The U.S. has always had a conflicted attitude toward sex. While violence – for the country born in the crucible of revolution – has been historically sanctioned as an almost sacrosanct cultural value, the country has frequently come up against those who would restrict representations of sexual acts and material, from the court challenges against Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to the Hayes Code to the attempts to censor the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. Modern American popular culture indulges in the prurience of reality television and TMZ, while a censorious streak of Puritanism continues to dominate the political sphere and the condemnatory attitudes of the so-called moral majority. If the Europeans have seemed generally more at ease with the notion of sexuality in all its variations and manifestations, U.S. culture has often found itself railing against the very impulses that it appears most strongly drawn to. (It’s no accident that one of American literature’s foundational texts is The Scarlet Letter.)
Writers tend to be a bellwether for societal concerns; American literature has had as much of a fraught relationship with sex as has the broader culture. If Allen Ginsberg felt able, in 1973, to publish a poem entitled “Under the world there’s a lot of ass, a lot of cunt” (“a lot of mouths and cocks, / under the world there’s a lot of come, and a lot of saliva dripping into brooks”), such directness is not a constant defining feature of American literature, or the society it putatively represents.
The June/July/August issue of Bookforum features a package of articles about sex in American writing. The centrepiece is an essay by Christian Lorentzen called “Tour de Raunch: A Brief History of Sex in American Fiction.” Lorentzen points out that the era of “those now referred to variously as the ‘Great Male Novelists,’ the ‘Great Male Narcissists,’ or the ‘Midcentury Misogynists’ (Bellow, Mailer, Roth, Updike, and, depending on who’s doing the counting, James Salter)” has given itself over to a period of renewed modesty, in which a clutch of new novels (including Elif Batuman’s well-received debut, The Idiot) forswear explicit sexual material.
Though Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and their contemporaries wrote in conscious reaction to what they perceived as the narcissistic, misogynistic impulses driving the earlier generation of male American novelists name-checked above (Franzen even self-consciously titled one of his novels The Corrections), Lorentzen points out that a clutch of female writers were also blazing edgy new trails in the areas of gender non-conformist, feminist, unvarnished sexuality. Mary Gaitskill, Kathy Acker, A.M. Holmes, and Susanna Moore interrogate biases and preconceived notions about sex and its attendant power dynamics in ways that are tough and unsparing: “Once sex became a way of exploring power relationships, exploitation, and victimization, you couldn’t expect it to be fun.”
One of the key figures Lorentzen points to as being on the cutting edge of 21st century writing about sex in America is not even an American author:
Against the intellectualization of sex, the narrator of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? says, “Why are you all reading? I don’t understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done.” But the real innovation of that novel is to render sex in a way that’s both very intense and at the same time a sideshow to the novel’s larger themes of friendship and creating art.
Elsewhere in Bookforum‘s special section, Adelle Waldman praises Franzen’s approach to sex in the novel Freedom (“Franzen’s sex scenes don’t rely on a single vein of humour; he manages to bring to his fictional coitus a more emotionally complex and truer kind of comedy that stems organically from the characters’ overall relationships”); Larissa Pham reckons with the dark undercurrents of Gaitskill’s story “A Romantic Weekend,” from her searing debut collection, Bad Behavior; Justin Taylor revisits Harold Brodkey’s uneven – and sometimes unarguably sexist – output; and Gerald Howard assesses the literary provocations of Iris Owens.
The entire issue is worth a look for its breadth of engagement and interest. The cover design is also undeniably brilliant.