Too cool for sex

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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.

At any given time, the overall preoccupation of writers with sex is difficult to measure. We can understand it as a one-dimensional projection of several vectors: number of sex scenes in each book, length of each scene, level of detail, proportionate weight of scenes in the overall text, etc. Each of these quantities (e.g. number of sex scenes) is in turn a random variable that is approximately normally distributed (bell-shaped). A few books will have extreme values (no sex or lots of sex), and most of the population will cluster somewhere in the middle.

Roiphe’s contention is that these probability distributions (of e.g. the number of sex scenes in novels written by US males) are non-stationary (i.e. the mean of the distributions, their average value, changes over time), and specifically that the distributions are shifting leftwards over time. There’s a trend towards less sex. It is possible to prove or disprove this hypothesis. You’d need to read a lot of books, and do a lot of counting, but it would make for an interesting thesis topic. Unfortunately Roiphe was writing a newspaper article, and she didn’t bother trying to prove her theory using an appropriate sample.

In fact, it’s not at all clear that your average literary novel nowadays is any less concerned with sex than its equivalent 40 years ago, nor that there’s any trend for the overall population distribution. Sure, if you cherrypick a few outliers from the ‘old guard’ — sex-obsessed Philip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer — you can show that there are more threesomes in their work than in most contemporary novels. But they had more threesomes in their work than most novels back then, too. Compared to Alexander Portnoy, almost every literary character, before and since, seem to have a  ‘deep ambivalence about sexual appetite.’

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