Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists

January 12, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 27 6 min read

It’s been said (possibly by Elvis Costello, though the attribution is murky) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  The same might be said for sex, and even more aptly when it comes to writing about writing about sex.

The problem here, in my opinion, is the preposition “about.”  Writing, talking, dancing about something puts both originator and recipient at an inert distance; the act becomes exercise; organic human experience becomes intellectualized analysis.  In other words, something whole becomes atomized, and we are talking here about experiences which are greater than the sum of their parts.   To give a psychotherapeutic analogy, it is much more productive, more transformative, to weep with both your emotions and your whole body than to state (accuracy and earnestness notwithstanding), “I feel so sad.”

Katie Roiphe took on the task – of writing about writing about sex – with great skill and insight in her recent article for the NY Times Sunday Book Review, “The Naked and the Conflicted.” If you’re a regular blog-surfer, you’ve probably read it.  If you haven’t, I recommend you do.  What I appreciated especially about Roiphe’s article is that it leaves us with a series of provocative questions to ponder:

Where has sex, as a serious literary consideration – “a force that could change things” – gone to?  If, as Roiphe posits (convincingly, I’d say), today’s representative young male literary writers (Wallace, Safran Foer, Eggers, Kunkel) approach physical love and sexual connection with ambivalence, self-consciousness, repulsion, discomfort, and trepidation – regarding their literary forebears’ (Roth, Mailer, Bellow, Updike) lusty, quasi-religious, dark, aestheticizing explorations of sex/sexual conquest with an “almost puritanical disapproval” – what does this reflect about the relative importance of sex for the X and Y literary generations?  Have we in fact become – as depicted and reflected in contemporary fictional characters – “too cool for sex”?  Too smart, too sophisticated, too busily progressive and companionate in our relationships?  Are we no longer capable of attaching words like “exuberance,” “mystery,” “power,” “beauty,” “imaginative quest,” “epic,” “celebration,” “charisma,” and “immortality” to sexual experience and connection, in literature or in life?  Is portraying a sense of hopeful adventure and expansive possibility through robust sexual experience simply retrograde, passé, “bizarrely adolescent” (David Foster Wallace’s words), even anti-feminist in the age of sensitive guys, ironic sophistication, and global improvement?

Perhaps we have relegated our abiding interest in sex-as-quest-for-self-realization to the safer, more dismissable, it’s-just-my-guilty-pleasure realm of entertainment.  Exhibit A: the popularity of Mad Men among the literary set.

In 1993, Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) established The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” – “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.”   Reading through passages from this year’s “Bad Sex Awards” shortlist, along with an all-time bad sex passages list published by Flavorpill, it becomes clear the minefield one braves when crafting a linguistic experience of sex for a contemporary literary reader.   If one were to develop a “Don’ts” list for fiction writers suiting up for the challenge, it might look like this (warning: graphic language to follow):

1. Beware of sensory descriptions which include food analogies – “honeydew breasts” (Styron), “like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (Littell), “the oysterish intricacy of her” (Anthony Quinn), “he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam” (Updike) – or “wet” verbs like smear, suck, lick, slither, slide.

2. Be sparing with anatomical terminology for sexual organs, whether scientific or slang; and if your passage does contain such words, beware of mixing and matching high diction and low diction, i.e. it’s nearly impossible to get away with raunchy lyricism.  (Here I will spare the reader specific examples, but suffice it to say that sex-organ diction, both high and low, is apparently like neon paisley; it doesn’t go with anything.)

3. Avoid spiritual-religious metaphors – “salvation” (Palahniuk), “rapture” (Ayn Rand), “magical composite / weird totem” (Roth), “on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light” (Banville), “my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer” (Theroux) – or any language that gestures toward the grand or the epic: “weeping orifice” (Ann Allestree), “Imperial pint of semen” (Neal Stephenson), “Defile her” (Roth), “like a torero…trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull,” “gravid tremulousness of her breasts” (Banville).

4. Be hyper-vigilant about clichéd metaphors and similes, particularly oceanic ones: “like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks” (Simon Van Booy), “it was as if he were splashing about helplessly on the shore of some great ocean, waiting for a current, or the right swimming stroke to sweep him effortlessly out to sea” (Sanjida O’Connell).

5. Avoid machinistic metaphors: “with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port” (Amos Oz), “I’m going to pull the lever, I’m going to let the blade drop” (Littell), “he enters her like a fucking pile driver” (Nick Cave).

