Of Old Lions and Emo Boys
It's interesting how your view of life can sometimes change quite suddenly. It's as though you've been taking a cross-country journey — an old-fashioned sort of journey, by train, let's say — and for a long time the landscape does not seem to change much at all. There are endless variations on a certain set of themes — here a stand of scrubby pines, there the back side of a warehouse — and after a while your attention kind of wanders. Then all at once (what happened? did you doze off for half an hour?) you look outside and the whole world is different. There's a great empty plain out there, maybe, or a dizzying mountainside. For a long moment you feel lost, discombobulated. But then you figure, okay, of course, the train is moving, we've come to a new place, I knew this would happen. Still, that feeling of surprise, of disorientation, lingers.
I had one of those moments this week while reading a terrific essay in The New York Times by Katie Roiphe, an NYU prof who teaches something called Cultural Reporting and Criticism. Under the provocative title "The Naked and the Conflicted - Sex and the American Male Novelist," Roiphe offers a rousing recollection of the literary lions of my youth — Updike, Roth, Mailer and company — then, by way of comparison, stands them up against their heirs apparent, a younger generation of novelists including David Foster Wallace, Dave Egger, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon. Which is to say, writers whose work, for the most part, I have not read.
For me — having come of age, literarily speaking, reading Updike et alia in magazines like Harper's, The New Yorker, even Playboy (great fiction was everywhere in those days) — this new perspective is startling.
Roiphe's particular interest, as she gazes back at the old lions, is in what she calls their "dirty passages." She quotes generously — and yes, it is kind of amazing how graphic, and yet also how artistic, how exhilarating — those passages were: somehow raw and refined at once, like those strangely colored gourmet salts on the spice shelf. Did we actually read that stuff? Did we admire it? Were we scandalized, titillated, amused, unsettled? As I recall, the answer is yes to all those things. Roiphe reminds us of that and reminds us of why. A mighty achievement, in itself.
But then things go all wonky. Enter the new generation of male novelists: a coterie of writers who, as Roiphe sees it, "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."
Roiphe lays it on with a trowel. For these younger writers, she says, "Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life." She offers a few quotes to make her point, and speaking as one unfamiliar with the body of work in question, I can report that a little goes a long way.
Commenting on Roiphe's essay, Times columnist Ross Douthat (a young conservative whose own work I find usually wrong-headed but always readable) notes dryly: "I’m a bit disappointed that the phrase “emo boy” didn’t find its way into Roiphe’s putdown."
Emo boy — a neologism I have found especially useful in teaching high school English — certainly seems to be what Roiphe is driving at. What else can one say about someone like David Foster Wallace who, quoting a friend, dismisses John Updike as "just a penis with a thesaurus"? I can't help chuckling. I also can't help wanting to slap the man silly.
The whole essay is a great, rousing read. Though I do have a couple of quibbles.
One is the omission of Vladimir Nabokov — admittedly not a member of the Roth/Mailer/Updike circle, yet nonetheless an American writer of the same period whose work, particularly the novels Ada and Lolita, still has the power to shock. And also to delight. (And whose thesaurus is thicker than Updike's.)
Another is the phenomenon of gay fiction, in the face of which Roiphe's grand paradigm rather falls apart. There has been, from what I can tell, no comparable generation-shift among gay male novelists, who came rather late to the party — Larry Kramer's landmark novel Faggots appeared nearly two decades after Rabbit, Run — and who continue to write with Maileresque virility. In fact if one uses the term "gay" as my teenage son and his friends do — to mean something like "feeble, pathetic, unmanly" — then one could almost say that David Foster Wallace is a gay writer but Edmund White is certainly not.
Myself, I was always more of a Cheever man.