It’s been said (possibly by Elvis Costello, though the attribution is murky) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The same might be said for sex, and even more aptly when it comes to writing about writing about sex.
The problem here, in my opinion, is the preposition “about.” Writing, talking, dancing about something puts both originator and recipient at an inert distance; the act becomes exercise; organic human experience becomes intellectualized analysis. In other words, something whole becomes atomized, and we are talking here about experiences which are greater than the sum of their parts. To give a psychotherapeutic analogy, it is much more productive, more transformative, to weep with both your emotions and your whole body than to state (accuracy and earnestness notwithstanding), “I feel so sad.”
Katie Roiphe took on the task – of writing about writing about sex – with great skill and insight in her recent article for the NY Times Sunday Book Review, “The Naked and the Conflicted.” If you’re a regular blog-surfer, you’ve probably read it. If you haven’t, I recommend you do. What I appreciated especially about Roiphe’s article is that it leaves us with a series of provocative questions to ponder:
Where has sex, as a serious literary consideration – “a force that could change things” – gone to? If, as Roiphe posits (convincingly, I’d say), today’s representative young male literary writers (Wallace, Safran Foer, Eggers, Kunkel) approach physical love and sexual connection with ambivalence, self-consciousness, repulsion, discomfort, and trepidation – regarding their literary forebears’ (Roth, Mailer, Bellow, Updike) lusty, quasi-religious, dark, aestheticizing explorations of sex/sexual conquest with an “almost puritanical disapproval” – what does this reflect about the relative importance of sex for the X and Y literary generations? Have we in fact become – as depicted and reflected in contemporary fictional characters – “too cool for sex”? Too smart, too sophisticated, too busily progressive and companionate in our relationships? Are we no longer capable of attaching words like “exuberance,” “mystery,” “power,” “beauty,” “imaginative quest,” “epic,” “celebration,” “charisma,” and “immortality” to sexual experience and connection, in literature or in life? Is portraying a sense of hopeful adventure and expansive possibility through robust sexual experience simply retrograde, passé, “bizarrely adolescent” (David Foster Wallace’s words), even anti-feminist in the age of sensitive guys, ironic sophistication, and global improvement?
Perhaps we have relegated our abiding interest in sex-as-quest-for-self-realization to the safer, more dismissable, it’s-just-my-guilty-pleasure realm of entertainment. Exhibit A: the popularity of Mad Men among the literary set.
In 1993, Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) established The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” – “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.” Reading through passages from this year’s “Bad Sex Awards” shortlist, along with an all-time bad sex passages list published by Flavorpill, it becomes clear the minefield one braves when crafting a linguistic experience of sex for a contemporary literary reader. If one were to develop a “Don’ts” list for fiction writers suiting up for the challenge, it might look like this (warning: graphic language to follow):
1. Beware of sensory descriptions which include food analogies – “honeydew breasts” (Styron), “like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (Littell), “the oysterish intricacy of her” (Anthony Quinn), “he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam” (Updike) – or “wet” verbs like smear, suck, lick, slither, slide.
2. Be sparing with anatomical terminology for sexual organs, whether scientific or slang; and if your passage does contain such words, beware of mixing and matching high diction and low diction, i.e. it’s nearly impossible to get away with raunchy lyricism. (Here I will spare the reader specific examples, but suffice it to say that sex-organ diction, both high and low, is apparently like neon paisley; it doesn’t go with anything.)
3. Avoid spiritual-religious metaphors – “salvation” (Palahniuk), “rapture” (Ayn Rand), “magical composite / weird totem” (Roth), “on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light” (Banville), “my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer” (Theroux) – or any language that gestures toward the grand or the epic: “weeping orifice” (Ann Allestree), “Imperial pint of semen” (Neal Stephenson), “Defile her” (Roth), “like a torero…trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull,” “gravid tremulousness of her breasts” (Banville).
4. Be hyper-vigilant about clichéd metaphors and similes, particularly oceanic ones: “like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks” (Simon Van Booy), “it was as if he were splashing about helplessly on the shore of some great ocean, waiting for a current, or the right swimming stroke to sweep him effortlessly out to sea” (Sanjida O’Connell).
5. Avoid machinistic metaphors: “with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port” (Amos Oz), “I’m going to pull the lever, I’m going to let the blade drop” (Littell), “he enters her like a fucking pile driver” (Nick Cave).
