I can’t really generalize about the pieces in Sugar in my Bowl other than to say that most have a quality of the forbidden about them. Michel Foucault famously argues in The History of Sexuality that we’ve always talked about sex and that the “regressive hypothesis,” which holds sex can’t be discussed, is wrong. But I think he’s wrong, or at least wrong regarding the United States: it’s still difficult for many people, especially women to speak and write of sex, which is why Erica Jong—the editor of Sugar in my Bowl—can cite what amounts to a version of the regressive hypothesis in her introduction. Maybe we’re now collectively allowed to express all kinds of sexual signs, but moving from physical expression of signs like the ones seen in movies and porn to intellectual analysis is or feels forbidden. What happens in the mind is so intimate relative to what you’ve got under your clothes. Anyone can shuck their clothes, and Victoria’s Secret has built a massive business on the promise that most of us will, but relatively few people have the ability to really express what’s happening in their minds. Susan Cheever writes that “A one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem—only we are seizing the night instead of the day,” but one has to wonder: how many people have felt precisely that and never found the words to express it?
Without the words to express it, one can’t create the writing that will allow others to feel empathy. I don’t buy the school of thought that holds men and women can’t fundamentally understand each other, or that either sex is incapable of writing characters from the other effectively in fiction. People who want to learn what other people are thinking will find a way to do so, and, if they’re good, they’ll be able to reproduce what other people are thinking. There’s a cultural meme, for example, that women automatically “give up” sex to men who “take” it from women. While that no doubt describes many encounters, especially first encounters, it doesn’t describe all of them. Consider Anne Roiphe describing her first, or what I assume to be her first, time, after playing doctor with a boy as a child:
Years later when Jimmy and I were thirteen we were kissing in the dark at a party. We were sitting on a table in my classmates’ living room. Couples were curled up together in every corner of the floor, despite the fact that the carpet was rough and scratchy. Louis Armstrong was playing softly in the background. Abandoned in a corner was the Coke bottle that had begun it all. It was a game of spin the bottle that had brought Jimmy and I to the moment. ‘Do you remember,’ I said, ‘when we played doctor.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you have hair there now?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I really need to see it,’ he said. We found a closet. I showed him. He showed me his penis, larger, straight penis, full of some mysterious fluid.
This isn’t merely a my-first-time description (although it is that too), which litter memoirs and the Internet like discarded water bottles after a concert. It’s her way of delving into what’s nominally about the development of sex but really feels like the growth of an artist:
The thing about sex is that each act while different from the other even with the same person, even with the same person for forty years, is not a single act. It builds on the sex the night before, the year before, the decade before. Sex is a matter that unfolds like an accordion in the brain, the past is connected to the near past to the present and the future stands there waiting to be attached. So the feeling in the body, the feelings for someone else, the excitement of the new or the welcome of the familiar rises and falls, depends on memory, gains its depth from what happened at the beginning, a while ago, in the imagination, in reality.
You get older, you try things, you realize that, say, writing “is not a single act,” that it “builds on the [writing] the night before, the year before, the decade before.” Experience makes you good, and, although, there’s a sense that experience contrasts with innocence and is somehow bad, Roiphe doesn’t buy it. Neither do many of the writers in Sugar in my Bowl. They’re too heavily thinkers to buy the bullshit, and when thinkers break down their lives, they realize how much more valuable experience is than ignorance. It’s ignorance, and the celebration of it, that they’re really fighting, collectively, through writing, which is a powerful and impressive thing if you take the time to think about it. Maybe even more powerful than sex, which is their putative subject and the one that branches into so many other subjects; as so often happens, writers inevitably write about other things while they nominally write about one. Those “other” things can’t help being present to those who care to look. Susan Cheever writes, for example, “Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings.” But it’s so often hidden, and hidden deliberately, that one might ask why something wonderful must be “a passage through a maze,” unless seeking is part of the finding. Others want it to be religious, like Fay Weldon when she says:
I have been convinced not just of the significance and marvel of sex, but also of its sanctity, and its healing power, and the importance it plays in our lives, and how it is wrong to deny this. And if for a time thereafter, as I fled from bed to bed in search of love, I became a positive priestess of Aphrodite, it was not for long. I had a baby, as I was bound to, and steadied up. The psychoanalyst told me I suffered from low self-esteem, but my version is I was just born to like sex, and inherited the tendency from my father.
Notice the “sanctity,” the way she becomes a “priestess,” and the way she might not be in full control of her sexuality—she’s is “just born to like sex.” So if she did it, she did it, and so what?
There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays, many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”
So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out? I can imagine reasons, like the ones Megan McArdle pointed out:
In my experience, the big dividing line [between favoring drug legalization and not favoring it] is having kids. Read this interview with P.J. O’Rourke and discover some shocking things coming out of his mouth about how he doesn’t want his kids to do drugs. Having kids makes you realize how narrowly you escaped killing yourself–and remember all the friends who overdosed, or got arrested on a DUI, or spent their twenties working at a job that would let them smoke up three times a day, only to realize at age 35 that they had pushed themselves into a dead end. [. . ..]
in my experience, as the kids approach the teenage years, a lot of parents do suddenly realize they aren’t that interested in legal marijuana any more, and also, that totally unjust 21-year-old drinking age is probably a very good idea.
That’s not a good intellectual argument, but it is a very persuasive one that explains why we are where we are. (Does Levy have children, I wonder?) Still, Ariel’s line is funny precisely because of the discomfort she experiences at imagining a twelve year old wanting to follow in these particular footsteps.
I like Sugar in my Bowl more than it probably deserves, which may say more about my present preoccupations and less than its absolute merit. But, as I said above, while the anthology has the drawback of anthologies it also has the virtue: any piece that doesn’t resonate is only a few pages from being done and is easily skipped. And if you don’t care for reading a collection primarily about sex, you can also read it for what it says about history, relationships, politics, and writing. Jong thinks it’s also important because it equalizes an unlevel playing field some; she writes about
the fear some potential contributors had that they would not be taken seriously if they wrote for my anthology.
Anaïs Nin had made exactly the same argument in 1971 when I asked her why she allowed her diaries to be bowdlerized for publication: ‘Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers,’ she said.
‘But that’s why we must do it, Miss Nin,’ I countered.
And that is why we must do it. We must brave the literary double standard.
I can’t tell if she’s right, though she sounds the same note in the “Acknowledgments” section, where she writes that “Women who write about sex still get no respect—but we don’t give a damn!” Really? I don’t think I’d take someone less serious for writing about sex or not writing about it; Jong sounds certain that it’s true, however, and I wonder: who is giving the respect needed here? And, if someone is giving this respect, is it actually worth having? Isn’t an assumed position on the outside of some presumed literary establishment a necessary precondition for eventually getting in the literary establishment? The questions presume the answers, and, by creating this anthology, Jong does imply that 1) she can probably get more respect with it than without and 2) writing about sex is probably more literarily respectable now than it ever has been.