On the Difficulty of Writing Well About Sex
The problem (which it is) of how you write about something as important, yet unfathomable, as sex has always intrigued me.
A Conversation Between Writers about Sexual Obsession, the Long Shadows Cast by Dangerous Men, and the Difficulty of Writing Well About Sex
Rachel Cline is the author of three novels, most recently The Question Authority (2019), about a middle-aged woman confronting the many ways society failed (and fails) to protect her, and her 8th-grade classmates, from a pedophile teacher.
Daphne Merkin is the author of the novel Enchantment, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for best novel on a Jewish theme, as well as two collections of essays and the memoir This Close to Happy. She is a former staff writer for The New Yorker, and her essays frequently appear in The New York Times, Bookforum, The New Republic, Departures, Elle, Travel + Leisure, Tablet, and many other publications. Merkin has taught writing at the 92nd Street Y, Marymount Manhattan College, and Hunter College, and she currently teaches in Columbia University’s MFA program. She lives in New York City.
RC: Daphne, you’ve written a compelling, tragicomic novel about sexual obsession — with a younger version of the protagonist as the principal character (or so the authorial interjections tell us). In 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) some years have passed since Judith Stone’s affair with the older man whose first word on the phone to her is “Bitch.” The past events seem to be occurring in the late 80s, when people had answering machines and smoked in restaurants. For me, the novel was intensely nostalgic as well as erotic. Are you nostalgic for your 30s? For the 1980s?
DM: I am somewhat nostalgic for my 30s, when my body was worth a second glance and I did not have trouble appealing to men. On the other hand, I was a tormented soul (as I still mostly am) and when I think of the time I spent obsessing over doomed romantic relationships I feel truly horrified at the waste of time and emotion. The '80s seem so very long ago, but I think I do miss "big" hair, shoulder-pads, and the general sense of the world being slightly more comprehensible than it is now. (Not that I could stand Reagan and his rouged cheeks). In the early 80's I had been introduced to a remarkable publisher, William Jovanovich, who supported my writing and eventually coaxed me to come on as an editor at his publishing house. I feel the excitement of those times is far behind me.
RC: I feel the same way about the time I wasted obsessing over doomed love, the shoulder pads not so much. And though I’d like to think I was more sophisticated than Judith seems to be, I fear that we (young women who’d listened perhaps too closely to Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro, but got as much of our sexual knowledge from hate-reading Cosmo as from personal experience) were all just as self-deluding as she is. Judith recognizes right away that Howard Rose is a dubious candidate for father- or husband-hood, but the day after their first encounter she describes him as having “ensnared her heart.” What do you think is going on there?
DM: I don't think Judith originally has the capacity to accept — or even believe —what she grows to see as the truth about Howard (that he's essentially a posturing jerk) and has to literally teach herself to understand — and act on — what she knows. She feels an immediate connection with him and I don't believe she ever realizes that the relationship isn't serving her because in many ways it does. I think, rather, that she comes to value her own worth over the excitement of sexual degradation and psychological humiliation. It's interesting to me that a good friend of mine, my former editor at The New Yorker, thought there was too little S/M in the novel and my editor at FSG feared that there was too much. From which I deduced that it all depends on where you're coming from and how you envision other people's sex lives as opposed to your own.
RC: I give it a Goldilocks “just right,” on that front — sex in novels often embarrasses me, but this did not. It is truthfully erotic, and intensely so, but without ever getting overblown (sorry, I can’t think of a better word right now!) At times I actually saw Judith as sexually smarter than she gives herself credit for: She doesn’t deny that what he’s offering works for her in a deep way and she does what she wants with him — ultimately, she crawls only as far as she feels comfortable crawling.
DM: The problem (which it is) of how you write about something as important, yet unfathomable, as sex has always intrigued me — and, if I may be immodest for a moment, I think I do it relatively well. I tried to stay true to a kind of unadorned realistic language about sexual engagement itself while allowing Judith to have more high-flung thoughts and perceptions about it when she is by herself. Judith is certainly meant to be relatively new to sexual activity and correspondingly unsophisticated as well as eager for erotic experience. Unfortunately for her, she is also a natural romantic who sees love where none exists—and it takes her a long time to realize this.
RC: The book alternates between passages describing Judith’s life at the time of the affair, and passages labeled “digression,” in which the older Judith reflects on the story from the distance of, presumably, 30 years. These musings are sometimes teasing, sometimes challenging, sometimes daring — treating the reader a bit the way Howard treats Judith. Why did you choose to break the action up, and comment on it, in this way?\
DM: The novel's digressions are my way of bringing in my more essayistic voice and also a way of bringing in larger cultural questions behind the narrative. I think I first put them in because I was trying to appeal both to critic Diana Trilling (to whom I dedicated my first novel) and to my sister-in-law (one of several) in Englewood. Meaning that I wanted the novel to clop along but also to come to a temporary halt—sometimes as a tease, sometimes as something more serious—and enter a more direct conversation with the reader.
RC: We learn very little about Howard beyond what he’s like in the bedroom (although he’s not unsympathetic — the note he passes her at their lunch in the country broke my heart). But I never did fully understand why this one man had so shadowed Judith’s life that she is compelled to write about their affair decades later. Or is that the point? That it isn’t really about him at all?
DM: I think what makes Howard so important to Judith is precisely what you suggest, which is his erotic imagination. He is, I suppose, what you'd call "good in bed," in the sense that he is interested in her sexual pleasure — to a degree. The fact that she is so sexually naive and somewhat inhibited, both of which he simply rides roughshod over, also explains his hold on her. If she had less self-dislike, she probably would have been immune to his charms, such as they are. But in another sense, he is made up, a construction to suit her needs. In that respect, I don't think obsessions are ever about the object of the obsession so much as the obsession itself.
RC: What would you tell young Judith to do when he calls her that first time, after the party? Should she have hung up on him
DM: Absolutely. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, in our beginnings are our ends. There is no way a man who begins his courtship by calling you "bitch" is going to end by becoming a loving partner. Then again, she would have missed out on the sparks ignited in her by Howard Rose, which she craves — whatever the cost — until she doesn't.
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