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?