Pick your poison, demands Katie Roiphe in the New York Times : navel-gazing, ambivalent little boys or phallus-obsessed old/dead men. Post-war writers derided as narcissists, she argues, risk being supplanted by precious, innocent scribes who construct angst-ridden cost/benefit analyses prior to penetration.
The same crusading feminist critics who objected to Mailer, Bellow, Roth and Updike might be tempted to take this new sensitivity or softness or indifference to sexual adventuring as a sign of progress. (Mailer called these critics “the ladies with their fierce ideas.”) But the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out.
Let’s agree that it’s deeply stupid to dismiss Updike’s work out of some notion that he’s not the feminist you thought him to be. I’m left wondering whether it’s true that “Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us,” as Roiphe claims; whether we spend much time “denouncing the Great Male Novelists for their sexism.” In particular, I question the royal We. When was the last time you heard a full-throated feminist denunciation of Saul Bellow? Roiphe mentions David Foster Wallace’s classic meditation on Updike, which quotes some anonymous anti-Updike female friends of Wallace’s (DFW actually identifies himself as an Updike fan), an essay that was first published in 1998, which was, for anyone counting, over a decade ago.
Roiphe does a nice job limning the romance of the older, phallocentric search for meaning: the act of ejaculation infused with mystical, purpose-giving power. The charm is there. But perhaps the perceived lack of enthusiasm for these writers is born of a sense that they spoke mostly to their particular time, a time in which sexual adventure seemed a natural response to middle-class ennui, a time in which anal sex seemed profoundly transgressive, a time in which no one saw anything wrong with anointing a crop of “Great Male Novelists.”
“I’m not especially offended by this attitude,” DFW says of an Updike narrator who thinks sex to be the antidote to despair, “I mostly just don’t get it.” That’s not rage; it’s indifference, and several degrees more damning. Maybe the (somewhat arbitrary) list of heirs apparent Roiphe mentions-Franzen, DFW, Eggers-have been browbeaten out of their virility. It seems as likely that the opposite has happened: A particular kind of rebellion has ceased to feel particularly dangerous, liberating, or literary.
Photograph of Philip Roth by Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images.