Discussion → Sex Writers of the World, Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Fears!

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    Gary Percesepe
    Jan 02, 12:28pm

    ok, class, now that i have your attention--

    anyone read katie rophie's recent piece in the ny times, lamenting those ol' time sex male writers roth, updike, bellow, mailer, et. al., and their wimply ambivalent, reluctant-to-write-a-full-throated-sex-sentence successors, such as --ahem--eggers and d.f. wallace and michael chabon--do i still have your attention?

    so, what about it?

    you can read katie here:


    you gotta love a piece that features wallace calling updike "just a penis with a thesaurus."

    but what do YOU think of katie's piece?

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    Heather Fowler
    Jan 02, 01:19pm

    Interesting piece, Gary. I found this quote fascinating, in particular:

    "The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex."

    I'd wonder how much effect the religious right's influence and the jerryrigged nature of American media has on our perceptions of what can come out or should. Are younger authors more prudish, or is it only that the truly edgy lit is out there, but can't find homes because of its content?

    Is the target market of books now older folks or primmer folks? Are authors more afraid of trashing their careers or being labelled pornographic than before?

    I wonder about these things. Sure, maybe these well-exposed younger gen authors are flaccid in their sexual output, but I'd venture to say that it was likely their connections and degree programs or whatnot that got their contracts and that for every lukewarm sex scene found in a big mass market "literary" book--there are many more groundbreaking books that are vivid and raw and fantastic, but people, the people who buy book, may be afraid of such narratives, except in the independent press scene.

    Hope you are having a great morning! xoxo,

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    Darryl Price
    Jan 02, 02:32pm

    I THINK THIS PIECE IS BRILLIANT AND LONG OVERDUE. Since when did we give up being real about the real stuff anyway? And by that I mean that sex is always sex, not exactly courtship,and not exactly friendship either, although it can be these things or representations thereof.. But it's not the point. I remember a conversation I had once with Robert Bly where he lamented looking out at the audience and seeing all these soft-looking guys with these fabulously interesting looking women. After that I could not help but see the same thing everywhere I went. Guys who had bought the Feminist outlook on the way they ought to look and behave in public at the price of their own masculine selves. And guess what--almost every time the woman chooses the hairy ogre.Or any other description of a guy you want to pin to it who is just a guy being a guy and not a guy deliberately trying to be sensitive to the needs of others but just a guy who is sensitive, if he is,well within the confines and constraints of his own gendered self--as is! dp

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    Meg Pokrass
    Jan 02, 03:09pm

    i think old Katie is lonely. what do you think, Gary? Possibly, Katie needs an old fashioned roll in the hay and does not know what do with that desire as so much has changed? I know all you male writers are probably thinking this, and I am not one to totally disagree with what none of you have said! I mean male writers these days are... too female-sensitive!! Too "enlightened" and shit! I have already faced this fact, and it has made me melancholy. Damn right! Give me a thick, bloody steak and a Phillip Roth novel and a few Norman Mailerisms and turn me into a female again, goddamn it!

    ...er..... OK - i bet it's just this: I bet Katie recently experienced a date with a writer (a writer under 80 yrs. of age) who took Viagra after sharing w/ her the poetry of Li Young Li. Perhaps she had a holiday-timed nervous breakdown, and in her desperate nostalgia and after a couple of Pumpkin Frappachino's she just wrote it all down... just told it like it is, baby! and stuck it to us!

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    Ann Bogle
    Jan 02, 03:37pm

    In a 1995 interview, Camille Paglia described [Katie Roiphe] as "the first intellectual of her generation."[3] Paglia has since revised her opinion of Roiphe: "When Katie Roiphe came up in the mid-’90s, I thought she was going to be the intellectual of her generation, but she just withdrew after the huge flap about her first book, The Morning After. She drifted off into writing memoirs and talking about her personal life, and now has come back with some book on marriage. She didn't step up and that position is still vacant, so we now have absent two generations of young intellectuals in America."[4]


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    Darryl Price
    Jan 02, 03:55pm

    I never want to be too cool for sex!

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    Heather Fowler
    Jan 02, 04:13pm

    Interesting aside, Ann. :) Thanks for that! xo

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    Stephen Stark
    Jan 02, 05:01pm

    I tend to agree with Heather that the good sex is probably not in the more mainstream novels. Roiphe's premise, though, is interesting and thought-provoking.

    Recently I watched Dazed and Confused again, which if you get rid of the violence against the freshmen, is almost a documentary of my hazy recollection of graduating from high school in 1976. The only thing that was missing from that movie, it has always seemed to me, was the sex. People were going at it like rabbits. I can guess why Linklater left it out. The era in which is was made, not the one it depicts.

