The Sporadic Beaver

J'aurais Pu Être Charlie (I Coulda Been Charlie)

January 12, 2015

Tags: Charlie Hebdo, City College of New York, Observation Post, The New York Times, Beaver Street, 1970s

Had I gone to college in France, I'd say the odds are pretty good that I'd have ended up working for Charlie Hebdo. It would have been a natural progression.

Instead, I went to the City College of New York and joined Observation Post, or OP, as this student newspaper was known. Founded in 1947 by returning World War II veterans, OP by the 1960s had evolved into the "alternative" paper, a radical journal of anti-war politics and rock 'n' roll, kind of a Rolling Stone-like option for those who found the "responsible" New York Times-like Campus to be exceedingly dull.

By the time I’d joined the staff, in 1971, one year after Charlie Hebdo was founded, OP, as I describe it in Beaver Street, “had mutated into a blunt instrument primarily used to test the limits of the First Amendment…. a student-funded incubator for an emerging punk sensibility soon to burst into full flower; it was an anarchist commune whose members performed improvisational experiments with potent images and symbols designed to provoke, or to ‘shock the bourgeoisie.’”

In short, we could have flown our freak flag under the Charlie Hebdo slogan, journal irresponsible (irresponsible newspaper).

In 1974, the staff elected me editor-in-chief. Early in my tenure, an artist who was raised Roman Catholic submitted his latest drawing, a reaction, he said, to his primary school education at the hands of “sadistic nuns.” It was an artfully crude cartoon of a nun masturbating with a crucifix.

Obviously, it was intended to provoke, but I also thought it was a legitimate artistic statement. Though many on the staff were less than thrilled by the cartoon, the only people who voiced objections to its publication said that the image was self-indulgent and clichéd, a rip off of the crucifix-defiling scene in The Exorcist, a popular film at the time. The possibility that somebody might want to do us physical harm should we publish such a drawing was not even considered.

So I ran the nun as a stand-alone cartoon, my sole motivation being to allow an artist whose work I liked to express his well-earned anger towards The Church, which I had no strong feelings about one way or the other.

And of course we got a reaction, though it wasn’t the usual irate letters from radical feminists accusing OP of exploiting women, as had happened when, in an earlier issue, my predecessor published a cover photo of a couple copulating on the couch in the OP office. Rather, the masturbating nun cartoon provoked Senator James Buckley of New York to denounce it as “a vicious and incredibly offensive anti-religious drawing” and demand the expulsion of the students responsible for it, the censoring of every college newspaper in America, and a Justice Department investigation of OP to “protect the civil liberties of all students who are offended by pornography.” This, in turn, provoked the Times to run an editorial defending OP in the name of the First Amendment, which put an end to the crisis.

In other words, a religiously “offensive” cartoon did what it was intended to do: spark a passionate debate.

Five years later, the cartoon inspired another OP editor to don a nun’s habit and have herself photographed masturbating with a crucifix as a tribute to the original drawing. Then, in a gratuitous act of pure punk provocation, she ran those photos in OP. In Beaver Street, I describe what happened next:

“[A] jeering mob of students affiliated with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon burned 10,000 copies of OP in a South Campus bonfire;… the City University chancellor publicly apologized to Cardinal Cooke for the photos; the Board of Higher Education demanded the criminal prosecution of OP’s editors on obscenity charges; the New York City Council threatened to gut the budget of the entire City University system unless something was done about OP; [and] the City College student body voted to kill off OP once and for all.”

The point I’m making here is that despite two attempts to provoke a reaction with crude and pornographic religious imagery—the second attempt more shocking and gratuitous than the first—there was no physical violence directed at the OP staff and there were no threats of physical violence. Though I’m sure many people wished those responsible for the cartoon and photos dead, the people who hated the images responded with words, political acts, and their own symbolism—burning the newspaper.

So, what does it mean that students in the 1970s could publish outrageous religious and political satire and not have to worry about being assassinated by a fundamentalist death squad? I suppose it means that I came of age as a writer and editor in a more tolerant and possibly more civilized time.

