The Sporadic Beaver

Let Us Now Praise Smutty Filth

August 8, 2011

Tags: Nicholson Baker, House of Holes, The New York Times, Charles McGrath, Beaver Street, filth, smut


"Hysterical Filth"?

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.