    In my first novel, I avoided explicit sex. I was, I think, afraid of what my mother might think. Still, the novel is almost all sex and violence, in a way.

    My second novel, there are several sex scenes. Kirkus said something about their veering out of control. Which pretty much nailed it, so to speak. For me, the sex was revelatory about character, and was in a lot of respects about where they were emotionally. Andrea Barrett paid me an enormous compliment, saying something like they made her sweat. The only thing my mother (dead now) had to say to me about the novel was that she admired my powers of description, but I had some kind of flower blooming out of season.

    In the novel I've been working on for the last couple of years, THE BOB DELUSION, pieces of which appear here on Fn, I was seriously considering not having any explicit sex appear in the novel. The reason was pretty simple—pornography is almost everywhere on the web, in every imaginable configuration, and it seemed to me, for a long time while I was writing, almost pointless. But then it became inevitable.

    Sex in all its permutations, from inchoate desire to frustrated desire to coupling with wild abandonment, is part and parcel of who we are, and informs so much of why we do what we do, or don't do—or any permutation.

    I wouldn't say that the absence of explicit sex makes any of the more recent novels that Roiphe cites any less interesting. In Chabon's Kavalier and Klay, there is a lot of unexpressed sexual desire, largely because of the era and that those doing the desiring are gay men. And there is a fair amount of sex in The Corrections, if I recall, but it is from the point of view of Denise, the sister, if memory serves. It might not. The younger brother, Chip, is, I guess, the one Roiphe is quoting, and his ambivalence is part of who he is. My recollection is that there was some serious sex in The 27th City and in his other novel, the title of which escapes me at the moment.

    The essay is thought-provoking, but I'd say that Roiphe had settled on her conclusion before she started her research and then only quoted what suited her.

    The poet and novelist Laura Kasische writes wonderfully about sex, and quite explicitly. Why does it just have to be about men?

    But back to revelations of character: What reasonably grown-up person hasn't done something that had to do with sex that they would later regret, but finds that that later regret was wholly instructive for the future? That's the kind of stuff that makes for good conflict, it seems to me.

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    Roxane Gay
    Jan 02, 06:54pm

    I agree with most of what Roiphe says and I really enjoyed the essay. At least in terms of the current crop of young-ish mainstream male novelists, their ability to write about sex is inadequate at the very least and certainly bewildering. As a woman, I really wonder at all the nervous introspection and the palpable fear (?) or nervousness (?) or squeamnishness (?) and it's a real turnoff. I get the sense that these scenes supposed to be oddly charming or real but I find them very frustrating and a little misogynistic in their portrayal of women as somewhat repulsive AND willing to sleep with these literary assholes, far more than anything Mailer could throw at the page. Maybe I'm a throwback but I prefer unapologetic, explicitly written sex. It's more interesting.

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    Edward Mullany
    Jan 02, 07:19pm

    "The problem is that over the past half-century, we have rejected the old standards of manhood without fully developing new, more appropriate ones." - Gary Cross, author of "Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity"

    see his interview here:

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    Jerry Ratch
    Jan 02, 08:31pm

    Couldn't agree more with Rophie. And with Gary. Can't read that stuff.

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    Ann Bogle
    Jan 02, 11:43pm

    Who wrote desire in art is the special assignment of gay men? Stephen? Yes. So-called straight society is the MOM or DAD who withholds privileges from the KIDS, the PARENTS who are sexually enfranchised yet pick bad acting, celibacy, repetition and boring suburban life.

    Roxane Gay and Heather Fowler can really write sex, as I've noticed as a reader here at Fictionaut. Gary Percesepe writes sexual setting and scene very well. I wasn't even going to join this group because I've taken a position in the last several years that I write about sex incidentally, not as porn, not for its own sake, and not as plot. In other years I wrote what I eventually realized was "anti-porn" similar in gist to anti-poetry: Nicanor Para. I had the chance to see Andrea Dworkin speak -- blaze, more like it, like an opera singer against pornography, and I read Kathy Acker. I didn't see them as opposed, but in life they were. I wrote sex scenes, encounters, events not with the purpose of titillating the reader tactilely but to show how people socialize at sex.

    If I could write like this in a story: "Strange new flesh I found," I might set out as a sex writer.

    One morning I woke to Garrison Keillor explaining on NPR that Louisa May Alcott had started as a writer of potboilers.

