Writers’ Block

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Like some lazy people, I buy books based on their blurbs. Stupid, I know. Those little quotes of praise on a book jacket are often given as favors to editors, not out of genuine enthusiasm for a book. But how could I resist Maile Meloy’s novel, Liars and Saints? First, great title. Second, she’s around my age, so I’m curious to know how much I, as a writer, suck in comparison to her. And because I’m struggling masochistically with my second book, I figured, why not bring on the pain of someone who seems to be spitting them out at the rate of one a year? But when I flipped to the back and saw the eighty-seven-word blurb from Philip Roth himself, I muttered “sold” to no one in particular and bought the thing.


    Roth’s endorsement provoked a few personal reactions. The first was abject jealousy. The second was a feeling of confidence that I was finally bringing home a well-written dirty book, one that wasn’t covered in fuchsia or decorated with a high heel, martini glass or shopping bag. Since the flap copy hinted at “sex and longing” that lay at the heart of “family relationships,” I was counting on a literary Flowers in the Attic. Instead, I got this:

    “‘We have to be quick,’ she whispered. Then her hands were in his pants, too, and her pants were down, and she had hopped her bare ass up on the edge of the sink and wrapped her legs around him. Jamie, who was only a sophomore, had never expected anything like this.”

But I did! I totally expected this! People having sex! Yes! But what happens next is the novel’s equivalent of fade to black, when actors dive under silky sheets and the show goes to commercial:

    “After that,” she writes [ital. mine], “they were always together.”

    Okay, we know that they did it. That is obvious. Perhaps that was enough for Meloy. I will leave the rest to the readers’ imagination, she thinks. If people can’t make out what happens next, it’s not my problem. But by bringing a reader to that lascivious brink, then leaving him there, Meloy suggests it’s not the reader’s imagination that’s lacking.
     Still, on page 148, the author has a chance to redeem herself when a nubile teenager willingly gets into bed with her sexy cousin:

    “Then he held the covers aside for her, and she slipped in beside him. It was the easiest thing in the world, and felt the most right, though her heart was pounding as he pulled her close.”

    This cuts to:

    “In the morning, they woke to a knock at the door.”

    Son of a bitch, she did it again! She shut off the lights at the first glimpse of nipple, the first glint of pubic hair, the first urgent clutch!
    And it’s not just Meloy who shies away from writing about sex wholeheartedly, honestly, unflinchingly. It seems that nearly every writer under forty is scared to write about fucking. You’d think none of us are getting any.

And maybe we aren’t. Maybe that explains why Dave Eggers, the supposed voice of Gens X, Y and Z, writes so elegantly about longing amongst his high school set. (Not outright sex. After all, this is the guy who wrote a 5,000-word essay titled Never Fucked Anyone, about his inability to use that word as a verb, and most recently, on McSweeney’s, a faux-lusty sex scene that ends with a woman musing about whales.) In Eggers’ first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, there is a drop-dead beautiful scene in which the protagonist, Will, recalls the sweaty pull of slow-dancing in high school gymnasiums:

    “You will never know heaving like that again so soak in that heave. Put that heave in the small Velcro pocket in the parachute pants of your soul. Hope she won’t ask you if you have a pen in your pocket while knowing it’s not a pencil — devouring and searching, her eyes like marbles in my mouth — lips resting softly atop mine, and so I closed my lids too and went further into her.”

     They kiss and grope, and yes, it’s lovely. But the characters are young, practically children. Later in the novel, an adult Will meets a French woman named Annette. Soon after, Will, his friend Hand and Annette are nearly naked in moonlit water. Will fantasizes about diving under, imagining he could “grab her legs. I could bury my face between her legs.” But he doesn’t. Still later, while in Eastern Europe, Will meets a hooker with whom he has no sexual chemistry. He accompanies her home out of curiosity. Upon her instruction, he takes off his shirt. Upon her instruction, he lies down. And . . .

     “Are you warmer now?’ she whispered into my neck.
     “Yes,” I said. I was so warm.
     “Just lie here,” she said.
     And we did.

    Cut to morning. Will’s friend Hand prods him for details:

     “You get naked?”
     I nodded.
     “You use something?”
     “We didn’t have sex.”

Of course you didn’t. Because that would be wrong!

Look, I love reading chaste, spare accounts of man’s internal struggle. I enjoy psychological, familial and cultural conundrums. I crave learning about other lands and languages. But it seems that every young author is content to wander this spare literary landscape, all head, heart and soul, a sexless ethereal being unencumbered by the mess of a corporeal body.
     Take last year’s Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss, which is blurbed by A.M. Homes, who is known for writing about dirty, twisted stuff. Yet the sex in this book is so peripheral you’d think its hero, an amnesiac torn between two women, has also forgotten how his penis works. Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is funny and ribald, but it isn’t what I’d call a dirty book: its protagonist is embarrassed about his sexual prowess, berates his body and doubts his ability to please a woman. That can make for hilarious and poignant reading, but it doesn’t arouse.
    Likewise, in this year’s buzzed-up novel The Quality of Life Report, the young, empathetic memoirist Meghan Daum strenuously avoids writing about sex. (Though having read her wry essay about internet love gone bad, I got the feeling that Daum is one writer who really isn’t getting any.) In the book, Daum’s heroine, Lucinda, improbably falls for a small-town bad boy. Mason is a meth-using, jeans-wearing cowboy loner, a fascinating scoundrel whose primary appeal to the uptown Lucinda should be his talents in the sack, no? But he’s neutered right from from the start:

    “You should come up to the cabin,” Mason said. “…You’d love it.”
    “Spend the night?” I said, trying to sound as incredulous as possible.
    “I don’t mean it that way!” he said.