I am here reminded of a word that, throughout grade school, never ceased to elicit mouth-covering giggles: rubber.   We could be talking about the elastic things you shoot across the classroom at your nemesis, or the soles of your shoes, and yet still we couldn’t hold back the laughter.  It was nervous laughter, of course, because at the age of 10, a condom – the danger, excitement, and illicitness that object conjured – was taboo, mysterious, unknown.  We snickered out of anxious, uncomfortable curiosity; and, of course, to be cool.

Is it possible that our fun with “Bad Sex” lists – rooted, I’d argue, in our ambivalence about whether sex on the page, in all its linguistic sensory sloppiness and spiritual-existential achingness, is comedy or bathos or misogyny – reflects (along with our sound aesthetic judgment, of course) a devolving anxiety and discomfort about our core physical sensuality?  Why do we scoff at all things exuberantly, epically sensual?   Are sexual relationships really so blasé, so measured, in our modern lives?  Is this how we now define “mature love,” i.e. as relationships in which an appetite for sex—the force of sex—is considered unevolved or juvenile; in which sex “doesn’t matter,” or, perhaps, shouldn’t matter?

coverWoefully missing from Roiphe’s analysis of sex and the GMNs – the Great Male Novelists of the 1960s – is James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime.   At the end of “The Naked and the Conflicted,” Roiphe exhorts the reader to Be Not Offended by the sexual shenanigans of our literary lions, but rather to behold them with “fondness” – “as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky.”  Such withering nostalgia may apply to the Updike-Mailer-Roth-Bellow quartet, but Salter, to me, a Gen X-er in 2010, is present; alive; not just looking up, but flying.  Here is Webster Schott, from the April 2, 1967, NY Times review of the first edition of A Sport and a Pastime:

Arching gracefully, like a glorious 4th of July rocket, [A Sport and a Pastime] illuminates the dark sky of sex.  It’s a tour de force in erotic realism… a continuous journey of the soul via the flesh.

I do not detail Dean’s and Anne-Marie’s amorous exercises because medical Latin won’t do the job and sex English in isolation sounds stupid and dirty.  This is a direct novel, not a grimy one.  Salter celebrates the rites of erotic innovation and understands their literary uses.  He creates a small, flaming world of sensualism inhabited by Dean and Anne-Marie, and invaded by the imagination of the narrator.  We enter it.  We feel it.  It has the force of a hundred repressed fantasies.  And it carries purpose: Salter details lust in search of its passage into love.

Schott’s words echo those of Mailer in “The Prisoner of Sex,” which Roiphe quotes:

Lust…dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas – whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom – yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love. [emphasis mine]

Sensualism that carries purpose; lust in a liminal state, an actively searching journey, a “passage,” toward love.  Direct, not grimy.  Schott sheds light on the elusive threshold between the pornographically insipid and the sensually sublime.  For Salter (for Dean and Anne-Marie), sex matters; God, does it matter.  Sex is beautiful and potent, and it changes us, one way or another. “To live without it is to be less than alive,” Schott ruminates, like a man inclining his ear toward a faint, inescapable echo.  “And to live for sex alone is to be less than human.”  You know it when you see it, the saying goes – regarding porn, regarding gratuitous and/or “unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant” sexual material; but so too are there narrative, aesthetic, emotional markers.  The first time I read A Sport and a Pastime, just two years ago, I knew I’d experienced something unusual, alive, difficult in its directness; not something to look upon “fondly,” but a story that, like all great art, connected me more deeply and truthfully to my whole human self – sans irony or “cool.”

There is no “about” in Salter’s feverish reality-dream, dancing or otherwise, no distanced atomization of the physicality of sex, the intimacy of physicality.  The nakedness of these characters is soul-deep, and the novel demands no less of its reader; the “new narcissism,” per Roiphe –“boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of ‘I was warm and wanted her to be warm,’ or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world” – won’t do here.  Reynolds Price wrote in a 2006 introduction: “…Salter means us to feel…the vivid and literally palpable reality of Philip Dean and Anne-Marie Costallat, to feel it through a growing awareness of the simple splendor of their physical bodies when joined in many forms of intercourse…” Are Dean and Anne-Marie’s “amorous exercises” raunchy, violent, aberrant, empty, farcical, magical, loving, religious, lyrical, beautiful?  I can’t answer that for you; and herein lies the novel’s profound meaning: that it will require courage – maybe even epic courage – for you to answer for yourself.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. Thank you! This is the commentary I’ve been looking for since Roiphe’s essay. I’ve mulled over the essay for 10 days. And one reoccurring thought, where are the examples of good contemporary writing about sex.

