The Sexist

Sexist Beatdown: The Soft Boner of Classic American Literature Edition

Behold the final paragraph of Katie Roiphe's latest New York Times Magazine Book Review story on the lost art of freaky sex writing pioneered by the "Great Male Novelists" like Updike, Roth, and Mailer:

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?

In other words, why don't we sit around praising the "unwieldy, impossible machines" (or, you know, penises) of these white, heterosexual guys who are still writing masturbatory prose about lesbian threesomes involving strap-ons, after all these years? Is it because:

(a) The feminists! They have ruined everything!

(b) The pr0n on the Internets! It has made us more likely to watch a short video depicting lesbian threesomes involving strap-ons, instead of reading some white heterosexual dude attempt to describe it for us, in words!

(c) Those danged marginalized groups! People other than old, white, heterosexual men have taken a stab at the whole sex-writing thing, and it turns out they actually have some interesting shit to say about it!

(d) The impotence of old white dudes! Those old dudes can't get erections anymore, I hear!

Find out in this edition of Sexist Beatdown, featuring Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and myself, chattin'. After a brief holiday hiatus, Sexist Beatdown is back—and now with new and improved capitalization! Same amount of exclamation points, however!

SADY: You know, I believe it is time to discuss the DUDES OF TODAY! And more specifically, whether they are all huge pusses who refuse to write sexy strap-on scenes for Katie Roiphe's entertainment. The DUDES OF YORE (and ALSO TODAY, although they are older now) did not have this problem!

AMANDA: They did not. Though they do have a different problem, which is: They will not stop writing like it's 1960, and some females Katie Roiphe has observed are just livid over this!

SADY: Right??? I mean: first of all. I think SOME of Roiphe's concerns about the Dudes of Today, which have been repeated in many a forum and in my own personal mind, are valid. There is a creepy quasi-sensitivity about some of the DoTs she mentions, which freaks me out. I think of Kunkel's "Indecision," which has the dude protagonist making these big speeches about how the girl he's dating does not deserve him, due to his aforementioned Indecision about her, which does not prevent him from being, in fact, a douche. Or this Dave Eggers essay, about how he won't use the word "fuck" to describe the tender and glorious act of making love. Which sounds like THE WORST PICKUP LINE IN THE WORLD, actually. It sounds like a guy who TOTALLY wants to fuck, but tells you he will never use that word because it is so disrespectful, so that you will, you know, fuck him. Yes, sexism continues, even among the DoTs! But it is less overt than the Dudes of Yore, which (I think???) is why Roiphe is mad about it.

AMANDA: Right. The striking thing about this essay, to me, is that it outright states that its concern is with the "Great Male Novelists of the last century" and their male heirs. It’s also explicitly concerned with female readers, and feminists, who reject the sexual narratives in these works. But Roiphe never makes the obvious point that there are options beyond the Great Male Novelists ... like Great Female Novelists, who also do The Sex. She basically limits the discussion to, "Why don't women appreciate these classic male, heteronormative sexual narratives that treat women like cum dumpsters?" when the answer is ... pretty obvious.

SADY: Yuh huh. I mean: I think I mentioned this to you, when you were talking about it earlier in the week. And Bitch blogs (yay for Bitch Blogs) mentioned it also!

AMANDA: (Yay!)

SADY: BUUUUUUT: Did she somehow miss that ladies write sex scenes nowadays? Even FEMINIST ladies? The first person that springs to mind is Michelle Tea, who writes these very funny, detailed, daring sex scenes, about fisting and hitting people with the chain whips off bicycles and all sorts of nonsense. Or—this one was brought up by Bitch—Mary Gaitskill? You can find some sex in Mary Gaitskill! And this stuff is often interesting, and has new perspectives, in ways that the Great Male Sexy Time Authors stopped being a long time ago. Like: the problem with Roth's "hot lesbian strap-on threesome" scene is not that it includes lesbians, or a strap-on. It's that it is very obviously a straight dude's IDEA of how mystical and magical and shamanistic and pervy threesomes including strap-ons are. You can find better ones written by people who know a damn thing about it, these days! Thanks to Feminism, ruiner of sexy times. (For boring dudes.) [Note: Roiphe eventually explicitly acknowledged the sex writing of female and gay writers—in an interview after the fact. -Ed.]

AMANDA: Sure! And I think Roiphe acknowledges that to some extent—though she blames not the oppressively hetero male perspective, but rather the fact that these hetero male sex writers just can't get big erections anymore. Which is weird! But, you know, a theory! But my favorite part comes at the end, when she says this: "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?" So, basically, Roiphe is concerned that readers today don't bow down before the phalluses of the Great Male Sexy Time Authors enough. That we don't honor Updike and Roth and Mailer enough! I mean, given that she doesn't even deign to mention a female author, I think we honor these men quite enough, actually!

SADY: Okay, and here we enter the area that caused the MOST perplexity for me, which is: WHAT WORLD IS SHE LIVING ON WHERE PEOPLE DON'T FALL ALL OVER THEMSELVES TO PRAISE PHILIP ROTH AND JOHN UPDIKE??????????

AMANDA: A world ruined by feminists.

SADY: Or where criticizing DAVE EGGERS or BEN KUNKEL or, jesus, JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER is somehow taboo????????? People criticize those dudes all the time! Roth is treated like a national monument! WHAT HUH WHAT WHERE WHYYYYYYYYY.

