De Sade's Daughters

In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes.

De Sade's Daughter?

THREE posthumous cheers for the honorable John M. Woolsey, the district-court judge who decided that James Joyce's Ulysses was not pornographic esoterica but fit reading matter for Americans. Interestingly, Woolsey rested his argument for lifting the ban on Ulysses on an idea that Joyce himself had archly toyed with in the pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There Stephen Daedalus makes the distinction between what he calls "kinetic" and "static" art. The former, he declares, is "improper" art that excites desire or loathing; the latter, genuine art that holds the imagination in contemplative thrall by depicting "the most satisfying relations of the sensible." Ulysses, Judge Woolsey opined, did not amount to a call for lustful action but led to mere meditative pleasure. Joyce's novel was, Woolsey concluded, a "sincere and honest book," a "very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women."

Woolsey's judgment leads me to risk a further distinction: erotic writing preserves the inner lives -- the individuality -- of men and women; pornography obliterates them. The erotic encompasses the arc of desire from its beginning to its fulfillment. It traces the individual's slow, turbulent detachment from social life through the allure and the dissolution of the social and psychological nuances that make up individuality.

Pornography, however, consists of the reduction of identity to the generic consequences of desire. As counterintuitive as it may sound, pornography hypersocializes sex the way authoritarian regimes hypersocialize the community -- into monotonous rituals unfolding along inexorable lines. There is, in fact, nothing secret about pornography. It is the public caricature of a private act.

Disclosing the drama of personality succumbing to desire -- that's been the challenge to modern writers free to describe sex on the page. Perhaps that's why so many chroniclers of sexual passion -- Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Nicholson Baker, and the father of them all, Henry Miller -- depict carnal romping with a comic turn. Something respectable that a character has cultivated and the author esteems -- identity -- hovers on the brink of ignominious oblivion.

I have listed only men as portrayers of sexual passion because until relatively recently male writers held sway in that particular current of the literary mainstream. Not any more. In the past several years, and especially during the past several months, women have consolidated their presence in the genre.

From a recent survey of serious fiction by men and women, it's clear that women have taken the lead in erotic writing. Molly Haskell, in The New York Times Book Review, argued that at least one of these women authors views erotic writing by women as a "response to male writers who have had literary orgasms over the rape and mutilation of women." Haskell was writing about Susanna Moore in a review of Moore's , one novel among many in the "growing genre [of] the feminist erotic thriller," as an unsigned brief review in The New Yorker dubbed an offshoot of this trend. A new literary genre is born. However, with few exceptions, critics discuss the most recent women's erotic writing without getting very specific about its erotic elements. A dutiful pat on the back is the usual response. "I truly and immensely admire this novel," George Stade wrote in the Book Review about Laura Kasischke's , "but I am not sure I like it." "A. M. Homes has written a splashy, not particularly likable book," Daphne Merkin wrote, also in the Book Review, about Homes's , which she nevertheless found "powerful and disturbing." If, as Kenneth Burke once said, the measure of literary art is the fullness of response to it, these books have not found their readers.

HOW, then, do many contemporary women novelists imagine the erotic? Their work should be a refreshing change from that of an Upper West Side Fellini like Roth, whose latest fiction seems to be on steroids. Yet, as the quotation from Molly Haskell reflects, women's erotic writing is often justified as a feminist response to a male genre in a male-dominated culture. For the first time in our literature since the 1930s, a social and political ideology is providing the touchstone for literary art.

The introduction to the recently published characterizes its subject like this: this collection "does not simply celebrate desire and sex, but shows that many sexual relationships are riddled with complex and difficult issues of power." "Typically," the editors complain, "the man takes control and the woman is put in 'her place,' both physically and metaphorically."

In at least two recently published novels by women, sexual play is portrayed as the equivalent of social positioning. You would think the proverbial glass ceiling had hair on its chest. In Moore's Hollywood-bound noir novel, In the Cut, a New York City detective interrogates Robert Chambers, the real-life "preppie-murderer" who strangled a female acquaintance in Central Park. "'Look, Bobby, this is off the record, I'm your friend, I know what it was like. . . . I know what happened, Bobby: she was sitting on you, her back to you.'" In short, the violence of her sexual aggression naturally led to the violence of his reaction. Several paragraphs later Franny Thorstin, the narrator, is taken by Malloy, her boyfriend and also a Manhattan detective, into his captain's office in the precinct house, where he has anal intercourse with her against the captain's desk. Afterward the narrator stimulates herself while "he talked to me in a low voice, asking me, no, telling me that I had liked it, I had liked what he did to me, I answering yes, yes, I did, until I came. . . ." The sudden juxtaposition of the two scenes makes the author's moral clear: men either selfishly dominate in the sexual act or their egos go murderously crashing through their sanity.

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