Arlene Heyman’s Scary Old Sex and Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved are curiously similar: both are short story debuts, both use sex as a microcosm of human behavior, and both collections feature a story about cancer and a story about September 11th. They are also, of course, both by Jewish women, although of different generations. Sex and death circle around each other in these stories with such unrelenting pressure that there’s little room for any other kind of experience.
Schiff’s work has been labeled “Slut Lit” by some reviewers — divisive yes, but by no means necessarily insulting. Many women write about sex, but “Slut Lit” seems to be about women having sex that is detached, impersonal, and maybe a little bit sad. That there needs to be a separate genre for this kind of writing suggests that female sexual ambivalence is strange and surprising instead of a normal aspect of adult sexuality. That is what makes the “Slut Lit” label tiresome instead of revolutionary; there will never be a separate category of books by men examining the curious concept of emotional intimacy as it relates to male sexuality.
All of that said, “slut” does not have to be such a terrible word. It could conjure an unapologetic woman who’s in touch with her desires. Heyman’s cadre of older women is certainly slutty by that definition, yet the genre hasn’t claimed her. Perhaps the idea of older women in possession of a sex drive is too much to stomach for even the most slut-friendly reviewer.
Where Heyman’s female characters are demanding and irritable, Schiff’s are laconic and ambivalent. They represent an age gap in sluttiness. Heyman writes about physical encounters frustrated by the mundanity (or even grotesquerie) of aging, while Schiff writes about complex, emotional emptiness stemming from amounts and types of sex that Heyman’s generation was hardly allowed to put down in writing when they were young.
It is too bad, then, that most of the characters in both collections are difficult to invest in. Both authors’ observations are keen and funny, but both cut too close to what they already know: Schiff’s characters are often surprisingly self-interested and grate in their youthful expectancy, while Heyman’s are mostly melodramatic and make you want to roll your eyes at their obstinacy.
Schiff’s stories feel like anecdotes from a single, white, middle-class life, rather than a multiplicity of voices and experiences. The entire collection might as well be about the same person, and is begging for the deeper investment of a novel and the chance to grow. Schiff is most successful with younger characters who are every bit as wry and biting as their older peers, recognizing the empty tradeoffs they are expected to make as they mature. “I’m in high school,” says one girl. “I don’t have sex. I don’t have anything.” That line might be the rage at the heart of “Slut Lit”: without sex, you have no power, and with it you sometimes have even less.
Heyman’s explorations of the petty and the dull are promising, but her hyper-observant style relies too much on explanation and leaves little room for feeling. It is also hard to tell if the often insufferable attitudes on display are meant to be ironic. Heyman is at her best when she embraces empathy in “Dancing,” a story that’s probably the least about sex and the most about death in the entire collection.
Despite their shortcomings, both of these collections successfully break taboos around sexuality. Schiff treads rare emotional ground in writing about female sexual ambivalence; Heyman plunges into largely uncharted territory with her sexual narratives of older women. Schiff’s characters, who have what they don’t really want, and Heyman’s, who don’t really want what they have, deserve to be listened to. Hopefully we are on the edge of a “Slut Lit” typhoon, and these voices will only become more diversified and complex.