AMANDA: I think Roiphe presents a really interesting (if extremely contentious) discussion, and then decides to end it with: "People are too critical of literature!" She basically just tells women to stop thinking so much and just honor the great works of men without comment. What?

SADY: Oh, yeah. And I really appreciated large parts of her argument. I forgot that one line in "The Corrections" about the lady being "still beautiful" at thirty-fucking-two, which did in fact cause me to throw the book across the room when I read it initially. Mostly from that book I remember the couch-fucking! Dude fucks furniture. It's kind of wacky.

AMANDA: Yeah. She's right about that stuff. And perhaps the part at the end where she tells us to honor these great pilots of Ye Olde Sexytime, she's speaking to the new crop of Great Male Unsexytime Writers, and telling them that they are more derivative of these earlier authors than they will admit.

SADY: But, I mean, the "sexual ambiguity" she seems to have such a problem with, the idea that people no longer believe key parties and talking about the naughtiness of watching a girl jack off or—shock!—jacking off themselves is, IN AND OF ITSELF, a symbol of Man's Ultimate Freedom From Social Mores, I kind of . . . don't have a problem with? I mean: the sexual revolution, it had Consequences! Including feminism, yeah. But also: a lot of fucked-up relationships, which, as DFW mentions in the very essay she quotes, men of his generation were probably witnessing as children. Or, you know, they were young in the '80s when AIDS became a rising concern.

AMANDA: Right, and we talked about this earlier in regards to college sex columns, but you don't have to be some sort of radical to talk about sex anymore. A lot of people talk and write about sex, and some of them are hyper-conservative, or worse, boring.

SADY: Ha, RIGHT. I mean, there WAS A TIME when talking or writing about sex—graphically, grossly—was actually a way of challenging rules about what writers, or people, could and could not do. Now, it is an art form practiced and cultivated by Tucker Max. Yes! You have sex! So do the rest of us! Say something new about it, other than the fact that it involves human lady vaginas, because otherwise I may get a case of the ZZZZZZZZZZs.

AMANDA: Yes! Our favorite. And the fans who defend Tucker Max, the college boys who are likely unfamiliar with the Great Sexy Time Authors of Yore, ultimately defend him on the basis of Freedom of the Press. They act like people who dare to critique Tucker Max are "censoring" his "opinions," and are therefore both dictatorial and prude. And that may have been the case in the past, but it's just not a relevant argument anymore. The sexual exploits of the late-20's upper-crust white American frat boy are not being censored by anybody! Tucker Max does not need to spread his literary seed in order to finally speak truth to power for all the man-children like himself. It has been done, people got over it, and now people like Tucker Max and Katie Roiphe are pretending like we need to pay attention to the "problem" of not really valuing this narrative as exciting anymore. Well ... as much as we used to. Because, of course, Tucker Max is a best-selling author.

SADY: Right! I mean, I think the age in which you could daringly place a smuggled copy of "Tropic of Cancer" or "Lady Chatterley" on your bookshelf, so that people would know you were a rebel and sexual and literary sophisticate, ended a LONG TIME AGO, actually? And now, I mean: the issue with Updike writing a scene where a dude delivers his special package all over a lady's face, or Roth and the mystical shamanic strap-on of power, is not that these scenes are shocking to us, and not that ANYONE would EVER try to censor them. It’s just that they are these very flowery, elaborate, pseudo-highbrow depictions of things that are just not that surprising because at this point everyone in America has seen them actually depicted, on film. It's the false daring that makes them boring. And they read like they were taken from studying film, not life. Although if Updike actually had a thing for face-jizz, I would prefer not to know.

AMANDA: I agree—it's the pretentiousness of it that makes you not want to just put it down but also throw it away, and I'm not sure that really has much to do with feminism, but rather just being a person who reads books.

SADY: yeah, precisely. I mean, Roth still has the power to get up my nose, which might in fact be evidence of why he's good at what he does, but also, I get these letters from fellow feminists that are like, "Give Roth another chance! He's great!" I think mine might be a minority vote, actually. And I think placing the entirety of the responsibility for why we seem to have moved away from this depiction of sex on Feminism, and mean feminists who want to take your literary weenie away, just places an unrealistic power in the hands of Feminism. We can't have done this all by ourselves! We're still working to get people settled on the "Ladies should be able to have abortions" thing!

AMANDA: Right. It's pretty hilarious that Katie Roiphe actually believes that the feminist position is more celebrated than that of the Great Male Novelists, or that our oppressive "feminist" anti-sex culture is to blame for churning out somebody like Dave Eggers. I refuse to take responsibility for that one.

Photo via flickr Commons

  • matt

    a minor quibble but the article appeared in the NY Times Book Review.

  • noodlez

    WTF MANDY!

    YOU GIVE US TWO GOOD ARTICLES THEN THIS CRAP!

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Thanks matt! I've updated the post.

  • Carl Chalice

    The turn-off in this article is the self-satisfied attitude of the conversationalists. It is distracting. Also, the point of human society and the freedom we need to survive should give respect to at least a full hearing of the opinion of others. If nothing else, these conversationalists should have at least had some interest in learning about the viewpoint of others instead of getting angry that other people do not share their own pet peeves. Diversity, ladies. That's a plus. Lighten up.

  • Amanda

    The "Lighten up, ladies!" response?! That's such a cliche, I wonder whether Carl's comment is actually satirical.

    Loved the discussion, and the capitalization. (And the exclamation points!)

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