Monday, January 25, 2010

Between the Sheets

(NOTE: The cited passages are Not Safe For Work).

This new decade is not even a month old, yet the intangible notion that we're in a new era is undeniable. Even during the waning months of 2009, retrospectives were being written and discussed, whether in the media or in private conversations. This is only natural, this almost instinctual desire to analyze and to quantify, whether it be a list of the best films or albums of a given era, or to remember the beginning of said era before iTunes, Facebook, and the like. Some people have christened (most of) the past decade as the "post-9/11 era." For the purposes of this piece, it also seems to be the "post-metrosexual era." Thankfully, this tired phrase seems to have been put to rest. The novelty of it was downright embarrassing, to think that men who weren't ashamed of emotions or intelligence had to be defined by a borderline homophobic term, instead of being called "men" or "human beings."

Back in October, I made the claim that Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs, a collection of essays directly or indirectly related to masculinity, was one of the best books of 2009. I still stand by that, and was thrilled at the time to find that Chabon was equally adept at writing non-fiction as well as fiction. My admiration for the book also went beyond formats and styles; as I originally wrote, "Chabon's writings prove that personal essays can discuss masculinity, sexuality, and drug use in an intelligent manner, retaining all aspects of quote/unquote manliness and not making the writer come out looking like a pig." There was no way to know this at the time, but the release of that book might have kicked off a renewed interest in masculinity studies, especially in the realm of literature. This month has seen the publication of two essays that have sparked discussions on the modern notions of male sex and gender expectations. Katie Roiphe's "The Naked and the Conflicted" (The New York Times, January 3rd) compares male writers' depictions of sexuality between two different generations. To a lesser extent, but still providing some intriguing passages, Molly Lambert's "Men In Revolt" (This Recording, January 11th) analyzes masculinity (or lack thereof) on a much broader cultural canvas.

(Photo:Katie Roiphe)

Roiphe's essay argues that, despite feminist critiques against postwar male sex scenes in literature, writers like John Updike and Norman Mailer were injecting undeniable emotions into their works. On the flip side, today's generation of male writers is beset by a lack of sexual focus in the written word, leaving much more to be desired, but with the same sexism tucked away in less blatant passages. "In the early novels of [Philip] Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the 1960s, with books like An American Dream, Herzog, Rabbit, Run, Portnoy's Complaint, and Couples, there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes--all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed (Roiphe)."

She doesn't condone any of the sexism or misogyny that was apparent in these works. However, she offers an anecdote about a friend who threw away a copy of Philip Roth's The Humbling, because "the [sex] scene was disgusting, dated, redundant." Personally, I'm more up-to-date on the writers whom she dubs "our new batch of young or youngish male novelists." In lieu of fantastically described sex scenes, the opinion is that no sex (or heavy innocence) is the prevailing style. Molly Lambert is blunt in her assessment: "Maybe this is the worst kind of criticism to give these practitioners of the new earnest manhood, but god is it boring." I feel that Roiphe's only true error in her piece is her assumption that today's male novelists are "too cool for sex," and the brevity of Lambert's essays fills in where Roiphe leaves off. It's also where the two women split into different, but equally relevant arguments: Roiphe is tired of the hidden sexism that prevails today, whereas Lambert has little patience for male writers who, despite a wealthy of literary talents, falter in their abilities to create vibrant, realistic female protagonists. This view is personal to me, because I'm about to start writing a short story with a main character who is female. Years ago, I made feeble attempts to write characters with makeups and backgrounds that were foreign to me, with the hope that I could write different viewpoints in strong fashions. Granted, my writings at the time were horrible, but even now, as I've matured as a fiction writer, it's disheartening to realize that even the professionals struggle with basic writings on the opposite sex. For all of the focus on the more positive aspects of masculinity (i.e. Chabon), there are still problems like these. Lambert's advice to male writers is "write a male character, then give them a female name." This is either completely sound or completely saddening.

