Nothing against Swamplandia! or The Pale King, but we can‘t help wishing the Pulitzer Board had gotten its act together—and chosen Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the novella that appeared in our Summer 2002 issue. That would have been our first Pulitzer! As it is, it’s our first Pulitzer nomination. Train Dreams made its original appearance alongside fiction by Aleksandar Hemon and Mary Robison, interviews with Ian McEwan and Louis Begley, plus a radio play by Rick Moody … and we have a few copies in mint condition. Buy yours while supplies last.
Dear Mr. Stein,
A few of the pieces in your most recent issue—particularly Mr. Seidel’s and Ms. Barrodale’s—strike me as rather vulgar. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on why so many contemporary writers, when dealing with sexual content, veer toward explicitness instead of subtlety. I just don’t understand why the crass language is necessary; delicate hints and suggestions of such acts are usually more titillating anyway.
Dear Mr. Stein,
A while ago I read Elizabeth Bachner’s article “Awkward, Disgusting Copulation: Writing on Sex,” and I found that she expressed so accurately what I seek out in literature: “There’s something deeply unfortunate about the fact that urination, procreation, defecation and orgasm all happen within such inconvenient proximity. Having a human body will kill each of us eventually, no matter what, so we might as well enjoy it. But it’s not for the squeamish. Western culture, in fact, has largely developed around the tension between revulsion and fascination, between being grossed out and turned on.” I can’t find any other explanation for why I can’t close my eyes when Vonnegut gets dirty, or Nabokov cruel. Do you know of any contemporary writers who write with similar … zeal?
As you both point out, writing about sex can be gross and unpleasant—unsexy, even. So why publish that kind of thing in The Paris Review?
Betty Lou, your question strikes me as very reasonable. I’d answer, first, that not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed. Not all of these reasons are vulgar or crass. To my mind, a conventional sex scene, say in an airplane novel (“as she raised her hips and guided him into the hot wet center of her,” etc., etc.), is indeed crass. But is it crass—is it meretricious—to write honestly about the mess and complexity of the individual libido? Not to me. What’s vulgar is an airbrush. What’s really vulgar is a sex scene in borrowed language, where the characters are stripped of individuality and the situation has no moral depth. I hope we don’t publish anything like that.