Is Jonathan Franzen ‘too cool for sex’? I have my doubts, but Katie Roiphe thinks she’s on to something.
Her New York Times essay observes how attitudes to sex among recent male North American novelists (Franzen, Wallace, Chabon, Kunkel) seem to differ from the ‘aggressive virility’ of their predecessors (Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer). She claims to detect a trend. Whereas the older bunch of writers was obsessed with sex, the younger writers have ‘a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite’. Their works are ‘denuded of a certain carnality.’
Why? Kate Millett + narcissism:
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… boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in… the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.
Rather than quibble about the purported cause, I question whether the phenomenon itself is real. Roiphe thinks ‘we have landed upon a more conservative time’, suspicious of sex. The latest batch of US male writers are evidence of ‘a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.’
Her sample of authors is so small, however, that it can’t legitimately be used as evidence of much at all.