    Riii-iiight. Mountain Man just wants to spoon. And of course, you get the impression that’s all they did. A few pages later, with zero seduction, coitus or saliva, Lucinda announces she’s “romantically involved” with Mason. They embark on a long, drawn-out relationship, which includes a lot of sniping, bitching, and inhaling, but not one iota of sex. Heavy meth use kills the libido, true, but couldn’t Daum have made something up? It’s fiction!
    Then there are promises unfulfilled. Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything Is Illuminated, which was blurbed by the prolific and randy Joyce Carol Oates, contains several sex scenes, but the acts are often otherworldly or downright yucky: women are raped and people fuck each other through holes. Rick Marin’s Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor, was aggressively marketed as one man’s account of excellent sex with a “bender of beauties,” but it’s shockingly devoid of sex appeal. As Marin ogles, swaggers and beds a ton of “stupid women” (his description), you’re left with a feeling of overwhelming ickiness.
     The only people who seem to be getting any — and writing about it — are former addicts and the people who love them. But Augusten Burroughs, James Frey and Ian Spiegleman don’t write about hot vanilla sex: it’s all screwing, dry-humping, tweaking, slapping and biting. Generally, those scenes are evocative and well-written, but does honest, explicit sex only happen when you’re completely fucked up?
    (Sadly, sometimes, yes. That’s why junkie fiction sells: we relate to it. But that’s another conversation.)

I find that good sex tends to sneak up on you, like the unpresuming geek whose company you enjoyed but never gave much thought to, so you never noticed how he calibrated the drinks so expertly that, on the third date, you found yourself shoved up against the wall, awestruck, staring down at the top of his slightly balding head, thinking, Jesus, how the hell did he get me in this position?
    Adam Haslett did that to me in You Are Not a Stranger Here, an otherwise lyrical collection of short stories that saves a raw, detailed loss-of-virginity scene for last. Similarly, Tim O’Brien manages to sneak in a few gems among the overwrought concerns of his characters, who are preoccupied by dreams and war. I wasn’t disappointed with the sex scenes in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: after Chip screws a young co-ed on an ottoman, I cringed as he bent to smell the stain. And Aimee Bender hasn’t been McSweeneyfied yet.

Maybe it’s not the writers who aren’t getting any. Maybe it’s the publicists.

    But most of the best literary sex writers — not to be confused with erotica writers — are unknowns. Many of them are Canadian. All of them are without the benefit of a big contract or a New Yorker debut. Lisa Moore’s Open is a beautiful book in which real people have graphic sex in awkward places, with adult consequences. Jonathan Goldstein’s Lenny Bruce is Dead is seriously literary, horny and hilarious. The protagonist, Josh, has sex constantly with a bunch of barefoot scraggly nymphs, girls whose asses he has “creamed;” girls who make him want to throw himself “into an open grave;” girls with butts “full of personality.” He wants one so desperately that he vows:

    “I would have sex with you even if you were sixty. I would do it if you were eighty. Even if you were twelve. I would have sex with you even if you had a penis. I would let you shove it in me. I would yelp. I would stare at the wall and yelp. ”

    Tamara Faith Berger’s filthy book, Lie With Me, caused a craze in Canada a few years ago with her raw, visceral, totally hot portrayal of one true slut:

    “His cock was a hose, all coiled and bulging. I wanted to hold it forever. But my cunt was breathing like a small animal, begging me to do something.”

    But the best recent one-handed sex scene can be found in Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, a young Tasmanian. It’s an award-winning, international bestseller, one I venture to guess you’ve never heard of. Why? Here’s the jacket copy:

    Once upon a time, when the earth was still young, William Buelow Gould was sentenced to life imprisonment at the most feared penal colony in the British Empire, and ordered to paint a book of fish.

    Would you pick it up? I did, because I was looking for something dense and distracting. I got that and then some, including this on page 275:

    “I rolled the ball of her head in the palm of my hands, held the short curly shanks of her hair in my fingers & pulled her head back with them knotted so, so hard I worried I might be hurting her, yet the harder I held her head, the more her insistent rump seemed to respond in rising & falling pleasure, pushing & demanding more & more . . . the more I stared into her face, the more I knew it had nothing to do with her face or my own empty, barren conceits of what beauty was & and where I foolishly supposed it resided . . . “

    I’ll stop there, but this turns out to be the kind of sex that shipwrecks our protagonist forever; it’s the kind of sex that leaves the reader breathless and aware that we’re adults, our body grown and necessary, that we can do miracles with them and each other. Yet Flanagan’s publisher decided that the cover should trumpet his literary accolades. That’s why you’d never pick it up.
     On second thought, maybe it’s not just the authors who aren’t getting any. Maybe it’s the publicists.

