The Daily Beaver
August 31, 2011
The source of the "anonymous" review that I posted last week, comparing Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit (Columbia University Press), by Whitney Strub, has been located. Titled, "Free Speech and Competitively Priced Smut: Pornography in the United States," it was written by Patrick Glen, a PhD candidate at The University of Sheffield, in England, and published on H-Net, which describes itself as "An international consortium of scholars and teachers," dedicated to the advancement of "teaching and research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences."
Well, I’ll drink to that. And while I’m at it, I’ll post a blurb on my homepage.
Click here to read the review on H-Net.
August 30, 2011
Which brings us to the curious case of Texas Governor Rick Perry, an ultra-conservative Republican and evangelical Christian who does not believe in evolution, global warming, or separation of church and state. Perry is running for president, but has never spoken out against pornography, like most of the other Republican presidential candidates, notably Michele Bachmann, who wants to ban it altogether.
The apparent reason Perry has never declared war on porn is because he once trafficked in pornography. According to Salon and numerous other sites, the Texas governor owned between $5,000 and $10,000 in stock in Movie Gallery, a Blockbuster-like video rental chain that was known for its wide selection of XXX titles, and was the target of the American Family Association, a socially conservative group that recently helped Perry organize a prayer rally to save America from Obama. The AFA had once described the Movie Gallery’s product line as “hundreds of these hard, nasty-looking videos that were extremely graphic.”
Among the titles that Movie Gallery carried were: Teens with Tits Vol. 1, Teen Power Vol. 4, Teens Never Say No, Big Tit Brotha Lovers 6, and Bisexual Barebacking Vol. 1.
If I’m not mistaken, I ran positive reviews of most of these videos when I was editor of D-Cup. Who knew that I was helping Rick Perry make money?
August 29, 2011
Now that I've had time to fully contemplate the anonymous review I posted last week, comparing Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit (Columbia University Press), by Whitney Strub, a history professor at Rutgers University, I'd like to share a few more thoughts.
The review, which apparently ran (or is about to run) in an academic journal, is important because it shows that Beaver Street, condemned by some as “smut,” is being taken seriously in academic circles, which is something I was hoping for but hardly counting on. And, of course, the critic, whoever he or she is, totally gets what I did in the book: “By combining memoir and historical account Rosen constructs a vivid impression of how the pornography industry worked and the tensions imposed on the individuals involved, describing a reality that was shocking and mundane in equal measure.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
For those of you who don’t have the time to plow through the review’s densely written 1,869 words, I’ve taken the liberty of condensing it, Reader’s Digest style, to a few salient points.
· Rosen … describes the pressure and paranoia of being under the surveillance of the anti-pornography crusaders and maintaining sales whilst satisfying both publishers’ requirements and readers’ tastes. A sixties counter-culture participant of the kind that later pornography opponents feared, Rosen celebrates the subversive potential of the medium.
· Some of Rosen’s protagonists inspire sadness as they are exploited, alienated from society, experience feelings of shame and some rather unhappy personal lives … [T]his results in a rich account that adds considerable depth and texture to any understanding of how the pornography industry worked.
· With his encyclopedic knowledge of applied obscenity laws, Rosen details how he and his counterparts tried to provide their readers with the “smut” they demanded.
· The stigma surrounding pornography attracted an eccentric milieu as those intoxicated with wealth and sex mingled with social outsiders. Rosen captures them evocatively, the good and bad, which is a handy reminder that the book is as much of a literary as it is a conventional historical account.
· Rosen adds further confusion to the reading of gender and partial confluences of feminist and New Right politics with his account of the Traci Lords scandal … This wider issue in pornography is energised by Rosen as he describes the panic to remove every image of Lords from the D-Cups office to prevent accusations of child pornography.
· Overall both Strub and Rosen have written thought provoking and entertaining histories of modern United States pornography. Neither revel in smut—as the readers of Stag may have done—yet, neither are they coy, thus enabling the reader to gain a solid understanding of a large part of the print, film and now web-based pornographic media and its socio-political context.
· Readers of more “vanilla” tendencies may be put off by graphic descriptions of hard core pornographic scenes, such as [Rosen’s] account of the “insertion of fifteen billiard balls into a man’s anus followed by an elbow-deep fist-fucking”. Rosen’s candour is not simply aimed to titillate, but to inform about pornographic publishing using its own idiom. What both Rosen and Strub convey is how pornography comes into contact with greater narratives of obscenity, permissiveness, sexuality and gender. It is apparent from their accounts how pornography is a vital and rich subject for analyzing a range of social pressures and competing narratives.
