Friday, April 22, 2011

Sex and Writing

I remember very clearly when my dream of becoming a novelist died. It was in my mid-20s, and I had been struggling with a few book ideas for a while and, like every other young American literary wannabe, was even attempting a coming of age novel. Looking back on it now, there are some good parts, even if I was trying too hard to be Thomas Pynchon (minus, of course, the intimidating erudition and the metaphorical skills), but I just couldn’t bring the different parts of the book together. In writing a novel, you need to be able to depict anything, and I was struggling to write about deeper subjects that involved more than the comic and absurd situations that filled my collegiate life. Specifically, I remember trying to write about the strange sexual tensions that filled my undergraduate years at UVM; in writing my "through a mirror darkly" version of my college years, it needed to include living amongst these beautiful, athletic women in a drunken party atmosphere also trying to form my identity, build self-confidence, and also get an education. It was not easy, and taught me that writing about these emotions - including sex - is ridiculously hard; you have to not only have a skill for writing physical descriptions, but also the rapidfire emotions that go into any sexual experience, no matter how big or small. The whole thing was way beyond my meager skill.

I relate all of this because came back to me when I read Alexander Chee’s “Sex and Salter” article in The Paris Review. It’s about James Salter, a writer that I’ve never read, but Chee had some astute observations that are worth sharing:
On its own terms, sex is information. ... Reading Salter’s sentences, I saw what I knew of sex, that sex is a moment in which you are known and knowable. Whatever it is you desire appears from behind the veil of shame or fantasy or nostalgia, or sheer impossibility, and in its presence, you are revealed to yourself. ...
It seems to me that the writers we love most are those who manage to capture something we ourselves have thought and rejected, for being forbidden, dangerous, elusive, something that if we made room for it would undo something else we want to keep, so we force it away—literature as a catalogue of rejected thoughts. For the way they can hold onto what the rest of us would put away as dangerous, they become heroes, the ones who emerge with the one thing we hoped to keep secret, but know we need. When I say to you James Salter is one of my heroes, that is what I mean.
Yes, I say. The best writers I know, the ones I admire most, are not only the ones that can capture truth in a bottle – capturing a truth in a crystal-clear sentence or description – but those that are fearless in that they are not afraid to follow a thought to its fullest. For example, part of the reason I love Thomas Pynchon so much is that he’s not afraid to be absolutely disgusting if it makes the point he’s trying to make. And when it comes to sex, while Americans are inundated with it – sexual images and metaphors dominate our television and music – we’re taught so little honest information about it that we have no common sexual vocabulary short of either humor or porn. Writing about sex involves digging through a ton of crap, both societal and personal, to get the essential core of the matter. It requires honesty and bravery to do right, and I'll have to see if Chee's right about James Salter in that respect.

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