    Is it true that sex writers, self-proclaimed, would read top contemporary American novelists for sex scenes IF the sex in the novels were more organic? I don't mind sour sex scenes shot through with cultural dismay at our human terminus, page roamers, but I see the point that in great books, it could be Joy of Sex. The writers Roiphe names are, still sadly, many of them dead. Maybe they were aesthetes. What about Milan Kundera or Andre Dubus?

    Sex in my generation *was* a hand-shaking line at a country club: the waitstaff limply clasping fingers in a line, later complaining if a woman didn't produce sex as visual entertainment. It was James Joyce's "The Dead." It wasn't fucking. Square dancing, literal square dancing, would have been more lively, but no one had the audacity for it. It was a dead social environment, dead to the poor. In Minnesota, sex is quick and rote. Men are indifferent, selfish, care about money and mid-level power and their growing or grown kids but not about women (their age or younger but no longer young). Women pay in social taxes. In what he referred to as an "abuse of power," Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about it under oath while in office; David Letterman not permitted to date without a media frenzy. Tiger Woods. The only people it seems are allowed to have sex somehow honestly and freely are the luckily married (few) or actors on TV.

    A couple names from the sex writing underground:

    Dodie Bellamy (Kevin Killian) and C. A. Conrad

    Jan. 2, 2010
    11:35 p.m. CST

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    Gary Percesepe
    Jan 03, 07:24pm

    ann: that long penultimate paragraph there--there is a story there. wow.

    minnesota sex, women paying a social tax.

    roxane: thank you--and would you really prefer mailer to chabon? i find that intriguing--

    reading rophie i cound't stop hearing that funny old folk song looping in my brain, "sensitive new age guys." somesuch--

    on the rest: fascinating discussion, thank you, all--

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    Elizabeth Hegwood
    Jan 03, 07:56pm

    The essay seemed watery to me. Maybe it sold because of all the sex in it. Ba-dum-ch.

    I don't really think one thing or another about it, to be honest, because there are very few authors discussed here, and then there's the sloppy this-is-hidden-sexism of "Woman was still beautiful at 32," which, taken by itself instead of contextually (who's the narrator, who's the woman, what's the sitch, etc etc) is bad thinking, in my opinion. 'Course I haven't read the book.

    I understand what she's trying to say about self-consciousness precluding loss of inhibition necessary to sex, BUT I can't imagine that many characters with that kind of self-consciousness could be all together in ONE BOOK because that'd be one boring book, unless something knocks them off their game, which is likely, or should be, if they are living as they say in the real world.

    There's plenty sex in the books and stories I read, and none in plenty more. I'm trying to think how old these authors are, since her essay is pretty much about that, and I can't immediately call any VERY young writers writing moderately explicit sex scenes, but then there are only ten years between Amy Hempel and David Foster Wallace, and Hempel certainly masters writing sex scenes. And do I think it "means" anything that she's a woman and he's a man? Nah.

    Also, it might be worth saying that a lot of times, writing about sex is very difficult for me, not because I'm scared my mom will read it, but because it feels a bit like trying to describe yet another beautiful woman or nice twilight in yet another new way.

    What about this comment about our marriages being safer? That type of generality just 1) don't make much sense to me and 2) isn't very interesting. Who can talk about "our marriages" anyway. There's THIS marriage and THAT marriage.

    What I'm trying to say is there are a lot of things in this essay presented as being linear that just aren't.

    Thanks for the article, though. I'm enjoying the discussion.

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    Katrina Gray
    Jan 03, 09:20pm

    Oh, yeah to Katie. Oh, yeah. And yes to Roxane: explicitly written sex is more interesting. it's more interesting because it's closer to real.

    I once saw Mac Davis in a club here in Nashville, and he told the story of playing "Behind Closed Doors" for his son, who said something like, "You know they're having sex, but you're not saying it." "Precisely!" he said. "Not like these hip-hoppers who describe every little thing, but it's still sex."

    Now, I love Mac Davis, and I love subtlety, but in stories about relationships, subtlety seems inappropriate usually. Because most relationships are not subtle. They are real, visceral, breathing, pink things.

    I like my sex Joycean. I like Molly Bloom and Blazes Boylan going at it like gangbusters, like: "...I can feel his mouth O Lord I must stretch myself I wished he was here or somebody to let myself go with and come again like that I feel all fire inside me or if I could dream it when he made me spend the 2nd time tickling me behind with his finger I was coming for about 5 minutes with my legs round him I had to hug him after O Lord I wanted to shout out all sorts of things fuck or shit or anything...." Anything less would not be authentic.