August 24, 2011
The below review, comparing Beaver Street to Perversion for Profit, is brilliant. It was posted anonymously online. I'd like to know who wrote it and where it was published. An academic journal, I presume.
Whitney Strub. Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 382 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-14886-3; ISBN 978-0-231-52015-7.
Robert Rosen. Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. London: Headpress, 2010. 256 pp. $20.00, ISBN 1900486768; ISBN 978-1900486767
Perversion for Profit and Beaver Street contribute to understanding the negotiations and social fault lines that pornography brought into acute focus in the twentieth century United States. Whitney Strub’s Perversion for Profit describes and analyzes the cat and mouse battle between the mostly prudish, incrementally more aligned to the New Right, defenders of public morality and a pornography industry whose more unwholesome proclivities and economic successes provoked controversy. In some cases this clash led to legal action and tested the limits of the right to free speech. Robert Rosen’s Beaver Street is a less conventional history. Rosen edited, wrote and, on one occasion, featured in pornography in a career spanning sixteen years. By combining memoir and historical account Rosen constructs a vivid impression of how the pornography industry worked and the tensions imposed on the individuals involved, describing a reality that was shocking and mundane in equal measure. The two books complement each other, providing an absorbing discussion of both permissible social mores and obscenity in the context of interpretations of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Strub offers a meta-textual analysis from the voluminous and lively body of literature surrounding pornography and pieces together the skirmishes prompted by pornography and obscenity focusing upon campaign groups, politicians, judges, lawyers, pornographers and the general population. Strub’s analysis has some parallels to other works on censorship by Paul Boyer, Nicola Beisel, Andrea Freidman and Leigh Ann Wheeler.(i) Nevertheless, it extends the project and local focus that Andrea Freidman, for example, explored in her work on obscenity in pre-war New York. Perversion for Profit stands out by concentrating in great detail and scope on a period in which pornography proved a cultural mainstay and a political issue. Strub’s inclusion of the local battles in which obscenity proceedings emanate before eventually reaching the Supreme Court underlines the key friction between local and national law-making is key to the book’s success. By showing these frictions Strub helps contextualize the change from the rather polite opposition to pornography posed by the relatively moderate Citizens for Decent Literature to the Communist scaremongering of the New Right or the outraged moralist New Christian Right.
Rosen, on the other hand, provides an account of his personal experience interspersed with a wider history of pornography. He describes the pressure and paranoia of being under the surveillance of the anti-pornography crusaders and maintaining sales whilst satisfying both publishers’ requirements and readers’ tastes. A sixties counter-culture participant of the kind that later pornography opponents feared, Rosen celebrates the subversive potential of the medium. Nonetheless, he admits that his kind of pornographer was outnumbered by those who were simply sexually precocious, cash-strapped writers (for instance Mario Puzo) or capitalists allured by the financial rewards of selling sex. The precariousness of the industry is apparent in Rosen’s account. He describes magazines folding, participants finding more mainstream occupations and editors developing cocaine habits. The dark side of pornography is also not obscured. Some of Rosen’s protagonists inspire sadness as they are exploited, alienated from society, experience feelings of shame and some rather unhappy personal lives. Together, this results in a rich account that adds considerable depth and texture to any understanding of how the pornography industry worked as a sector of the print media, particularly in regard to the uniquely intense outside scrutiny it received.
Perversion for Profit takes the reader through the ruptures in the modern anti-porn movement. Following the Second World War, pornography was restricted under the law. Simultaneously, a liberal legal interpretation of free speech predominated, positing that censorship was anathema to American values. As the production of pornography on an industrial scale became more viable, the number and circulation of magazines increased; higher sales were prompted by more and more brazen and titillating pictures. In response, as Strub argues in chapter three, an organized antiporn movement emerged. In 1963 Citizens for Decent Literature released the documentary Perversion for Profit which focused upon “the extent of the pornography racket and the different types of pornography”. This was coupled with the emergence of local chapters of the group which put pressure on local authorities to prevent obscene literature in the community. Strub’s explanation of the way in which the First Amendment was tested by national and state legislatures when creating and applying obscenity laws is impressive. In the latter half of the book he explores the way in which the First Amendment debate intensified and became politicised by the New Right and New Christian Right. This qualitative change in the antiporn movement was in some ways mirrored in the more outré pornography that began to be produced at the same time, allowed by, as Strub argues, the permissive social changes of the sixties and seventies. However the internal vicissitudes of the pornography industry and its magazines are naturally better explained by Rosen.
