literary journalism sex & gender

Was it good for you? The evolution of sex in fiction

For Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began in 1963 — “between the end of the Chatterley ban /And The Beatles’ first LP”. The 1960 Old Bailey verdict that had deemed Lady Chatterley’s Lover not obscene was a pivotal moment not only for Larkin but for literature, launching an explosion of explicit writing that would both shape and reflect shifting sexual mores.

It’s easy (and a lot of fun) to lampoon the sex scenes penned by the “Great Male Narcissists” who dominated the postwar American literary landscape. In a recent assassination of John Updike for the London Review of Books, Patricia Lockwood likened him to “a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter”. But while the misogyny within the oeuvre of Updike and his cohort is clear to a contemporary critical gaze, they were pioneers for putting on the page what had long been quietly, or not so quietly, going on behind closed doors. (One notable absence was the representation of homosexual encounters, despite the Kinsey report’s confirmation of their prevalence.)

As the GMNs aged out of skirt-chasing, their brand of libidinousness flagged in fiction. To distance themselves from their priapic predecessors, the next generation of male authors crafted characters embodying a struggle with mixed messages about masculinity. “As a seducer, he was hampered by ambivalence,” Jonathan Franzen wrote of Chip Lambert, the era’s ur-protagonist, in The Corrections (2001). In Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, published in 2019 but set in the late 1990s, the adolescent Adam wonders how to interact with his girlfriend “in a way that at once asserted his good difference as poet, proto-feminist, Ivy-bound alternative to the types without neutering himself in the process”.

While the male literati of the 1990s and early 2000s conveyed a certain trepidation, female authors stepped in to challenge conventions…

Read the full article online in the Financial Times

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