges gender over generation. Are we really supposed to believe that the only feminine influences on today’s male writers were those feminist critics whom Roiphe keeps trying to threaten us? Does Roiphe really imagine that her reader is naive enough to believe in an entirely male-dominated literary milieu, one in which women only look in to critique, rather than engaging in with male authors as their writing peers? Chabon, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Kunkel, etc. learned to read and write in a world in which women also read and wrote. They are not only the heirs of Bellow, Roth, and Mailler; they are the heirs of Lessing and McCarthy too. Women wrote in the 1960s, just as they did in the 1900s and the 1990s. While the New York Times Book Review may often appear to be the equivalent of a Victorian Gentleman’s Club, that is a false picture. Women have always been part of the literary and cultural elite. The erasure of the female from this picture in order to emphasize the importance of genital continuity is as insulting as the Publisher’s Weekly debacle. You simply cannot talk about the “Male Novelist” across decades as if male writers live(d) in a vacuum of female intellect of female-authored literature. Bellow may have liked to pretend that women could only function as sexual objects, shrewish wives, or repressive critics, but women were also his literary peers. The gender binary which Roiphe asserts and buys into is a false one; it is this binary which leads people to think of women authors as a niche instead of equal contributors to American literature.
    I’d also recommend Blographia Literaria’s coverage of this article. It’s a slightly different take on mine, but pretty thought-provoking. http://www.blographia-literaria.com/

  5. Athenia
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to like this article, but something was completely off about it.
    Basically she’s lamenting that male authors no longer view sex as “transformative”–that seemed like a more interesting question than simply “where’s all the raunchy sex?!”
    If she’s looking for transformative sex, why can’t she look at lesbian, gay and straight female writers?
    Also, why can’t non-raunchy sex be transformative?

  6. everybodyever
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Courtney, just what are you skewering here? Roiphe’s feminist-blaming, or some famous authors you resent?
    Roiphe dedicated all of about a paragraph in her four-page essay to feminists, so I hardly think you can summarize her argument as being one that primarily concerns what feminists should do. Yes, Roiphe takes a gratuitous, unsubstantiated snipe at feminism (such snipes are requisite in her articles, it seems), but for you to call feminism her “amorphous villain” seems a little disingenuous. Roiphe barely even explores the issue of why younger male authors allegedly eschew sex in their writing (which of course poses another problem for her grossly broad piece).
    As for all of this:
    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.
    First of all, how is sex ever liberatory in literature? And what exactly do you mean by “hyperbolic” or “bold prose” sex? I have no idea what either of those things mean when it comes to fucking on paper. Your distinction here between ways of writing about sex, if it is one, is very vague. I’m not sure what books you’re even indicting, since some of the most conscience-ridden literary sex scenes I can immediately recall appear in books like Rabbit, Run and The Human Stain.
    I’m all for a critical take-down of Roiphe’s assumptions about sex and gender in literature. But you seem to be more interested in sniping, Roiphe-style, at old and dead male authors. To me that seems beside the point. Maybe it isn’t, but if that’s your intent, I’d be interested to read a more rigorous or profound critique than that their books are “full of hot air and easy to puncture.” Please.
    Also, regarding “…as if passionately writing a literary criticism essay for a sexist professor she has a major crush on”: Nice antifeminist implication that female critics are only ever looking for male approval, and nice reduction of a widely published journalist to a smitten schoolgirl. When did this stop being a feminist blog?

  7. ooperbooper
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I hate it when Katie Roiphe’s books show up in my Amazon suggestions for supposedly falling under a “feminist” genre. Ditto for anything Camille Paglia has written and the countless books on the “hook-up” culture out there. I keep trying to get rid of my Katie Roiphe recommendations yet they keep reappearing. What gives Amazon? Why do I have to be subjected to this?!

  8. daveNYC
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    “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?”
    I usually get a good laugh at those old films of the crazy multiple-flapping-wing contraptions.

  9. Launchpad
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible for sex to ever be boring? Yes! I tried to read John Irving’s ‘The World According to Garp.’ It’s nothing but sex and gawd was it boring and nihilistic as hell.

  10. Jacob
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    Frankly, when sex is used to sell me everything from cheeseburgers to veganism, I find eschewing sex in literature to be a pretty revolutionary bold move.

  11. marginallyyours
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 3:43 am | Permalink

    Even Updike said that his sex scenes were sexist ridiculous at times. Roiphe is overstating, as usual.

  12. Comrade Kevin
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I prefer subtlety in sex scenes because we live in a culture where portrayals of sex are so over the top and omnipresent. And that kind of attitude began with a prior generation’s overkill rendering of sexual conduct.
    I dislike getting into these sorts of contests because there is usually merit to be found in each generation’s offering—and each of them is indebted to its time. The complexities of today’s times can not be understood by those of a different era, and vice versa. Though I may study the history of a different epoch, I will not understand fully because I didn’t live then.

  13. Gnatalby
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    The line about writing for a male professor she has a crush on really rubbed me the wrong way too.
    Being a feminist means not making sexist accusations about women, even those you don’t like.
    I don’t like Roiphe either, but I’m willing to bed her thoughts are her own, not something she’s made up to please a man.

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