I am here reminded of a word that, throughout grade school, never ceased to elicit mouth-covering giggles: rubber. We could be talking about the elastic things you shoot across the classroom at your nemesis, or the soles of your shoes, and yet still we couldn’t hold back the laughter. It was nervous laughter, of course, because at the age of 10, a condom – the danger, excitement, and illicitness that object conjured – was taboo, mysterious, unknown. We snickered out of anxious, uncomfortable curiosity; and, of course, to be cool.
Is it possible that our fun with “Bad Sex” lists – rooted, I’d argue, in our ambivalence about whether sex on the page, in all its linguistic sensory sloppiness and spiritual-existential achingness, is comedy or bathos or misogyny – reflects (along with our sound aesthetic judgment, of course) a devolving anxiety and discomfort about our core physical sensuality? Why do we scoff at all things exuberantly, epically sensual? Are sexual relationships really so blasé, so measured, in our modern lives? Is this how we now define “mature love,” i.e. as relationships in which an appetite for sex—the force of sex—is considered unevolved or juvenile; in which sex “doesn’t matter,” or, perhaps, shouldn’t matter?
Woefully missing from Roiphe’s analysis of sex and the GMNs – the Great Male Novelists of the 1960s – is James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. At the end of “The Naked and the Conflicted,” Roiphe exhorts the reader to Be Not Offended by the sexual shenanigans of our literary lions, but rather to behold them with “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.” Such withering nostalgia may apply to the Updike-Mailer-Roth-Bellow quartet, but Salter, to me, a Gen X-er in 2010, is present; alive; not just looking up, but flying. Here is Webster Schott, from the April 2, 1967, NY Times review of the first edition of A Sport and a Pastime:
Arching gracefully, like a glorious 4th of July rocket, [A Sport and a Pastime] illuminates the dark sky of sex. It’s a tour de force in erotic realism… a continuous journey of the soul via the flesh.
I do not detail Dean’s and Anne-Marie’s amorous exercises because medical Latin won’t do the job and sex English in isolation sounds stupid and dirty. This is a direct novel, not a grimy one. Salter celebrates the rites of erotic innovation and understands their literary uses. He creates a small, flaming world of sensualism inhabited by Dean and Anne-Marie, and invaded by the imagination of the narrator. We enter it. We feel it. It has the force of a hundred repressed fantasies. And it carries purpose: Salter details lust in search of its passage into love.
Schott’s words echo those of Mailer in “The Prisoner of Sex,” which Roiphe quotes:
Lust…dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas – whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom – yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love. [emphasis mine]
Sensualism that carries purpose; lust in a liminal state, an actively searching journey, a “passage,” toward love. Direct, not grimy. Schott sheds light on the elusive threshold between the pornographically insipid and the sensually sublime. For Salter (for Dean and Anne-Marie), sex matters; God, does it matter. Sex is beautiful and potent, and it changes us, one way or another. “To live without it is to be less than alive,” Schott ruminates, like a man inclining his ear toward a faint, inescapable echo. ”And to live for sex alone is to be less than human.” You know it when you see it, the saying goes – regarding porn, regarding gratuitous and/or “unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant” sexual material; but so too are there narrative, aesthetic, emotional markers. The first time I read A Sport and a Pastime, just two years ago, I knew I’d experienced something unusual, alive, difficult in its directness; not something to look upon “fondly,” but a story that, like all great art, connected me more deeply and truthfully to my whole human self – sans irony or “cool.”
There is no “about” in Salter’s feverish reality-dream, dancing or otherwise, no distanced atomization of the physicality of sex, the intimacy of physicality. The nakedness of these characters is soul-deep, and the novel demands no less of its reader; the “new narcissism,” per Roiphe –“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” – won’t do here. Reynolds Price wrote in a 2006 introduction: “…Salter means us to feel…the vivid and literally palpable reality of Philip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat, to feel it through a growing awareness of the simple splendor of their physical bodies when joined in many forms of intercourse…” Are Dean and Anne-Marie’s “amorous exercises” raunchy, violent, aberrant, empty, farcical, magical, loving, religious, lyrical, beautiful? I can’t answer that for you; and herein lies the novel’s profound meaning: that it will require courage – maybe even epic courage – for you to answer for yourself.