Rosen’s account fits the general narrative that Strub proposes. For instance, Rosen recalls being the subject of an early seventies obscenity dispute as the editor of City College’s student newspaper Observation Post following the publication of a cartoon that depicted a nun masturbating with a crucifix. This cartoon was debated in the United States Senate by Republican James Buckley and led to a cunning bill that circumnavigated the hegemony of liberal free speech laws by cutting the funding for student papers. A few years later as a result of sustained unemployment and a job offer, Rosen was working for pornographic titles High Society (followed by Stag then D-Cups) and again irking the moral purists. Interestingly Rosen discusses the daily precautions taken to prevent obscenity accusation, the placement of strategic blue dots, the politics of “split beaver” and the adjustments made to magazines to satisfy stricter Canadian obscenity laws. With his encyclopedic knowledge of applied obscenity laws, Rosen details how he and his counterparts tried to provide their readers with the “smut” they demanded. The completion of this finely balanced task is interspersed with anecdotes of censorious threats and colorful colleagues both in front of and behind the camera. The stigma surrounding pornography attracted an eccentric milieu as those intoxicated with wealth and sex mingled with social outsiders. Rosen captures them evocatively, the good and bad, which is a handy reminder that the book is as much of a literary as it is a conventional historical account.
Although Strub’s book is thoroughly engaging throughout, his focus upon reactions to modern pornography by American feminists is particularly thought provoking. It resists the often-held assumption that feminists are categorically opposed to the medium and its frequent explicit sexism. Strub is insightful when analysing the marriage of convenience between anti-pornography feminists such as Angela Dworkin and the vehemently anti-feminist New Right. Strub argues that Dworkin and the New Right’s dalliance was due to American liberalism’s failure to provide a space for a debate on sexual politics. In fact, many feminists sought to protect society from censorship and, as Strub shows, were thus compelled to defend pornography despite its failings. Rosen further complicates interpretations of gender politics—which seem inextricable from pornography—by giving instances in which strong women have worked in porn as actors or magazine staff. Indeed, it is important to take into account that these women were not feminists and have often been subject to disapproval from feminists; even feminists who support women in pornography’s inalienable right to free speech have remained uncomfortable with their submission to misogyny. Also instances of advancement within pornography do not disguise how few women were in positions of real power in the porn industry, or that women who become porn actors were often discarded decades before their male counterparts. The exploitation of women is an issue that historians of pornography cannot ignore and which could be explored more in both texts.
Rosen adds further confusion to the reading of gender and partial confluences of feminist and New Right politics with his account of the Traci Lords scandal. Lords was a highly successful porn actor who in 1986 admitted to having acquired a false driver’s license and passport when she was fifteen in order to appear in pornographic films and photographs. Rosen relates how Lords deployed quasi-feminist tropes to justify her advancement in the maleficent pornography industry and in response to her personal narrative of exploitation by older men in the industry and relatives. Nevertheless, the New Right responded by espousing a rhetoric that focused upon child protection and child pornography. This is slightly incongruent with Strub’s conceptualisation of a marriage of convenience, as in Rosen’s account and this instance, both rhetorical language from the New Right and Lords’ peculiar brand of self-defined feminism seem to share aims, but remain separate. Nevertheless, the strategy acrued the right considerable political capital and had significant legal ramifications for the magazines. Ronald Reagan added the ‘Traci Lords amendments’ that Rosen argues were superfluous and craven changes to the already robust Child Protection Act of 1984. Lords eventually parlayed her infamy into a moderately successful non-pornographic film career. This wider issue in pornography is energised by Rosen as he describes the panic to remove every image of Lords from the D-Cups office to prevent accusations of child pornography. The Lords affair shows how coupled with Strub, both texts work to problematize the reading of gender, and narratives of liberalism and conservatism that compete for control. Albeit it is important to note that Strub is somewhat unconvinced about Rosen’s implicit assumption that pornography can be a tool for the advancement of women.
