How to Make Prudery Readable?

For my curtain call, I’d like to solicit thoughts on an essay that appeared several months ago in the Times. Critic Katie Roiphe argues that this generation of male novelist writes lousy sex toys. A bold previous generation, including Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike, regarded sex — particularly transgressive sex, like adultery, hate-couplings and some liaisons that come dangerously close to rape — as material deserving thoughtful explication. This new generation, including Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace, seems to prefer cozier, more domestic subject matter.

As Roiphe puts it, “The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.”

She blames an uncritical consumption of “a cetain type of liberal education,” by which, I think, she means one informed by a certain type of feminism. This indoctrination plays all too well with writers’ native narcissism, or so Roiphe says:

It means that we are simply witnessing the flowering of a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of “I was warm and wanted her to be warm,” or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.

Speaking as the author of an essay titled “On Dating Nice Catholic Girls,” in which I discuss the unexpected joys of a non-sex life, I winced with recognition when I read this. I have to admit, Roiphe hit the bull’s-eye on the what. I would, however, protest that she fires wide of the why. Writers like Mailer, Roth & Co. grew up in a society that placed strong taboos on sex. Their characters don’t have exotic sex simply because they’re horny; they have it in order buck those taboos, and thereby become their own men. Mailer was dogmatic on the point that transgressing makes men. Roth agrees, although, his characters’ transgressions, unlike those of Mailer’s characters, were strictly non-violent.

Times have changed since then. Those taboos that once chafed so badly now barely exist. If somebody wants to rebel, to define himself as a rugged individualist who doesn’t do the done thing, having sex with a lot of people is not a very effective way to do it. On the contrary, it would feel more like keeping up with the Joneses.

I haven’t read all the newer authors who disappoint Roiphe, but I have read three of Michael Chabon’s books — The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Wonder Boys. Roiphe’s right that the main characters tend to fall in a very warm, fuzzy type of love. A big part of each plot has them surmounting one obstacle to an ideal, monogamous life after another. You get the sense, at the end, that everyone’s going to live happily ever after.

Roiphe sees this in negative terms, as an absence of transgressiveness or adventuresome spirit. I tend to see it more in positive terms, as the presence of a nesting instinct — a passion, in fact, which serves to animate in its own right. It’s true to life: everybody knows hipster parents who wear their babies in slings, push them in double strollers, and — infuriatingly — hover about them like helicopters. As voices for a generation, Chabon and the rest are no less authentic than Mailer and Roth.

Roiphe’s bigger point, that it makes for uninteresting reading, is harder to dispute. I like Michael Chabon’s work, but I don’t pick it up expecting to be surprised or challenged. It’s splendidly written comfort food. Maybe that’s not such a good thing. Roth and Mailer offer something more like a sniffer of bourbon — you’d better sip ir, or else you’ll run the risk of puking. The experience forces me to question my own value judgments. If there’s any nobler purpose to reading, I can’t imagine what it might be.

Now, I’m assuming that most Anchoress readers, being Catholic — or at any rate, Christian — would at least appreciate that some of these new writers are trying to make the bases of conventional bourgeois family life seem worthwhile, and even exciting. My question to you all is: How could they do it in ways that would please a reader like Katie Roiphe, who wants to taste blood?

  • The Ranter

    I haven’t read the books you talk about, but what struck me is when you stated: “Roiphe’s right that the main characters tend to fall in a very warm, fuzzy type of love. A big part of each plot has them surmounting one obstacle to an ideal, monogamous life after another. You get the sense, at the end, that everyone’s going to live happily ever after.” This reminds me a lot of romance novels that I used to read, very simple but fairytale-ish. It was only towards the end of me reading romance novels did they start to become more cynical, more ‘explicit’ in terms of sex.

    But I started to reject both the harder parts of those books and also the softer, romanticized versions of those books, because both were helping me to lead an unchaste life, a romanticized life where nothing is ever wrong with a relationship and everything can be solved. Those books did nothing to help my marriage to grow in Christ, which is why, in part, I dumped in the dumpster (if you’re a bibliophile like me, you’ll know how hard that was to do!).

    How do you please a reader like Roiphe? I suspect you don’t, if someone is not willing to take a step back from such graphic depictions of sex. Once you take an extended break from them, you begin to regain a sense of horror at what you used to read. (This can also be applied to slasher films and graphic crime scene television shows.)

