On Sunday Katie Roiphe published a big essay (and pink charts) labeling this generation of male novelists "too cool for sex." Author Steve Almond replies in a piece first published on The Rumpus, one of our favorite literary sites.

Katie Roiphe’s Big Cock Block

So some of you may have seen Katie Roiphe's long and sometimes-sharp-and-other-times-kind-of-annoying piece in the New York Times Book Review about literary S-E-X. You can read the blow by blow here.

Here's the money shot:

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, in short, too cool for sex …. for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life. These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced.

Whew.

The whole "generational" gambit upon which this critique rests is pretty lazy and despicable. And I'm pretty sure Katie Roiphe shouldn't be making sweeping assessments of college girlfriends she's never met. But I basically agree with her.

I've complained, with some regularity, about the dearth of sexually explicit material in the work of my contemporaries. It strikes me as a peculiarly Obamaish tendency, by which I mean full of rhetoric that promises the goods and proves utterly chickenshit at crunch time.

Like many of you, I'm tired of reading novels and stories in which two or more central characters get naked and all we get is the morning-after orange juice. It strikes me as a huge missed opportunity, because people (and therefore characters) are never more themselves than when they're exposed to the ecstasies and humiliations of what we in the biz call the nasté.

So for smacking that one on the kisser, Katie Roiphe, I award you one chocolate kiss.

The problem is that I don't think Katie Roiphe really cares about this stuff. I don't think she wrote the piece because she was concerned about the degree to which our most prominent literary voices tell the truth about sex.

Katie Roiphe’s Big Cock Block

I think she wrote the piece because she liked the idea of having a big, long "provocative" think piece in the NYTBR, one lots of people would argue about. I don't blame her for that. If I had my shit more together, I'd probably aim for the same brass ring of neediness.

But there are problems.

The first and most basic one is: why the hell is she just talking about hetero white men? I'm not sure what feminist nomenclature Katie Roiphe would assign herself, but I can't fathom why she would choose to "assign primacy" to The Man.

As a hetero white man (okay, Jewish, with an occasional trannie impulse, but still), I hereby empower the Katie Roiphes of the world to stop writing about us as the dominant literary/cultural faction. Instead, you can lump us in with all those females and people of color and homosexuals and female homosexuals of color, who also write great books, many of them with great sex scenes. Such as, uh, Mary Gordon and Michael Lowenthal and Junot Diaz and Alicia Erian and Mary Gaitskill and…

Really, we can handle it.

But even beyond that, I wish Katie Roiphe didn't misrepresent the writers she does cite so flagrantly. I get that she's "a cultural critic" writing a big think piece – a little convenient slander comes with the territory. But dude, have you ever read "Big Red Son," David Foster Wallace's astonishingly frank disquisition on the adult film industry? Yeah, it's non-fiction. But it's pretty definitive proof that Foster Wallace wasn't afraid to write about sex. He just did so on his own terms – not those of John Updike or Phillip Roth.

As for Dave Eggers, you want to say he doesn't write about sex, fine. But to call the guy an ironist – I mean come on. That angle is so, like, 2003. Read the guy's last three books (two of which are novels). Not a lick of irony. Roiphe has confused a differing agenda with an emotional posture.

What's stranger to me is that she never thinks to ask the basic question: why? Why are these white boy writers she's handpicked for their erotic timidity not flogging the joy knob the like the white boy writers of yore?

Actually, that's not fair. She does have a theory. It has to do with their castrating collegiate girlfriends, who have them pussywhipped.

Right.

Katie Roiphe’s Big Cock BlockBut wouldn't a cultural critic writing a think piece for the NYTBR want to consider something a little less, uh, conjectural. Such as the role of sex itself in the culture at large? Might it be worth observing that, in the days of Updike and Roth, a certain brand of sexual candor still felt taboo, whereas today lesbian bondage and interracial blowjobs are pretty much a standard marketing tool for most Fortune 500 companies?

Roiphe – who has spent her career writing about sexual mores, as far as I can tell – seems unable, or unwilling, to entertain the notion that certain writers may be reacting to the broader pornofication of our discourse, the ubiquitous vulgarity, the way in which sex is immediately received as a public pitch, not a private activity.

We need look no further than the parade of best-selling memoirs in which former frat boys discuss beer and its formative role in the promotion of their ejaculate as evidence of this dark tendency. Why make good porn, when there's so much bad porn already out there?

Now then.

I don't want to leave the impression that I'm not grateful to Katie Roiphe.

I happen to believe that literature would be a happier and more honest place if writers were braver about sex. But I can also pretty much promise you that writing about sex as it actually exists – as a complex and dangerous emotional experience – will not help your literary career.

Or you can do me one better and ask Stephen Elliott. He's been writing about sex for years. It's searing material that deserves to be widely read, particularly in light of how neurotic and unforgiving we've become, as a nation, about the compulsions of our bodies.

But you see, part of the reason Katie Roiphe can point to Eggers and Foster Wallace as "acclaimed" is precisely because they keep it above the waist. For the most part they keep it above the neck, and that makes the critics – who tend to be bigger prudes than anyone – happy.

Yes, we're in the presence of another Big Irony. It's not really those big bad feminists who've made male writers cock shy. It's nasty little critics. Imagine.

Exercising a restraint so formidable you will have to imagine the throbbing veins in my neck, I will cite but one example from my own non-illustrious career. This would be the critic who saw fit to condemn my first story collection in part because the title story was, she claimed, based on a physiological implausibility: that a woman could ejaculate.

It is so awesome to have one's work taken so seriously.

Does this all sound like sour grapes? I sure hope not. I'm glad Katie Roiphe wrote about how (famous white male hetero) writers of "my generation" don't write enough about sex. I just think her reasoning is pretty silly.

Still, I hope her readers, once they finish arguing, will head out and buy these books, which are (I promise) full of sex and equally full of heart:

My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up by Stephen Elliott

A Sport and a Past Time by James Salter

Spending Mary Gordon

The Good Mother by Sue Miller

The Royal Physician's Visit by Per Olov Enquist

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction by Karl Iagnemma

The Song of Songs by God

***

Top photo by PracticalOwl.

Steve Almond is the author of five books and thousands of bad poems. The books are here. If you want to see him and Sean Hannity man-flirting, click here.