  2. My vote for best description of sex in a novel–and one that does not break any of the rules above–is Mary McCarthy’s infamous Chapter 2 in the novel The Group. The novel was legendary and scandalous in its day (my high school French teacher raised her eyebrow in a knowing way when she found me reading it) and the book, (the famous sex scene, especially) is still a model of clean, sharp prose.

    Thanks for this, Sonya–a good read.

  3. I wrote THE book on how to write about sex in literary fiction, THE JOY OF WRITING SEX: A GUIDE FOR FICTION WRITERS, which first came out in 1996. In it, I named James Salter as my favorite writer of sex scenes. The updated book (you see, sex changed around 2000, on account of Monica Lewinsky and the Internet) includes 45 brief passages of pretty good to pretty terrific sex scenes, and what it takes to read and write a sex scene, though there are no E-Z steps.

    CHeck it the website and scroll down to WHAT TO READ THIS FALL & there it is.

    I’m so glad someone called out Katie Rophie on her failure to mention Salter — and nearly everyone else on the planet.

  4. I have to admit that I had a giggle or two reading this article. Some of the examples are truly awful.

    What I took away from this reading is what I have always believed and what I think is the subtext here: Best to leave writing about sex to the women writers. Women *more typically* approach sex as an emotional experience more so than strictly physical, whereas men *more typically* take the opposite approach; women writers understand this more intuitively than do most male authors and it shows in their writing. Perhaps there are some, but I truly can’t recall a love scene/sex scene written by a man that didn’t make me want to hurl the book across the room because of its artificiality. Most involve a few paragraphs of hyperbole and panting and…it’s over. Unmemorably.

    I’d love to see a mirror-image artlce on how women write about sex. Methinks you’d see more “exuberance,” “mystery,” “power,” “beauty,” “imaginative quest,” “epic,” “celebration,” “charisma,” and “immortality” in the examples ….But that’s just my opinion.

  5. While I can’t endorse Marianna’s post 100%, I will say I think Gordimer writes some of the best scenes out there.

  6. Not sure if I loved it or hated it, but Doctorow’s writing in Billy Bathgate–when they do it in the marsh–was interesting, grotesque, and well, sort-of hot.

  7. Great suggestions, all — Gordimer, McCarthy, Doctorow — I’ll look forward to these.

    It seems likely that men and women approach the writing of sex differently, but I myself would be wary of generalizing too much about that.

    There’s a lyrical sexual passage from Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS that I think is quite beautiful. Hemingway doesn’t do lyrical all that often, but when he does, it can be spectacular.

  8. I feel lucky to have found this post and all of the wonderful suggestions/author references. I have just started writing a sex scene on my second novel and don’t want to end up as an honorable mention in a future “Bad Sex in Fiction Award,” or worse, a winner.

    I love research!

  9. Thanks for this wonderful essay. Exactly right — inspired — to point to Salter’s neglected “Sport” as a luminous counter-example. Reading it for the first time it in my late 20s felt like rediscovering sex itself. You might consider Alan Hollinghurst’s novels, beginning with “A Swimming Pool Library,” for future praise.

  10. Hemingway, in his short story, “Fathers and Sons,” has a sweet, nostalgic passage about a teenager’s first sexual experience. He uses more adverbs—” uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended…”—more adverbs than I’ve seen in whole novels of his. Gertrude Stein reportedly advised him to “avoid dirtiness,” and, even though Hemingway’s work is all about sex, I must say I find his prose more moving than Mailer’s. I’m all over the Salter rec; thanks for this “provocative” topic!

  11. I wonder why all the focus is on male writers? We now live in 2010. There’s an abundance of female writers writing about sex. Are they misanthropic, or silly, or stupid. The original article struck me as a bit smarmy at first. I disagree with many of the “don’t”s of sex writing, in particularly the use of words for organs. It is a handicap of our culture that no word feels right for the most ubiquitous ‘objects’ in the sex act, not a deficiency in language. I would like to read writers freely using these words to liberate them from their crude or laboratory connotations.

