“[T]he very sound of the word ‘sex’ with its hissing vulgarity and the ‘ks, ks’ catcall at the end,” Nabokov’s narrator says in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, “seems so inane to me that I cannot help doubting whether there is any real idea behind the word.” Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas. It is, Roth writes in The Human Stain, “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.”
What Nabokov and Roth have in common is that both conceive sex as the sex act. Human sexuality for them, and for most novelists, is genital sexuality—“friction and shallow fun,” as Kepesh puts it in The Dying Animal. But this sense of the word sex is no more recent than the turn of the twentieth century, if the OED is to be believed. The earlier meaning (the “distinction between male and female . . . as a social or cultural phenomenon, and its manifestations or consequences”) has been permanently colored by the twentieth-century fascination with friction and fun. When Miss Paynham watches Diana Merion flirting with Percy Dacier in George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways—one of the illustrative quotations provided by the OED—she sees
Before the twentieth century, “sex” referred to what is now called romance, more or less. Once it was uncoupled from flirtation, courtship, seduction, marriage, pregnancy, and children—once it was narrowed to genital strife—it ceased to be an idea and became a scandal. Novelists wrote sex scenes, and the remainder of human sexual experience wasn’t even left to the imagination, because few novelists even imagined it was there. The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.