Nonetheless this article and its many assumptions touched a nerve and have inspired me to write not just a blog post at Good Vibrations, "Does Sex Have to Be Stupid?" but also a letter to Mr. McGrath himself. I haven't received a reply, and I don't expect one. I honestly don't imagine the man continued to read my email after the first line or two. But I am glad, for the sake of refining my own position about an issue I do care about, that I organized my thoughts and spoke out for all writers who have the courage to explore sex honestly. (Mr. Baker hardly needs my support as he cries his way to the bank!) I suspect Mr. McGrath felt "dirty-book writers" were an easy target for his insults as surely none of us would dare to come forward from our slimy holes to protest.
But I did.
Here's what I said:
Dear Mr. McGrath,
Although I’ve admired your articles in the past, I feel compelled to write to you to express dismay at the tone of your recent profile of Nicholson Baker, “The Mad Scientist of Smut.” Presumably Baker and his work were deemed worthy of an article in one of our country’s most prestigious magazines. He is a literary author with impeccable credentials, who also has the courage to explore one of our last literary taboos. Why then is he demeaned, even mocked, as a “dirty-book writer,” with quotes chosen from his work that, out of context, indeed sound as ridiculous as if they come straight out of Penthouse Letters? I expected more from a journalist of your stature than a titillating supermarket tabloid description of Vox as “so steamy Monica Lewinsky gave it as a gift to Bill Clinton.” Surely your readership would appreciate a more nuanced look at a possible reason for the gift of a book about two lonely people who form an unexpected, momentary, but profound connection through intimate confessions. Semen-stained dresses and cigars aside, this very likely constituted the essence of the Clinton-Lewinsky friendship and acknowledges that Baker’s work has value far above “smut.”
I was also confused by the presentation of Baker as a both a bizarre anomaly (“What kind of person dreams up this stuff?”) and the only serious author of our time who dares to tackle sexually honest themes. Countless writers of literary merit, many of them women, have been writing frankly, and therefore often in an arousing manner, about sexuality. This is not a case of “mixed motives.” An exploration of the secret and often subversive aspects of the human experience is the great project of literature—eroticism has finally been allowed its chance alongside the other passions of the human heart. Unfortunately, as I read your article, I felt I was learning more about our elite culture’s lingering prejudices and discomfort with sexual honesty than Baker or his work.
I’m sure you will acknowledge that intelligent people, no matter how cerebral and dignified in their public lives, have sexual feelings and erotic imaginations. The Judeo-Christian religious tradition has long attempted to deny this. William Shawn's New Yorker endeavored to protect its refined upper-middle-class readers from unseemly words and topics. But we live in a very different world now. We can leave sex to the “dirty-book writers,” or, like Baker and so many other fine authors, we can try to approach it with intelligence, wit, and an eye for complexity and nuance. We can feel soothed that Baker’s children will, “very sensibly,” not admit to a journalist that they’ve read much less admired his sexually explicit novels. Or we can question why sexuality and parenthood, one undeniably linked to the other, must be kept at such a distance in our culture.
It is perhaps too romantic of me to expect that The New York Times would be able to transcend deeply-rooted cultural messages about the “dirtiness” of sex, but in the American tradition of optimism, I nurture the hope that more journalists will treat the erotic imagination with the respect and maturity it deserves. Perhaps you, too, will consider doing so in future articles?
Donna George Storey, Ph.D.