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?
Woefully 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.
In which the author spits into the ocean of hype over the new season of AMC’s Mad Men and emerges with a wholly original conclusion: the show is darn good.
It’s all around us; it’s everywhere we go; it’s everything we do. It’s Mad Men. At the coffee shop: “I’ll have a grande iced Mad Men with whole Mad Men please.” “You want that Mad Men?” “No thanks, I’ll add my own Mad Men.”
On the phone with the wife: “Can you take Mad Men to Mad Men practice at half past Mad Men this afternoon, honey?” “Well, I’ve got a Mad Men with the boss but it shouldn’t take more than a few Mad Men.” “Oh good, Mad Men will be so pleased.”
At the track: “I’ll take Mad Men to win in the fifth.” “Geez, buddy, that’s 50-1. You got some brass Mad Men, I’ll give you that.”
I Mad Men, er, watched the season premiere of Mad Men Sunday night. Had to travel to Brooklyn to do it. I invited myself over to my friend’s place and commandeered his cable TV. While I watched the premiere, he put on headphones and cozied up to a dvd on his computer – Mad Men. He’s still working his way through the season two dvd set, which is quite possibly (and on a meta level quite appropriately) the single most flogged product in the history of consumer culture going back at least to Slinky.
So much has been written about Mad Men that it’s hard to contribute anything really insightful to the raft of commentary. The show experienced a tipping point moment this summer in the run-up to the new season, resulting in a bumper crop of features and roundups that choked the pages of most if not all of the publications that I read regularly.
For the uninitiated, those who summer in relative isolation – on the international space station perhaps, or in Siberia – Mad Men is about the goings on at an advertising firm in Manhattan in the early 60s. John Hamm plays dapper Don Draper, head of the creative department and the maddest Mad Man on planet Mad Men. Well, he’s not mad exactly, rarely angry and definitely not insane, but he suffers from a certain existential ennui. Draper’s consummate insight into the psychology of the American consumer makes him something like the man behind the curtain (duh, drapes) which is an apt metaphor since the life of this successful family man is steeped in secrets and mystery.
An episode of Mad Men contains requisite amounts of Draper being Draper: drinking, smoking, womanizing, looking good, and wowing his cohorts and clients with invariably spot-on ad ideas. Draper is big when the toadies at the firm act small, and if he doesn’t always do right by his wife, Betty (January Jones), his sins seem to be motivated more by a search for meaning in experience than by appetites alone. Draper without a double life just wouldn’t be Draper. After all, so we love the sinner. When he says “I don’t know, I, uh, go to a lot of places and I keep ending up someplace I’ve already been” to an attractive blond airline stewardess before she strips for him in his hotel room, we shiver with pleasure since we alone have a window into his inner life.
Secrets are at the heart of Mad Men. All of the principle characters harbor them. Sometimes they come out, and sometimes not. In keeping with this air of obfuscation, the writers have crafted a style of dialogue that is suitably obtuse, and occasionally impenetrable. I think part of the show’s popularity has to do with the fact that it demands such scrutiny if the viewer is going to pick up on all the nuances.
Another key ingredient was touched on in the Wall Street Journal’s profile of the mostly female writing team that crafts these nuanced story lines. The tug of war between the male and female characters gives the show its core conflict. The show’s architects have a keen command of symmetry in their approach to the interplay of sex and gender. Just when you’re used to the back-slapping old boy’s atmosphere at the Sterling Cooper offices, the writers flip the script, and the boys are upstaged by the industrious high-climbing copywriter, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), or the irrepressible bombshell office manager, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).
Which brings me to my final point about Mad Men. Its early 60s setting proves to be incredibly fertile ground for these conflicts to be played out. Bees in the Sterling Cooper beehive don’t always recognize the changes that are taking place around them, though these are the forces that they are constantly trying to harness in their quest to sell things to people. I loved in season two when Draper and co. pitch an idea to a seller of ladies’ undergarments. The essence of the idea is that there are two kinds of women: you’re either a Marilyn or a Jackie O. The execs at the company are impressed, but they pass on the idea. Then Marilyn dies and, while the secretaries weep over the tragedy, the Mad Men quietly breathe a sigh of relief that the campaign died, too. Something tells me the other shoe will have to drop as the calendar turns over and season three gets going.
The one person who can usually parse the cultural forces and discern which way the wind is blowing without the help of a weatherman is Don Draper. One reason I believe Draper is so conflicted himself is that he recognizes how topsy-turvy American life is becoming. Values are evolving. Kids are growing up. There are major changes in the air, changes he can smell like ozone at the leading edge of a fast-moving front that promises to drop a deluge on the American cultural landscape. It’s easy for us to imagine that deluge, to see ourselves frolicking in the mud of Woodstock, say. But every deluge is predicated by that moment where the barometer drops, the wind picks up, lightening flashes, and purple clouds descend. Something big is coming.