    I’ve enjoyed your blogging here at the Anchoress, and hope you start your own blog soon (instead of just articles, which I can never get enough of!).

  • Kathy Schiffer

    Is it just possible that Katie Roiphe is outside the mainstream of what America wants, and that her ideal of a new fiction based on rough sex and aberrant behavior is just tiresome and to be avoided at all costs?

  • Cherie Peacock

    Max, I think Matthew Lickona makes “prudery” readable in his Swimming with Scapulars. Check it out:

  • Julie D.

    I haven’t read Chabon either, but I would contend that we have plenty of guides toward both sorts of writing that work without being explicit. What about Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett? Nothing nice about their worlds and they had to do it using vocabulary that would go into magazines.

    On the nicer side there are authors like Georgette Heyer. Her intelligence and humor made stories that keep readers laughing and yet rooting for the couple to get together for that “nice married life” … even as the kiss at the end was the most explicit thing in the book.

    Probably Rolphe and I don’t read the same things at all and we might be using different definitions. However, I would submit that perhaps Rolphe’s reading boundaries need widening. :-)

  • jkm

    Wow. I didn’t, up to today, know one other person who read that Katie Roiphe essay, so I had no one to talk to about it. So now I will put forward what I thought at the time–even though I agree with her that contemporary literary relationships are both less dangerous and less exciting–was the flaw in her argument. Roiphe attributes this softening to feminism in academe–all these male writers having the manly fun whipped out of them, as it were. I don’t think the difference lies in the teachers, but in the writers themselves. Men like Michael Chabon genuinely like women as people, and treat them as members of the same species. Men like Mailer, Roth, and Updike, on the other hand, viewed women (even the pulchritudinous pinups of their fantasies) as both terrifying and inscrutable (mind the spelling there)–not human at all. I don’t think Roiphe’s manly men liked women a whole lot, and that undercurrent of revulsion ramps up the erotic tension. I think men, no matter what their generation, have a difficult time portraying both eros and agape–they tend to go one direction or another. Women writers have, if possibly less literary heft, a wider range. The Ranter’s reference to romance novels reminds me of the classic example from Margaret Mead’s Gone with the Wind–you want an Ashley AND a Rhett. Babbling again, and I swore I wouldn’t comment anymore, but let me just leave you with the suggestion that you don’t want (nobody wants, honestly) readable prudery, but it would be lovely to find a voice of whatever gender that would convey the mysterium et tremendum of married love . . . perhaps not possible in this still broken world.

  • Cog

    I think the fact is that readers –and I admit to including myself here—most often prefer to read about sinners than about saints.

  • Bernadette

    WordPress won’t let me post my comment because it thinks it’s spam. I think this is probably because I used the word “sex” more than once. Not sure how to get around this. However, the gist of my comment is that I think your difficulty lies in your understanding of prudery.

  • Marie E

    Margaret Mead’s GWTW? Was that the one where Scarlett wore a grass skirt?

  • Max Lindenman

    Wow. Lots to comment on. And I’ll do so in a bit. For now, let me say that I chose the word “prudery” because it sums up Roiphe’s attitude, not because it sums up mine.

    jkm: Not only is it difficult to portray Eros and agape (and philia, which some of these yonug guys seem to feel toward their life partners) at the same time; if you believe Philip Roth, they’re hard to FEEL at the same time. Or at least they were for his characters.

    Also, Roiphe seems to have forgotten that many people of my generation — and, I’m assuming, many writers — had Nathan Zuckerman or Alexander Portnoy for a father. (A very unlucky few might have had Stephen Rojack.) This would certainly account for their yearning for a settled life, a fruitful partnership. Given that priority, it’s not too hard to understand why, in a clash with other forms of love, eros would yield the right of way.

    But yes, you’ve hit on exactly what I’m looking for — some way to convey the mysterium et tremendum of married life, or at least of seriously dating life. Or any situation, really, where the hero does something besides boff his office manager and imagine he deserves the Croix de Guerre.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I think you are right, not just that “exotic” sex is no longer taboo, but that it became excessive and so meaningless. It reminds me of an article I read a few months ago by Fr. Ron Rolheiser. I did a quick search and in his archives from February it is called “Tormenting the Cat”.

    He quoted Chesterton, “Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded senses. They seek after mad religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, as if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and trying to wake themselves up with nightmares.”

    It’s a good article (especially right before Lent). Maybe modern fiction needs to back off the excesses to regain sensitivity. If Roiphe thinks that something close to rape fantasy is interesting reading, she may need to give it a rest.

