Ah, Katie Roiphe. Always with the feminist controversies, that one! And, you know, I’m fond of feminist controversies: they typically open up some interesting issues, and make us talk to each other about things that are uncomfortable but important, and enrich the discOH MY GOD WHAT?????
Okay, so: Roiphe posits that the problem with the dudes today, specifically the writer dudes, is that they are not writing about sex the way they used to. You know, I have a lot of problems with the dudes today, but that’s not the one that comes most immediately to mind! Also, the “way they used to” is apparently the way that would piss Kate Millett off so much that she had to write an entire book about it. Yes, Roth and Updike and (God help us all) Mailer pioneered a specific ’60s sort of swinger virility, which has been abandoned now by hyper-sensitive feminist pantywaists like:
- Jonathan Franzen, whose The Corrections featured a guy fucking his own furniture, along with some highly comical heavy-breathing “lesbian” scenes that could not be more obviously written by a straight man if Franzen had included pictures of himself making sweet love to a lady on the opposing pages.
- David Foster Wallace, whose eunuch status is pretty much informed by seriously misreading or ignoring the relevant points of one essay on Updike.
- Benjamin Kunkel, whose Indecision climaxed with a drug-fueled sixty-nine, with the male protagonist – and this is a phrase that was burned into my brain, which I must now traumatize you with to alleviate my own suffering – “ejaculating like a garden hose.”
- Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers, because, okay, Roiphe has a point.
It’s true! The literary celebration of the male boner, and its various uses on dumb sluts who don’t even get how degrading this is to them, probably because of how dumb and slutty they are, is a lost art. I defy any of the young authors today, for example, to match these immortal words of Shakespeare:
Shall I compare thee to a filthy slut?
Thou art more whorish, and an awesome fuck,
For thou dost let me do thee up the butt.
‘Twixt rosy cheeks mine throbbing cock is stuck!
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s how it goes. I sent my expert team of fact-checkers out to get me a pack of smokes, so! Assertion published! But is it really Feminism – which seems to have trouble getting even its most basic points accepted by society at large – that has resulted in the castration of the American male laptop-user? Or is it the fact that the highly graphic straight-dude focused sex scene is no longer really a literary innovation, and is instead the basis of such timeless American literature as I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell? Is it the fact that the first Google result for “bright green dildo” is “two sexy goth girls playing with a bright green dildo” rather than a critical appreciation of Philip Roth’s extremely highbrow usage of the aforementioned implement in The Humbling? Or is it the fact that Roth’s scene of two sexy girls playing with a bright green dildo reads like this?
There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be.
Honestly, I dunno! Pretty sure it’s fodder for a Sexist Beatdown, though! Join us, as Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I attempt to puzzle it out!
ILLUSTRATION: Why don’t people write literature like this any more?
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!
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? [This was also addressed by Katie Roiphe! Though not in the piece! Because it’s not relevant or contradictory to her portrayal of feminism as a castrating, sex-killing, literature-enpantywaisting force… somehow! – Ed.] 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.)
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.