I recently had lunch with Candace Bushnell, a woman whose name has become synonymous with sex, though God knows why. She’s a funny, earthy lady: approachable and forthcoming. I like her writing a lot. And though she might be (barely) from a different generation than the writers I’ve mentioned, she turned positively demure when I asked her why she doesn’t write sex scenes. (Seriously, check for yourself. She doesn’t.)
    “I don’t write sex scenes because, frankly, I just don’t think I’m really good at them.” Reaching for a cigarette, she added, “You know, I am bawdy, and I love what they’ve done with the TV show, but there’s just this part of me that holds sex sacred and private.”

David Sedaris never fucked anyone. Zadie Smith never fucked anyone. Sarah Vowell never fucked anyone. And I never fucked anyone either.

    I clinked my third Bloody Mary with her second, but part of me wanted to slap her taut face. Part of me wanted to take a lipstick to a wall and write: Carrie Bradshaw never fucked anyone. Samantha Jones never fucked anyone. Janey Wilcox never fucked anyone.
    Let’s keep it going: David Sedaris never fucked anyone. Jonathan Safran Foer never fucked anyone. Zadie Smith never fucked anyone. Dave Eggers never fucked anyone. Maile Meloy never fucked anyone. Sarah Vowell never fucked anyone. Meghan Daum never fucked anyone. Rick Marin never fucked anyone. Don’t even get me started on Melissa Bank and Helen Fielding. Who else? Lucinda Rosenfeld never fucked anyone. Myla Goldberg never fucked anyone. Rick Moody never fucked anyone. J.K. Rowling never fucked anyone (kidding).
    And no, I never fucked anyone either. In my first novel, a largely ignored coming-of-age confection of which I am proud, no one fucked anyone. Reading it today, I cringe at all the places I didn’t allow my characters to express themselves sexually. The sole dirty scene — the requisite loss of my character’s virginity — was, I’ll admit, excruciating to write. One critic, who did not like my book at all, described it as “white trash date rape." Ouch.
    But I can do it. I did do it. Four years ago in Vice magazine, I co-authored “The Vice Guide to Giving Head," which was excruciatingly specific about things like the proper amount of spit and friction. I liked writing the graphic stuff. I just didn’t like the idea of readers failing to distinguish me from the filthy things I wrote. So I used a pseudonym: Linda Gondelle. Brave, I know. And this was before Vice became a smell-my-fingers magazine for teenagers, before anyone even read the thing. I was safe, anonymous and cowardly.
    This might serve as a partial explanation of the literary no-sex phenomenon: writing sex is difficult because it involves an element of personal exposure. When you’re as huge as Dave Eggers or Zadie Smith, or you aspire to those heights, like Daum and Haslett, why open up your boudoir if it’s just not done anymore? (To paraphrase an Eggers quote he’s given in several interviews, “What more do you people want?”) Readers devour sex scenes because they want to imagine the characters having sex, but they also want to know what the writer thinks about sex. (How else to explain the groupies who still haunt Philip Roth’s appearances? It’s true; you should see them.) But where did we get the idea that this kind of exposure was undesirable or unnecessary?
    Let’s blame McSweeney’s for being by turns public and cool, the go-away-come-here of literary sets. It’s a potent thing to be anointed by Eggers, but I wonder if young writers have been trained to neuter themselves, to go for knee-jerk irony and coy musings instead of honesty.
    Let’s blame Vice, a magazine that’s running out of fresh orifices in which to deposit its fare, a magazine that panders to teens while passing itself off as a twentysomething bible, a magazine that can’t feasibly grow up, so it must remain satisfied to smell its own gamey fingers.

Sometimes I think of Nerve as the guy who’s too good to sleep with the town slut.

    Or let’s blame Nerve for being smarty-pantsed and artsy, for inadvertently creating a bastion of two-handed sex reading. Hell, I was excerpted here, as were Safran Foer, Spiegelman and Frey, but sometimes I think of Nerve as the guy who’s too good to sleep with the town slut — he’ll talk to her, hold her, sit and tell her about everything she has going for her, if only she would read more, think a little more deeply, take herself a little more seriously.
    No wonder Craig’s List, with its shoddy, blatant “Casual Encounters” section, has become popular reading among the same crowd all three of these magazines serve. Even people who aren’t seeking sex love to read it, to get dragged over to the dark side, a place that reads, literally, not literarily: I just want to get fucked, so can you just shut the fuck up and fuck me?

Who remembers the sex scenes from Forever Amber? Damn hot; my first one-handed read. And where’s our generation’s Gide, Duras and Acker? Where’s our Lolita, The Lover, Fear of Flying, or Looking for Mr. Goodbar? Hey, perhaps we should ask the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye Columbus. But you know what? Fuck that. If Philip Roth can readily blurb a precious, frigid book like Liars and Saints, I’ll have a hard time trusting anything that comes out of his filthy mouth again.