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State of the (Literary/Sexual) Union

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 6, September/October 2013
pp. 4-18 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0113

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Recently, there have been a rash of literary writers extoling the difficulty of writing sex. Julia Fierro’s “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer” (2013), published in The Millions, states, “this fear of writing about sex is tied to the fear of sentimentality that takes root in a writer’s formative years. Writing instructors chastise writers in class…when the writer risks sentiment, which a naïve writer might mistake for emotion.” She further notes that the writers most praised in literary circles for their sexual depictions tend to be those who write with “a distance,” using models like James Salter’s at-the-time groundbreaking A Sport and a Pastime (1967), which, like the early novels of Updike and Roth, contributed to a sexual revolution in American literature. If that movement initially consisted mostly of male writers (with commercial women writers like Erica Jong perpetually being left out on the critical stoop, even as the masses devoured her and internalized her battle cry for women writers to define their own sexuality), it also paved the way for the next generation’s writers, including the editor of this ABR focus, Cris Mazza, as well as those who found more mainstream success like Mary Gaitskill. By 1988, Gaitskill had been branded as “the poetess of wounded eroticism” for her collection Bad Behavior, and her work appeared frequently in the New Yorker in the 1990s, perhaps heralding a new acceptance for literary women writers who were exploring sexual terrain. By the 1990s, sex was no longer the domain of bodice rippers or popular “hacks”—explicit writing had broken through the glass ceilings of academia and the New York Times Book Review alike.

Sex may have found its way onto the mainstream bookshelves by the 1990s, when even Vogue was openly discussing “perversion chic” in contemporary literature—but among literary writers, sentimentality was still Enemy Number One. To that end, there has always been a particular delight in watching other writers fail on the sexual stage with purple, corny, clichéd, or sentimental prose. The Guardian infamously lacerates those who try and blunder erotically in their Bad Sex Award (Salon has tried to retaliate with the Good Sex Awards, launched in 2011). There are shoulders of many giants to stand on these days for a budding sexual writer, but when you fall, it seems to inspire a delicious glee among critics and colleagues. No magazines are queuing up to nominate writers for the Bad Family Dinner Scene Award or the Worst Scenic Description Of A Cornfield.

I think of the Bush era as a kind of Dark Ages of publishing, sexual writing being one of the prime—if many—sacrifices on the table to a bad economy and a climate of post-9/11 fear that seemed to call, according to corporate publishing’s marketing departments at least, for the eradication of anything dark, ambiguous, challenging, or subversive in mainstream fiction. This created a strange dichotomy in the industry, it seemed. Graphic sexual content had long been a matter of course in genre fiction, where sentimentality and cliché may be lucrative rather than shunned. But in literary fiction, at least, sexually explicit writing had become almost synonymous with “edgy” writing by the ’90s. Common wisdom bore that good, “normal” sex often didn’t bear writing about—that, as Janet Burroway writes in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (2006), “in fiction, only trouble is interesting.” If you were going to write about sex, it had better be weird, disconcerting, unexpected, shocking. The 1990s—in both books and films—were riddled with those living on the edge, engaging in excess, self-destruction, exploitation. From Acker to Tarantino, “sexual outlaws” were all the rage…but come 2001, the entertainment industry, from high to low, seemed to undergo a cultural make-over. Inspirational war movies and gender-role-affirming romantic comedies flourished in cinema. And in publishing, the chick-lit phenomenon that had started in the late 1990s with the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) became epidemic, paving the way for a middle ground of “women’s fiction”—a kind of hybrid between literary fiction (by writers of either gender) and...



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