Pale Wire (Popscene)

Saturday, May 22, 2004

"The Highbrow One-Handed Read"

In this week's NYTimes Book Review Emily Nussbaum explores sex writing in literary fiction. Click here to read.

At their tawdriest, these books are merely porn for the nervous: raw enough to titillate, but decorous enough to read on an airplane or leave lying on a cafe table. Literary sex writing is easy to make fun of when done poorly. Which is most of the time. But when these books succeed -- think of the better Henry Miller, Marguerite Duras or, more recently, Mary Gaitskill -- they are a real gift: agile explorations of a subject that, even in the hands of the most skillful writers, can lead to wildly purple prose. On some level, these novels can be seen as a higher form of eavesdropping -- and as with eavesdropping, some confessions ring truer than others. Humility may be the secret ingredient. Among its signatures: a narrator who is willing to expose his or her own foolishness; sexual descriptions that transcend lacquered acrobatics; and a willingness to cut through -- and undercut -- all the philosophizing. The best of these books are stimulating on more than one level, performing the difficult task of making an obsessive love meaningful to someone standing outside it.