  • jkm

    Oh dear lord so sorry. Trying so hard to juggle the Greek terms for love that I dropped a Margaret. LOVE GWTW as imagined by Margaret Mead, though. Coming of Age in Hotlanta. How apropos. Thank you for that, Marie E! (The grass skirt would have an 18-inch waist, of course.)

  • Mandy P.

    I think the real problem is that actual romantic love that is functional is, quite frankly, kind of boring. It’s a very happy state to be in, but a large measure of that happiness comes from comfort. Comfortable relationships, where people are generally pleasant to each other and are considerate of their partners, bedroom interactions included, aren’t exciting to read about. Conflict usually leads to titillation, which is what the author of the piece is really looking for when you get right down to it. And while I doubt anyone would claim that a functional relationship will be completely conflict free, those conflicts are Usually very different from- and frankly, rather mundane in comparison to- those in dysfunctional situations.

  • Bernadette

    Sorry for the misunderstanding – in general I think prudery or prude is mainly used in our society as a punitive term to describe people who are making more conservative sexual choices than the speaker.

    I like what Mandy P. said. There’s nothing more fascinating than the intricacies of human love, but there’s a reason all the fairy tales end with “and they lived happily ever after.” Still, next to the everyday details of happily married life, the next most boring thing is raising children, particularly small ones. Yet there are thousands (millions?) of mommy bloggers who seem to be able to make it interesting.

    Come to think of it, many of them are also telling the stories of their happily committed romantic relationships as well. However I’m having a hard time thinking of any male relationship bloggers who aren’t chronicling how many women they’ve slept with. Perhaps what we need is the male equivalent of a mommy blogger.

  • Stephen J.

    I have to be honest and admit that I have a very hard time believing that anyone bemoaning a loss in “quality” of written sex scenes is not speaking from prurient motives — Roiphe may say that it’s “too simple” to call this type of writing pornography, but I have to admit that strikes me as the lit-crit equivalent of claiming one reads Playboy for the articles. Yes, the writing may be trying to do more than just arouse, but it’s *also* trying to arouse, and if it did everything else *but* that I can’t help but feel Roiphe might be equally disappointed.

    That said, there is one way in which such scenes may be valuable — if they can be written to convey, by comparison and contrast, the relief and refreshment of being intimate with a truly loving partner to whom one is permanently committed. Conversely, they might be used as an erotic dramatization of conflict between a couple that still leads to reconciliation and new mutual appreciation. Functional, committed and stable does not have to mean completely conflict-free, after all.

  • Aaron

    It may be challenging to read texts that jar us, but is there value in doing so? If what is being jarred away is our well-formed conscience, then we are clearly doing harm to ourselves, right?

    It seems clear from God’s word that our preferences in such cases should be viewed as irrelevant. As Lewis wrote, God would rather have us holy than happy.

  • Mary

    Eh, I don’t think there’s any appealing to Katie Roiphe. If you read her Last Night in Paradise, you will find it a prolonged grumble about the damper AIDS put on sleeping about, with an unwillingness to commit herself in the core. She manages to say neither that it was fun while it lasted but it’s not feasible any more, nor that people nowdays should risk their lives to continue such wild commitmentless sex — just recounts how the calculating teenagers lack the passion of a girl who got AIDS and died of it.

    That chastity as a form of disease prevention is unappealing is something that G. K. Chesterton agreed with — “A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome. ” — but when she meets up with a woman who is remaining chaste for religious motives she diagnoses her happiness as delusion; she can not stand the alternative either.

  • Elaine T

    Such writing doesn’t have to be boring. But if one is looking for titillation it would be. I think Bernadette is on the right track that the terms such as prudery are used to push the conversation a certain way.

    There are older writers who made apparently simple, stable lives interesting (to me, and enough others to get published). I forget why I picked it up in the first place, but Sharp’s _The Flowering Thorn_ is a wonderful character study of a hard young woman in the 20s (contemporary at the time of writing) who adopts a boy and realizes she has to change her life. So she moves to the country. Small conflicts, such as village life has. Romance provided by others, not towards her. Then wise dealing with an infatuated young man. Without her noticing it, she changes. She can still fit into her old partying world when she visits London at the end, but she stands out as different, real.

    it can be done in such a way that readers are interested. But I doubt the writer of the essay would be interested, any more than I am in the sorts of writing she praises.

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