You may remember Katie Roiphe's connect-the-dots polemic "The Naked and the Conflicted," which grabbed the cover of The New York Times Book Review last week. Roiphe argued that the current generation of white male novelists (Chabon, Foster Wallace, Franzen, Eggers) are more timid in writing about sex than the previous generation of white male novelists (Roth, Bellow, Updike, Mailer).
Why, in this age, the discussion should be narrowed to white male novelists is anyone's guess. But then Roiphe is the writer who, in "The Morning After," blamed college rape victims for the crimes committed against them. Political wisdom, or even political sensitivity, is not exactly her thing. She also has a habit of launching cultural broadsides against people who, unfortunately, are not around to defend themselves (John Updike, David Foster Wallace, women who post pictures of their children on Facebook), and she seems to believe, weirdly, not just that transgressive, dangerous, and adventurous sex writing is good sex writing (obvious), but that it is the only kind of good sex writing (obviously wrong).Other writers have listed the flaws in Roiphe's essay, the most notable being her misreading of every text she cites. (For insight into Katie Roiphe's tendency toward critical fabrication, see Katha Pollitt's New Yorker review of "The Morning After," available here.) Philip Roth, for example, was just as often writing about sex to demonstrate the powerlessness of his characters. Roiphe's "Infinite Jest" example is founded on a minor character on page 22 of that sprawling epic. There is plenty of crazy sex later in the novel. As for Kunkel, his book is a satire of an aimless generation. It's meant to take its subjects to task for failing to make the existential commitment to action that authenticity requires, in other words, for not following through. That his protagonist chooses to avoid completing the essential acts by which we define ourselves is precisely the point. (Roiphe's examples make one wonder if she actually read the books she cites, although, to be fair, it appears she may have read up to page 22 of "Infinite Jest.")
But it feels like the internet ought to record one last pot-shot from the chorus,
But what I really want to point out is that Katie Roiphe's biggest problem is perhaps less obvious: She's reading in the wrong places. Just as you sometimes need to seek out indie rock to hear music with an edge, finding the sharp edge of literature -- whether the subject is sex or anything else -- means sometimes roaming away from literary bestsellers and into the territory of the avant garde.
Consider, for example, our own literary journal Hobart. (And when I say "our own" I mean, of course, the pride and joy of Aaron Burch, and the website''s actual editors, who work like crazy to publish the journal and the content on this site. I'm just allowed to blog here, so full credit goes to them). The writing in Hobart illustrates that there is plenty of crazy sex writing in the culture. You just have to know where to look.
"First Love," for example, Aaron Gwyn's tender story in Hobart's first issue, is about a love between a boy and his sheep. Gwyn's story is moving and beautiful, leaves just enough to the imagination, and what it describes is illegal in every state. What more does Katie Roiphe want?
In the same issue, Jonny Lieberman's story "Meretricious" recounts a character's sexual history with a string of hookers. My own humble contribution to that issue featured a comic book femme fatale (named Vanessa, even) who booty-called Batman's answering machine. True, there was no sex on the page in "Batman's Voice Mail," but since it's Batman we're talking about, it was probably better that way. Also, because it was Batman, it goes without saying the off-the-page sex was dark, thrilling and very good.
If we can allow women writers into the conversation, I offer "The Anticipation," Elizabeth Ellen's blistering story in Hobart Issue Four, which is, I believe, intimate enough to make even Katie Roiphe blush.
In other words: Naked sheep! Call girls! Latex-clad superheros adorned with utility belts! Sexual confessions! And I've only covered the first and fourth issues of Hobart, one indie lit mag among a veritable small army of such publications. (I invite readers to mention other faves from Hobart or other sources in the comments.) There is a world of great sex writing -- and every other kind of writing -- not only in Hobart but in the wider landscape of indie literature. Kevin Sampsell, publisher of Future Tense Books, published an entire anthology, "The Insomniac Reader," about things that happen only at night. His new memoir about his childhood is called "A Common Pornography." Fence magazine put a naked Suicide Girl on its cover. One step closer to the mainstream, but still just ahead of it, stand Jonathan Ames, Stephen Elliott, and Steve Almond. And there are so many others. Has Katie Roiphe even heard of Zak Smith?
Yes, there are greater menaces to society than feeble literary criticism on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, although that, too, is something to lament. But it should be clear that Katie Roiphe missed the boat. The news about sex in literature today is not that Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers need to man up their novels. It's that great and crazy writing about anything in which you might want to indulge, including transgressive and dangerous writing about sex, if that is your thing, is out there. You only have to do a little exploring to find it.