  12. Thanks so much for your wonderful, thoughtful post. Also, thanks for your accolades for Salter (one of the most under-rated American writers) and for that great list of how not to write sex scenes (which should be distributed on day one in every MFA program).

    I agree, Roiphe’s article provides so many things to think about—some that she addresses directly and others that easily extend from her essay (e.g., it’s too bad she didn’t spread her wings a bit and discuss the writers who are exploring sex in interesting ways–they exist).

    Although she writes compelling stuff, my main problem with her essay is her notion of literary legacy. She selects a few contemporary, well-regarded authors—all white, male, and straight—and designates them as heirs to Updike, Roth, Mailer, etc. simply because they’re white, male, straight, and critically esteemed. This is where her comparison (and that god awful graphic that accompanied her article) is flawed.

    Roiphe’s essay implies that as heirs, authors like Eggers, Chabon, and Franzen should pick up the mantle of Mailer, etc., and vigorously and provocatively write about sex in the same vein. I’d doubt that any of these writers sees themselves as heirs in this sense. In fact, it would be interesting to ask any of them if they’re writing in the tradition of Updike, Roth, and Mailer—simply because of their racial and sexual orientation.

    Is one, for example, a literary heir by such limited criteria. What if the main authors who influenced them were James Baldwin or Marguerite Duras or Kenzaburo Oe or Milan Kundera? Why should they have to write in the confines of Roiphe’s comparison? (e.g., I’m of a similar generation and ilk of of the Eggers/Chabon crowd, and I’ve never read Roth or Mailer and haven’t read Updike since high school. Literary heirs? Not.)

    So, instead of critiquing their writing about sex, perhaps she could have designated them heirs of Hemingway and critiqued their war coverage. That doesn’t seem to be the subject of any of these young novelists. Does that mean they’re lacking? I don’t think any of them write road novels like Jack Kerouac either, or alcoholic trailer park stories like Raymond Carver come to think of it. Gosh, so much literary legacy for a young man to live up to.

    Do you see what I mean—in the end, Roiphe’s comparison criteria is without logic. Beyond the fact that genetics and sexual orientation shouldn’t define literary legacy these days, her essay begs the question, what young, male, straight authors did she leave out? Why should Eggers, Chabon, Franzen, etc. be carrying a baton handed off by Mailer and company?

    Roiphe’s essay ends up being similar to a playground taunt. She’s taken the macho high ground and is essentially teasing Eggers, Chabon, and Franzen for their sexual inadequacy.

    I’m happy for the reconsideration and celebration of writing that was deemed politically incorrect, but Roiphe should take her thought a step farther.

    I wrote more in my blog post on the subject:

  13. Jeff and Grant, thanks for raising great questions.

    As some others have commented here, it would indeed be interesting to look at sex in literature through the lens of some strong female writers — Gordimer and McCarthy have been suggested. I thought of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty when I was writing this, although her characters’ attitudes towards sex confirm Roiphe’s argument in a way: the older woman character finds her husband’s “adventuring” sexual conquest as silly and adolescent, his whole identity crisis is portrayed as farcical (though not without some authorial sympathy); so there is a feeling that Smith too is offering a “too cool for sex” (or for a specific kind of sexual attitude, anyway) perspective of a younger generation.

    Grant, your point is well-taken. It’s awfully confining to “taunt” the younger generation male writers in this way, to put them in the literary-heir box. (I experience this racially, i.e. I would not want my work to be compared for all eternity to Amy Tan; on the other hand, I recognize this is somewhat inevitable.) But I wouldn’t say she’s too far off in naming Roth, Updike, Bellow, Mailer and then Eggers, Wallace, Kunkel, Safran Foer, Chabon, et alia as generationally “representative” — for better or for worse. You could certainly argue that “representative” is a ridiculous category to begin with, in which case you’re right, the fundamentals of the article are flawed. But to me the writers she lists are elephants in the room when we talk about generational representation, so I think we might as well talk about them in that way. Certainly we can talk about them in more complex, nuanced ways — and we can bring in others, as I’ve tried to do with Mr. Salter. So thanks for that exhortation (to Roiphe, to all of us).

  14. I first heard of Salter via John Irving, of all people. The protagonist of A Son of the Circus sneaks a peek at a copy of A Sport and a Pastime after seeing his wife reading it. It may be time for a re-read…

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