Overall both Strub and Rosen have written thought provoking and entertaining histories of modern United States pornography. Neither revel in smut—as the readers of Stag may have done—yet, neither are they coy, thus enabling the reader to gain a solid understanding of a large part of the print, film and now web-based pornographic media and its socio-political context. Rosen’s lack of squeamishness may be off-putting for some. Readers of more “vanilla” tendencies may be put off by graphic descriptions of hard core pornographic scenes, such as his account of the “insertion of fifteen billiard balls into a man’s anus followed by an elbow-deep fist-fucking”.(ii) Rosen’s candour is not simply aimed to titillate, but to inform about pornographic publishing using its own idiom. What both Rosen and Strub convey is how pornography comes into contact with greater narratives of obscenity, permissiveness, sexuality and gender. It is apparent from their accounts how pornography is a vital and rich subject for analyzing a range of social pressures and competing narratives.
i Paul Boyer, Purity in Print: The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America (New York: Charles Screibner’s Sons, 1968); Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); Andrea Freidman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy, and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945 (New York: Colombia University Press, 2000);Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004).
ii Robert Rosen, Beaver Street, p. 56.
August 22, 2011
The other day I posted my review of The Great Porno Debate between Ron Jeremy (Porno good!) and Gail Dines (Porno bad!).
Now I've came across this video review of Dines's book Pornland, by writer and musician Jordan Owen.
Owens is articulate, and Dines really gets under his skin. His commentary is provocative.
August 19, 2011
"A Demimonde in Twilight" profiled a number of literate porn writers surviving in New York City in the declining days of magazine publishing. Two of those writers, "Izzy Singer" and "Maria Bellanari," are major characters in Beaver Street. (They went by different names in the article.) The story also discussed the connection between magazines like Stag and Swank, writers like Mario Puzo and Bruce Jay Friedman, and Marvel Comics, a "secret history" that I explore at length in Beaver Street.Beaver Street's first brush with notoriety occurred nine years ago, when The New York Times ran an article partially inspired by an embryonic Beaver Street manuscript.
It was written by Matthew Flamm, a journalist who’s been instrumental in bringing attention to my work. In 1999, Flamm was the first one to write about my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man. His item in Entertainment Weekly sparked a conflagration of media coverage that put Nowhere Man on best-seller lists in five countries.
Flamm has at last read the published version of Beaver Street, and has posted his distinctly New York-flavored review on Amazon. I will quote it in its entirety below:
Robert Rosen’s Beaver Street is both an absorbing memoir of a writer's struggle to make a living and a brief history of pornography as it grew from a mom and pop business into the industrial giant it is today. But this well researched, smartly written, surprisingly funny book is also a one of a kind tour through a fast-disappearing underbelly of American popular culture. Rosen, a pre-gentrification New Yorker, fell into porn when it still held a certain countercultural allure. His cast of characters includes hapless, aspiring artists, shrewd businessmen (and businesswomen), all-out neurotics, sexual desperados, and conniving egomaniacs. Kind of a cross section of a broken down IRT local train circa 1980. Beaver Street shows us an alternative Grub Street, one that many of us never knew existed.
August 18, 2011
Memories have been aroused.
Heller, who died in 1999, is best known as the author of the satirical, semi-autobiographical World War II novel, Catch-22, whose iconic protagonist, Air Force Captain John Yossarian, thinks people are trying to kill him, and does not want to fly any more bombing missions. I’ve read the book about 25 times.
When I was Heller’s student, he was finishing his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Something Happened. Thirteen years had passed since Catch-22 was published. Expectations were high, and Heller, to say the least, was stressed out.
City College, in the 1970s, was an extraordinary place to be—because the school was tuition free, and the English department had assembled an all-star collection of professors that, in addition to Heller, included Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Francine du Plessix Gray (At Home with the Marquis de Sade), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), who taught a course in Ulysses.
I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to take a fiction-writing course with one of my literary heroes. And I was so encouraged by the results my first semester with Heller (B+), that I signed on for a more advanced course the following semester.
This is what I remember about Joe Heller:
He dressed casually, usually in jeans and a canvas shirt, except for the time he had a meeting with his agent. That day he wore a gray flannel suit.
He always had a wooden gum-stimulator sticking out of his mouth.
“All agents are pricks,” he said.
“You can’t live on royalties,” he said.
He considered Catch-22 to be one of the ten greatest books of the 20th century.
He considered James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific) and Leon Uris (Mila 18) to be hacks.
He forbade us to write detective stories or stories about the supernatural.
His conception of how to structure a short story was inflexible: Beginning. Middle. Climax. End.