    And I must say like I love the sex in Donald Barthelme's Paradise. God damn. "Two of them sucking his cock in the early mornings, taking turns...one would begin to lick the inside of another's legs up near the cunt, quite near, Simon with his hands on that one's buttocks, around her waist and then moving down over the buttocks with slow appreciative strokes, raking them with his nails at intervals, but softly, little bites, but softly, the flash is so delicious...." But the point here is that Simon tires of pleasuring a houseful of models, and he also tires of them pleasuring him. Too much sex can wear a guy thin.

    Which is why it must be well-placed and well-written. And I trust most of the authors in the article to do write it well and place it better. This is key. Sex not for sex's sake, but sex because it belongs.

    Like anything else, I don't want sex half-ass written. I want something to be taken on, explored, turned over.

    So about the feminist aspect: gosh, that's a tough one. But I am in love with Helene Cixous, a poststructuralist feminist who implores women to "write the body." I'm just guessing here, but I would hope that she want everyone--including men--to take her advice. Be honest. Be real. Be.

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    Ann Bogle
    Jan 03, 10:38pm

    Beautiful post, Katrina. Nice documents!

    Elizabeth, my analogy to straights as parents who view (natural and civil) rights as privileges and withhold them from gays doesn't work if it sounds like I mean "this marriage or that marriage." I'll keep thinking about it. The suburbs as I lived in them are/were a blanket of divorce, conformity and middle-aged fear of (in)decency. We saw a friend's divorce attorney at a Caribou and he murmured to someone else that my beige twill knee-length skirt was "licentious." His head must have been roiling with angles of every financial kind. Real estate was rioting along with the divorce rate. A culture that would let a president be impeached for having sex is socially intimidating. Later in the post I refer to the lucky marrieds (the few) allowed to have sex without repercussion (not as lucky, the likes of David Letterman). I see certain women at the salon: thin married women very attentive to their appearance, perhaps aware of having sexual status, spending a lot of money and daytime hours on it, so yes. There is something there. I lack imagination about women in that position: lack insight into their interior belief structure and think I haven't read it.

    I read somewhere where Amy Hempel wrote that she had avoided writing sex, and then to demonstrate that she could, she wrote a hazy paragraph about touching her hair and shoulder. I thought I had read her work pretty thoroughly otherwise, but it sounds from your description of it, that I missed something central.

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    Elizabeth Hegwood
    Jan 03, 11:15pm

    Ann, I wasn't referring to your comment; I was referring to Katie Roiphe's in the essay when she says that "our marriages are safer" now. I don't see how EVERYONE'S marriages can all be placed on one linear progression of sorts, and even if they could, she doesn't back it up. Unless she means fictional marriages, but even then it isn't supported. I don't understand why she didn't reference more than a handful authors for an argument like this.

    Amy Hempel, yes. Not in every story, but there are several well-done scenes.

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    Ann Bogle
    Jan 04, 12:28am

    Elizabeth, I realized too late that you meant Roiphe's reference to marriages; thanks for clarifying. I do think the analogy I tried to use is weak and larger territory than a phrase.

    This morning a close friend, in my view a major poet, called from NY to discuss Roiphe's article. It was a happy coincidence after thinking about both the article and the Fictionaut thread last night. He liked the article, but he said he thought Roiphe's anaylsis was a simplistic way to evaluate work of the recent old guard and shift in male consciousness to the new.

    I liked Mailer's description of feminist critics as "ladies with the fierce thoughts."

    In Madison, where I studied as an undergraduate, literature written after 1950 was not on the syllabus or exams. It may have been at colleges. That academic university conservativeness had a lasting effect on me and other c.w. scholars who may have gotten to French theory sooner. Meanwhile, American feminist criticism was prominent at U.W.: what we had of Roth, Mailer, Updike, Hemingway was a rumor. I have been very glad I read Hemingway early.

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    Katrina Gray
    Jan 04, 12:30am

    Wait, wait: correction...Mac Davis was talking about "Baby Don't Get Hooked On Me," not "Behind Closed Doors." Too many brandy alexanders makes me mix up my misogynist country singer-songwriters.

    And thanks, Ann.

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    Finnegan Flawnt
    Jan 04, 04:32am

    confession: for years i thought myself a failure as a writer because everything i approached, really EVERYTHING, turned into sex on the page. i wasn't "a penis with a thesaurus", i was a penis-headed hydra with nothing but a list of ten words in hand...wait, i think i still got it somewhere: sex, bum, cunt, dick, cock, suck, fuck, pussy, bitch, rod, iron, lips, kiss, custard launcher and love rug.

    katrina, i also like my sex joycean. i'll buy you a beverage that hums 'drink me' for saying that.

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