Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sex and the Novel

Male Authors and Sex - A Generational Comparison

In November of last year, I spoke ever-so briefly about Women in Art; today's our chance to talk about the men. Did anyone else read Katie Roiphe's essay in this Sunday's NY Times Book Review, The Naked and the Conflicted? It's a long one, but worthwhile. (You may also be able to listen to the essay.)

The short summary is that the most recent generation of male authors has toned down the sex in their writing... there's less explicit outrageous behavior by characters; less attempted titillation of the reader; more innocence, trepidation, and ambivalence.

So... is there a genuine societal return to innocence, or is it in fact the contrary: more free sex in society means that writing about it blatantly has lost its taboo charge and no longer provides the novelist with the drama it once did? Is the "new sex" (or lack thereof) in the more recent novels an improvement, or is it just a new spin on the same narcissism and sexism?
What comes to mind is Franzen's description of one of his female characters in "The Corrections": "Denise at 32 was still beautiful." To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest that this is not how our great male novelists would write in the feminist utopia.

I'll admit that I'm largely punting here: I haven't come to a conclusion of my own yet, nor have I read the full canon of works by these authors so as to make the most informed analysis possible. But I think this article is fascinating. Please go take a look. And if you have any thoughts, I would absolutely love to hear them. But I think I'm leaning towards Roiphe's conclusion:
Why don't we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?

And, of course, I'm not the only one thinking about this:


  1. I like the idea of a shift. It seems romantic to leave some things to the imagination.

  2. I welcome the return of old values. I think it's nice. I agree with Tamika: it does seem more romantic.

    Happy Thursday,

  3. I am inclined to think that with the shock value wearing off-we can get back to business of just telling good stories and not have to "one-up" with tittilation.

    And "Denise at 32 was still beautiful." gets my goat. I haven't read the Corrections so I don't know if this is Franzen's narration or a characters-IF it's Franzen's then I think its remarkably stupid.

    All in all I don't need to see everything, sometimes implied passion can be stronger than what is forced with gratuitous purple kisses.

  4. The Husband bought me "The Corrections" for Christmas a few years back, and I remember that line! I thought, well, bloody hell, give me a damn break. Should I just shoot myself for being twenty years beyond 32? There must be no hope for us women! It was not a great book, not in my opinion.

    Anyway, my WIP deals with female beauty and what behavior it brings out in men. So, I am dealing with SEX.

    I want to be honest when I'm writing the oh-so-necessary sex scenes. Somewhere to the right of Charles Bukowski, but as painfully real as his writing was in books like," Women", without the down and dirty details. I don't want to water things down, but I don't want to be too explicit either.

    Shock value is highly over-rated. Maybe even passe. Good.

  5. I can't remember who said this, but it was definitely a writing book that said one of the best sex descriptions ever was from Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, which was a single line that went something like, 'I'm not going to get into the whole who did what to whom thing.'

  6. I'm not sure it's because shock value is overrated--more that sex is no longer shocking. We've all been there, read that. If you want to shock and titillate these days, show hot people EATING--like at that Paris Hilton commercial for burgers.

    Alissa, I like that Nick Hornby line, too.

  7. There are more variables to this than merely the author. People write what other people want to read. If the audience shifts, so will much of the writing. Similarly, you find on bookstore shelves what publishers think you will pay to read. If they perceive a shift in public attitude you will quickly see it reflected.

    Has the demographic of readers changed in 50 years? Probably.

  8. What Allyssa said. Maybe it has to do with aging. When I was young, reading about it (as opposed to not doing it) was 'ahem' more thrilling.

    Now, I don't want to read about it. I want to read whatever else and go to sleep.

    Scary truth (not scary to me.. to my husband perhaps tho).

    Ok, not all the time.

    Truly tho-- I want to read about real great adventures (not sex) like climbing Mt Everest, like old guys traveling to the North Pole, like children escaping the perils of some dangerous factions of Morman groups in isolated towns of Utah.

    Those are the stories that thrill me. Stories of people married 70 years and hold each other each night.. just holding.. just whispering.. those stories thrill me too.. what do they whisper.. what do they hope for.. what secrets do they have.

    THAT thrills me.

  9. I'm not a big fan of written sex scenes. I'd rather read something that leaves me wanting. I'm all about sexual frustration! LOL

  10. I think when there's a focus on sex a lot of times the story and character development gets lost (at least as it relates to relationships). People aren't shocked by sex anymore because it's so prevalent.

    I also think people read to escape the real world or discover what is new. When sex was less blatant in the world around us it was more of an unknown and a curiosity. Now that our society seems obsessed with it what's less understood or perhaps even missing in our day to day lives is the relationship building aspects of love, friendship, romance, trust, fidelity, devotion, selflessness, to name a few. That's my opinion at least.

  11. But more romantic isn't always the goal, is it? Maybe if you're writing a romance novel. Besides, sometimes the most romantic thing is accidently hitting your head on the bedpost between thrusts, or still worrying after fifteen years of marriage whether "she's liking it." But if you're trying to paint a portraiture of 'realism' then you can't skip over the best bits.