He also taught me two valuable lessons about writing: Condense! Condense! Condense! And have a thick skin.
It’s this last lesson—an unintentional one, I suspect—that brings me to the scene in Erica Heller’s memoir, where she discovers that she’s been portrayed in Something Happened as a person “so barren of hope that I find myself grieving silently alongside her, as though at an empty coffin or grave in which her future is lying dead already.”
She asked her father how he could have written such a thing about her.
“What makes you think you’re interesting enough to write about?” Heller replied.
That is also an apt description of the “heartless” (as she calls him) Joe Heller I remember from City College. Because in that second semester, he critiqued my stories so brutally, I still find it too painful to read all his comments.
“This story goes bad on page one and gets progressively worse,” one critique began. He then proceeded to detail the story’s disintegration, line by line, in red pencil, in scathingly accurate detail.
In a meeting, I asked him what I was doing wrong, and why he liked my stories the previous semester.
“You were just lucky last semester,” he said.
I was 20 years old. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. And I was devastated. But I did, indeed, recover and learn to develop a thick skin. Professionally, it’s the best lesson I’ve ever learned.
I wonder what Heller would have had to say about Nowhere Man and Beaver Street. Barring communication by séance, I guess I’ll never find out.
August 17, 2011
I hardly agree with everything Gail Dines says. She has, for example, classified Vanity Fair magazine as pornography. But she clearly does a lot of research—she said on the show that she gets her information from Adult Video News—and unlike, say, the late Andrea Dworkin, she traffics in facts and presents them in a non-hysterical way.
The heart of Dines’s “porn is bad” argument is that the bulk of smut you find on the Internet is “body-punishing cruel sex, women being gagged by penises, women being penetrated by four men,” and that watching this kind of thing affects how men relate to women.
Jeremy, of course, disagrees. Citing a study in Scientific American magazine, he said that porn is not harmful and that “fifty percent of all porn is produced and directed by women.”
Dines said that the porn women produce is even “more violent.”
The debate, an abbreviated version of which you can watch by clicking on the above photo, was civilized. Though there was one amusingly petulant moment, which doesn’t appear in the edited video. Jeremy kept referring to Dines as “this lady.”
“I am not ‘this lady,’” said Dines, interrupting. “I am Gail Dines!”
Bottom line: If Jeremy or Dines were to run for president (Dines can’t because she was born in England), I’d vote for either one of them before I’d vote for Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry.
August 16, 2011
All this writing about rioting has gotten me to thinking about what it might be like in New York City should a bit of social unrest erupt here. Well, it's not terribly hard to imagine. We got a preview of what would happen in 2004, when the Republican Party invaded New York to re-nominate Bush on the ashes of the World Trade Center. So, I figure it'll be pretty much the same, with more fire and more carnage.
The entire city was in lockdown. Concrete barricades manned by heavily armed riot police and military—it was hard to tell them apart—sprung up overnight, on virtually every street corner in Midtown Manhattan. Chinook helicopters thumped overhead. At the first hint of trouble, the police carried out mass arrests, swooping in with plastic netting, and rounding up anybody who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stores and restaurants closed. Streets were deserted. Anybody who could leave town did. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t good for business (as our mayor had advertised). It wasn’t anything but ugly.
Which is why most sensible New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief when London was chosen for the 2012 Olympics. The convention lasted only four days. The Olympics will go on for 17 days. Word to the wise: Get the fuck out of London if you can. Go to Spain. Or, better yet, tell them to go away. You’re London. You don’t need the Olympics.
August 15, 2011
I mention Hoffman’s book now because of a letter I read in The New York Times the other day describing the rioting and looting at a shopping mall in England. “Rampaging mobs had broken into virtually every shop there, stealing everything from designer clothing to electronics,” wrote Arnold Grossman of Denver, Colorado, though he failed to identify the city in which this took place. “One store stood alone, however, its windows intact and its goods untouched.”
It was a bookstore.
How utterly dispiriting that British rioters, who also looted such things as bottled water and trash cans, didn’t find it worth their while to steal books. I suppose they could have preferred reading e-books on Amazon’s Kindle, but I somehow doubt it.
More likely, book lovers tend to be shoplifters rather than looters, and shoplifting books is, indeed, a serious problem in the US and UK. Publisher’s Weekly, in fact, has compiled a list of the top five most stolen books in the US: anything by Charles Bukowski, anything by William Burroughs, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, and anything by Martin Amis.
