This weekend, The New York Times Book Review, which has a real knack for hiring known anti-feminists as writers, featured Katie “Rape, shmape” Roiphe’s essay on literary sex in the works of Great Male writers. The essay bemoans the supposed sissiness of today’s male novelists, such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and company — compared with their predecessors, the Updikes, Roths, Mailers and Bellows, who featured coupling in vivid details throughout their works.
Many of these writers are Jewish, and the sexual angst they describe is a particularly Jewish American male variety. I haven’t read all the works Roiphe quotes, but I found the timing of her piece amusing. I’ve just read my first Chabon novel and had planned to write a Sisterhood post about how I preferred Chabon’s gentler, more humanistic (and less hetero-normative) version of Jewish manhood to Roth’s out-and-out misogyny. Not quite the same reaction as Roiphe’s. Roiphe sprinkles the terms “virile” and “postfeminist” in opposition to one another throughout her piece, implying that feminism killed off virility. She seems to believe that male writers who wonder what women think while in bed, or while flipping the page, are effectively castrated. Sigh.
First of all, Roiphe quotes selectively: in Chabon’s «The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,» which I’ve just finished, Josef Kavalier spends much of the first part of the novel fantasizing lovingly about the bare bottom of his female love interest. The difference between this and a Roth novel is that said tuchis is attached to a real character, Rosa, with feelings and understandable motives beyond ruining the male character’s life. Not castrated, just better.
But let’s put my bias aside. Even if today’s male novelists are writing less libidinous protagonists, Roiphe’s implied culprit, political correctness, is not to blame. A lot of things have changed since the heyday of Roth and Bellow’s taboo-busting scenes. One is the arrival of AIDS (in fact, Roiphe herself has bemoaned AIDS education killing our libidos. Another cultural shift has been the skyrocketing of sex in visual media. Movies, TV shows, and music videos have brought sexuality into the mainstream more and more, so that it’s hard to really shock. After all, “Gossip Girl” featured a threesome, and 10-year-olds are singing “If U Seek Amy.” Finally, the post-Lewinsky tabloid era has brought public figures’ sex lives into our living rooms. We are a different society, not in terms of how we have sex, but in terms of its public presence — it takes eleven mistresses to raise our dander. Writers no longer feel compelled to up the ante; in fact, today’s shy literary heroes may be reacting genuinely to our over-saturated culture, a culture that feeds us false ideals of how and when we’re supposed to get it on.
It’s true, as Roiphe says, that these sensitive-seeming contemporary writers can be just as sexist as their forbears, in a condescending hipsterish way. But she fails to note that compulsively writing characters who have unrealistic, lurid sex may be just as neurotic a choice for an author as denying one’s hero the ability to effectively seduce. Roiphe makes the subjective judgment that macho male sexuality contains an authenticity which sensitive male sexuality lacks. This is just another retrograde preference from Roiphe masquerading as high intellect.