But let's get back to sex. The unmentioned area is quote/unquote transgressive fiction, itself a sometimes shady definition. If the postwar novelists were trumpeting a new sexual landscape, then it was only for the mainstream. Some writers had been doing it all along, away from (at the time) popular consciousness. He likely doesn't have any fans in the feminist ranks, but Charles Bukowski's writings revealed sexual lives that were just as revealing, if not as "journalistic" as Roiphe would claim for the likes of Roth and Updike. The primary difference is that Bukowski didn't write with any true enthusiasm, only stark reality, a reality that was probably too much for some readers in the 1960s, even with the new stories about oral sex and threesomes.

"here was this old horny-looking freak, glass of schnapps in his hand, double-lensed glasses. just like the old-time movies. he appeared to be having a visitor, a young thing, almost too young, looking flimsy and strong at the same time.
she crossed her legs, flashing all the bit: nylon knees, nylon thighs, and just that tiny part there where the long stockings ended and just that touch of flesh began, she was all ass and breast, nylon legs, cleanblue laughing eyes...(Bukowski 39)."

Here is a sex scene from Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. He's one of the best "youngish male novelists," and while he doesn't avoid sex, it's not the main focus of his works:

"The insatiable Hawkman debased herself elegantly to him night after night, in positions and attitudes the involuntary recollection of which he found overriding his senses throughout the days between. For instance, now, here, at the gala. At two that same morning he'd had Georgina swinging in a rope chair she'd had installed at his whimsical suggestion, hung from a bolted hook on her ceiling, her legs spilling over the sides of the mesh seat in which her splendid bottom lay helpless to his savage ministrations. The situation was wildly odd and erotic, Georgina's hands bound behind her as she rotated in the squeaking device, head turned courteously to one side, ever and absolutely the aristocrat no matter how fiercely he worked to defile her. He'd heard her murmuring as she climaxed, 'The best, the best, the best...(Lethem 129)."

Bad? No. Lacking? Possibly. Sadly, I don't have the passage available for immediate citation, but this scene reminds me of a quote by Jonathan Franzen. His opinion was that he generally disliked sex scenes in novels, and I'm sure a passage like Lethem's might fall into that category. While Roiphe makes an excellent assertion that literary sex can't be defined as pornography, since the sole aim of pornography is to arouse, has today's sexualized culture made sex in novels...well, less sexy? The short answer is no. Objectifications aside, Roiphe's main argument is that as the veteran writers have gotten older, the sex scenes have airs of being written casually, as space fillers, not with the daring that was commonplace in the mid 20th century. To me, a poorly written sex scene is just as bad as a poorly written argument, or a poorly written conversation on culture. Sexuality is just one part of the human condition, and if one is going to write it, it needs the same devotion and craft as any other action.

"Anyway, if Katie Roiphe is underwhelmed and unoffended by the sexually neutered males of Brooklyn fiction, she should check out this vast cultural wasteland called the internet. The best writing about sex is currently being done by people who are smart/stupid enough to date and write about it (Lambert)."

Lambert admires Chabon's essays, but criticizes him for writing some passages too tidily. My above respect for Chabon's views on masculinity should be taken with the understanding that it's non-fiction, albeit creative non-fiction. If the best writing about sex is being done by serial daters, then there needs to be an understanding that it's a modern form of journalism, not literature. There's still potential for young writers to explore sexuality in the written word with honesty, respect for women, and the power to incite emotions and maybe just a hint of arousal. Roiphe's opening paragraph provides a quote that makes for an excellent conclusion to my piece:

"For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century."

Forgive me if this is too obvious, but the fact that any written accounts of sexuality can cause stirs and essays, it's a sign that literature is not even close the brink of annihilation. Books may be on the fast track to more digital formats, due to technology and environmentalism, but the core values--entertainment, provokings thoughts and discussions--are not waning. Even if today's novelists are too chaste for someone's liking, there's still the untapped potential for new views on sexuality. As part of the human condition that novels have been grappling with since the beginning, it still makes for new discussions.

Works Cited:

Bukowski, Charles. The Most Beautiful Woman In Town. Copyright 1983 by Charles Bukowski.

Lethem, Jonathan. Chronic City. Copyright 2009 by Jonathan Lethem.

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