And the Guardian has compiled a list of the most stolen books in the UK: London A-Z, Lonely Planet Europe, The Guv’nor by Lenny McLean, Tintin and Asterix, and Harry Potter by JK Rowling.
Number six on this list, incidentally, is Steal This Book. So perhaps there is some hope for the UK after all.
August 12, 2011
My posting yesterday about how disturbingly close the UK riots felt to New York City generated a number of comments on Facebook and Twitter. So, while the situation in England seems to have calmed down for now, I'd like to respond to a comment by my fellow Headpress author Charles Shaar Murray.
“The big difference between what happened in London and what might happen in NYC and elsewhere in the USA is guns,” Murray wrote. “If the rioters had been armed—not to mention the storekeepers trying to protect their businesses, and the cops—as they would inevitably be in Merkuh, we’d’ve had a body count in the hundreds, if not thousands.”
Murray is referring to the fact that unlike in the US, guns in the UK—especially handguns—are difficult to obtain and the police are, famously, unarmed. And though buildings were burnt to the ground and stores looted, only five people have been confirmed dead, three of whom were run over by a car in Birmingham.
Compare that to what happened in LA riots of 1992: 53 dead. Or the Detroit riots of 1967: 43 dead. Or the Watts riots of 1965: 34 dead. Or the Newark riots of 1967: 26 dead.
The difference, of course, is handguns. In America everybody, including terrorists, has the constitutional right to own virtually any gun smaller than a cannon, and somebody like Mark David Chapman can walk into a gun shop, lie on the application about having been hospitalized for mental illness, put $169 cash on the counter, and walk out with a .38 caliber revolver that he will use to murder John Lennon. Or more recently, the clearly insane Jared Lee Loughner legally purchased a 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a 33-round magazine, and used it to murder six people and wound 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona.
So, yes, America is a violent country full of heavily armed lunatics walking around at a time of political chaos and economic turmoil, where the gyrations of the stock market can cause jobs and life savings to evaporate in one bad afternoon. And as I wander the streets of New York, where the increased tension is palpable, I think about the riots in England, and I remember how it was here, in the mid-1960s, when my city was on fire, everybody was scared out of their wits, and I heard too many people say things like, “I need to buy a gun to defend myself, because the police aren’t going to do it.”
So, yeah, it seems as though it takes a riot (and an impressive body count) before people can come to their senses. Might it happen here? I ain’t no prophet. I can only report what I see, hear, feel.
August 11, 2011
Sitting here in my cluttered New York living room/office, tapping on my laptop, the London riots, though 3,500 miles away, feel uncomfortably close. My publisher, Headpress, whose site you may be reading this on, is in Wood Green, adjacent to Tottenham, where the riots began. A photographer I wrote about in Beaver Street, Steve Colby, lives in Hackney, about a half mile from the worst of the rioting on Kingsland Road. Another friend, who I stay with when I'm in London, lives in Crouch End, also not far from Tottenham.
Yet, from the perspective of these people, it’s tranquil in London. “All as quiet as anything,” reports Crouch End. “Everything OK so far,” says Wood Green.
But it wouldn’t be London without the gallows humor, would it? “A security guard clapped me round the head as I was exiting Foot Locker through the smashed window, but I managed not to drop the trainers!” reports a colleague.
“US size 11, if you get a chance,” I remind him.
Despite what your Prime Minister, David Cameron, says about a “lack of proper parenting,” and a “lack of proper morals” being the root cause of the riots, I’m inclined to believe that when people burn down their own neighborhoods, what they lack is something to lose. It doesn’t take a genius to see a connection between the violence and “the cuts,” as you call them—in health care, libraries, police, drop-in centers, etc., etc…. all the things that governments cut to balance their financial books on the backs of those who already have the least.
It’s the same thing that’s happening here, in America, where the economy is in a state of turmoil, the government has gone insane, 14-million people are unemployed, 46 million don’t have health insurance, those who have health insurance can barely afford to pay for it, and more and more people are left with a desperate sense of having nothing to lose.
I used to think that I’d be okay as long as I was coherent and could string together a couple of sentences. I don’t feel that way anymore. Whatever sense of security I once had has been shredded.
There are just too many people here, in New York, with nothing to lose, and too many people with plenty to lose who are losing more every day. Inevitably, the riots will come to America. And when they do, I can’t say I’m going to join them, but I certainly won’t be able to blame them.
August 10, 2011
I've written about the Beaver Street index, perhaps the only index in any book in which "North, Oliver" is followed by "North, Peter." I've written about the David Foster Wallace-inspired footnotes, in which I detailed the impact of such things as the Traci Lords scandal on "postal workers from Pittsburgh who shot exhibitionist housewives shaving their pudenda for cheap thrills and a taste of 'trailer-park celebrity.'" But I've yet to say a word about a section of the book which some people have told me is their favorite part—the appendix.
Yes, the appendix, so called because, like a human appendix, if you remove it, the book can live without it.
One reason I wanted to write a book like Beaver Street is because I thought, having lived through it, I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research. I was wrong. The more I wrote, the more I realized there were too many things I couldn’t explain. And to explain the history of modern pornography, at least to myself, I ended up tracing that history from cave paintings in the Lascaux region of France, c. 33,000 BC, to the dawn of modern porn: the day in 1983 that High Society publisher Carl Ruderman acquired three 976 lines.
The appendix is a byproduct of that research, kind of a Mel Brooksian History of the World that concentrates only on how pornographers were always among the first to exploit new technology for economic gain. So, until I find the time to expand this appendix into an all-encompassing, thousand page History of Pornography, I’ll leave you with piece of the appendix from 1839 and the Industrial Revolution:
“The development of photography, a fusion of art and science, is attributed to many people, and it’s the greatest piece of moneymaking technology pornographers have yet to see. Though taking pictures is an expensive, complex process, this is hardly a deterrent to the ambitious sex entrepreneur. In fact, it’s as if the first words spoken upon the invention of the camera were: Let’s shoot some porno!”
August 9, 2011
The other week I wrote about the erotic paintings of my former art director Sonja Wagner, a character in Beaver Street who goes by her real name and has some of the best lines in the book. Her paintings, I suggested, served as useful illustrations of the ongoing debate about what is art and what is smut. And I said that even her most overtly pornographic images, ones that I wouldn’t risk showing on this website, are still, clearly, art—because of the skill and imagination with which they were created, and their emotional impact.
I’ve also come to realize that Sonja’s paintings, based on her D-Cup layouts, are a parallel narrative to Beaver Street, though to appreciate this you had to be there, either when the photos were shot or when Sonja and I put together the layouts.
Her paintings remind me of the photographers who shot them—Steve Colby, John Lee- Graham, and Falcon Foto—of being in London or California and directing the shoots, of interviewing the models, or of simply standing in Sonja’s cubicle and watching her place the photos down on boards, and slice them with her X-acto knife to achieve a perfect fit. All of which I wrote about in Beaver Street.
And it amazes me that these layouts, created decades ago to be nothing more than disposable trash and masturbation fodder, have been transformed as if by magic into enduring works of art.
August 8, 2011
Was I reading about Beaver Street in Bizarre? No, I was reading about House of Holes in The New York Times.
This is how the paper described Nicholson Baker's latest pornographic opus on the cover of their Sunday magazine section—probably the first time in its history the upstanding media organ has used "filth" as a term of praise.
Set in a sexual theme park and scheduled to be published tomorrow by Simon & Schuster, “A Book of Raunch,” as Baker’s novel is subtitled, has given the Times license to use language that they’d normally consider inappropriate.
Their profile of Baker’s quiet life in Maine, by Charles McGrath, titled “The Mad Scientist of Smut,” makes me wonder if I was hasty in insisting that Headpress refrain from labeling Beaver Street “smut,” lest we offend the delicate sensibilities of certain critics who need to believe that only they possess the ability to distinguish art from filth.
“Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer,” McGrath’s piece begins. “His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator.” Towards the end of the article, he describes a scene in the book “in which a woman who has been magically miniaturized finds herself trapped inside a man’s penis and can be released only by ejaculation.”
This from a newspaper that in 2002, apparently fearful of double entendres, refused to print the title Beaver Street in an article about the porn industry
The Times take on pornography is always fascinating—for the insight it provides into their schizophrenic editorial psyche and the ever-changing standards they arbitrarily apply to whatever they might be publishing. And Nicholson Baker is, indeed, one of the few living American authors who can write a dirty book and get this kind of coverage. (Philip Roth may be the only other one.)
Baker’s ability to inject his filth deep inside mainstream America with one powerful thrust humbles me, and I bow to him.
August 5, 2011
The Pranksters documented their LSD-fueled journey on 40 hours of film and audiotape. Now, some 47 years later, directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have assembled this footage in a coherent form. The result is a home movie, Magic Trip, which opens today in New York and San Francisco.
Click here to read my photo essay, “Still on the Bus,” about the film and my relationship with Babbs.
August 4, 2011
Bizarre magazine. Due to space limitations, my answer wasn't published. Here it is now:"Is there any piece of porn writing you're most proud of?" Ben Myers asked when he interviewed me about Beaver Street for
High Society and Swank Publications hired a lot of good writers to crank out mindless, disposable filth. But good writing was actively discouraged. At HS the editor occasionally threatened to do an issue with no words at all, just to prove how unnecessary writers were. At Swank, Chip Goodman, the publisher, explicitly told me not to write the kind of articles that would make people want to keep the magazines. He wanted his readers to throw out each issue and buy the new one.
But every year, as a matter of professional pride, I made it a point to write and publish at least one good story. An essay I wrote for D-Cup about The Fermata, by Nicholson Baker, comes to mind. It’s a novel about a man who has the power to stop time, and he uses this power to undress women in public places and occasionally masturbate. In the course of writing the piece, I ran into all kinds of problems with Canadian censorship—undressing women when they don’t know they’re being undressed is considered rape and degradation in Canada, even if the context is satiric literature.
What started out as a straightforward review evolved into an essay on the absurdity of Canadian censorship regulations. The illustration that I commissioned for the story was a picture of Baker sitting on a subway train with an enormous erection, jerking off while looking at a naked, large-breasted woman.
A few weeks later I went to see him give a reading at Barnes & Noble and I brought the mag with me. He’s signing everybody’s copy of The Fermata, and when it’s my turn I drop the picture of him jerking off on the table. He does a double take and breaks up laughing. But he signs it, gives me his address, and asks me to send him a copy.
Note: House of Holes: A Book of Raunch, Nicholson Baker’s latest pornographic opus, will be published on August 9.
August 3, 2011
Every now and then I’ll stumble upon some evidence that indicates I have, indeed, gotten through to somebody, somewhere—which inspires me to keep writing.
Yesterday, I found the following paragraph posted on YouTube, explaining the origins of an already controversial video for a song called “The Ballad of Mark David Chapman,” by Maria Fantasma, a band from Tulsa, Oklahoma:
“I read a great book called Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, by Robert Rosen, which gave me more insight [into Lennon’s] flaws and hang-ups…. The book turns into an account of the days leading up to the murder.… It amazes me how murders and death shape art, and this is a sad story for all parties. Anyway, Nowhere Man is an easy read, and I liked it even better the second time. It inspired me to write a song. Maybe it will do the same for you.”
That's the best review any writer could hope for.
August 2, 2011
Lately I’ve been contributing to an art and design website called Life…Dzined, and my latest piece is about Cecil Stoughton, the official White House photographer for presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Stoughton’s career was defined by one iconic image: Johnson being sworn into office aboard Air Force One hours after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The piece, “November 22, 1963,” is the story of the day Stoughton snapped the picture that’s burned into the mind of every American born before 1960.
Also posted on this site are Stoughton’s intimate photos of the Kennedy family—the ultimate insider’s record of the thousand days known as Camelot.
August 1, 2011
Thus far, however, only Curtis Cartier of the Seattle Weekly has been covering the story, and he’s provided an update on his blog.
According to Cartier, Amazon has pulled most of the issues (apparently provided by extremely foolish and/or ignorant “marketplace sellers”) containing pictures of Lords. Though he said that one image of an issue remained—the August 1985 Swank, with Lords on the cover—that, too, has since been removed.
Cartier also noted that Lords has been tweeting about Amazon.
Tweet #1: I just found out that Amazon is selling my old kiddie porn mags. Not ok.
Tweet #2: Amazon = losers of week for selling child pornography.
Tweet #3: I wish I had a legion of lawyers to kick Amazons ass. Aren’t there enough attractive willing adults out there to exploit?
Tweet #4: All this Amazon drama has driven me to sobriety.
Some things never change. A middle-aged Traci Lords who, beginning in 1984, used a fraudulent passport and driver’s license to systematically seek work in the porn industry still refuses to take any responsibility for what happened. “I was drunk! I was stoned! I was victimized!” she said 25 years ago, when the scandal broke.
She still knows how to play the victim.