Unfortunately, there was no American equivalent of Charlie Hebdo for me to graduate to. Yet, in my books and other writings, I continue to nurture the spirit that OP infused in me, the spirit that very much lives on at Charlie.

I also do freelance work in the production department of a magazine that occasionally indulges in satire and has just moved into the gleaming 21st-century tower known as the World Trade Center. Though these things are certainly a matter of concern, I refuse to live in fear, and that’s the best tribute I can pay to the staff of Charlie.

Sex & Politics, American Style

September 11, 2013

Tags: Eric Danville, Lainie Speiser, politics, Beaver Street, pornography, Perversion for Profit, Whitney Strub, The New York Times

The image on the right is the flyer for the next event at the 2A bar, 25 Avenue A, in the East Village, where Eric Danville, Lainie Speiser, and I have been coordinating a series of readings for the past few months. The theme for Tuesday night, September 17, is politics--specifically sexual and gender politics.

In celebration of this theme, I'll be reading the section from Beaver Street that ties together Lyndon Johnson's Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, Richard Nixon, Billy Graham, Charles H. Keating, Deep Throat, and Watergate. All in about 1,300 words.

Whitney Strub, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, will be reading from his first book, Perversion for Profit (Columbia University Press), which was just released in paperback, and which covers material that’s almost identical to what I cover in Beaver Street. (You can read a review comparing the two books here.) The title is a reference to an anti-porn film produced by banker and convicted felon Charles H. Keating, who might have described Strub as a “permissive professor dedicated to a position of complete moral anarchy.” Our kind of educator, in other words.

J. C. Malone, a take-no-prisoners political columnist for Listin Diario, in the Dominican Republic, will read one of his columns, posible en español. Translation will be provided. Here’s a link to a recent Malone dispatch from the Bronx.

Malone’s daughter Gloria Malone, who writes for Teen Mom NYC, will read “I Was a Teenage Mother,” her Op Ed piece that ran in The New York Times.

Other performers include Lainie, who will read from Election, by Tom Percotta, adult film star Britney Shannon, actor David Healy, and actor Peter Loureiro.

It promises to be a provocative and enlightening evening, and we hope to see you there. Admission is free and the event runs from 8:00-10:00 P.M.

I Saw a Film and Read the News

March 18, 2013

Tags: writing, The New York Times, Janet W. Hardy

Amour, a movie about getting old, getting sick, and dying.

I saw Amour this weekend, and this is what I learned from it: Even if you're wealthy and live in a fabulous apartment in a country with universal healthcare, getting old, getting sick, and dying is still a major drag. If you find this kind of subject matter appealing, Amour presents it artistically and with subtitles.

I was also keeping up with people I know who were all over the news--like my mother, who was interviewed in the Florida Sun Sentinel about her volunteer work as an ombudsman protecting the rights of people who live in nursing homes. Having read this article soon after seeing Amour, it occurred to me that the U.S. should change the slogan on its currency from "E Pluribus Unum" to "Get Rich or Die."

Then another mother, my friend’s daughter, Gloria Malone, had an op-ed piece in The New York Times about being a teenage mother. Most impressive, Gloria. Can a book deal be far behind?

Not to be overlooked in this media frenzy was Janet Hardy, an author I met at the BEA last year, whose book Girlfag I wrote about here. Janet had a piece in Salon about her extraordinary tantric orgasm—an orgasm she described as feeling like “an orgasm times 100.”

A bit of comic relief was in order after processing this information, so I picked up a recent copy of The Spectator, which appeared on my coffee table the other day, presumably beamed in from another universe. The full-page ad on the back cover, for a Bentley Continental GT, with a top speed of 205 mph, tipped me off that I was not the intended audience for this magazine. Who is the intended audience? They appear to be moneyed, titled, ultra-conservative Brits, who enjoy reading people like Taki. A quote from his regular column, “High Life,” tells you all you need to know about The Spectator. “One checks into a hotel for the first time and the concierge calls you by your Christian name,” the Greek journalist complains. “Travel is now an exercise in being among slobs. Tracksuits, trainers, loud dirty children, fat people drinking out of bottles with wires hanging from their ears, they are the best excuse I know of for paying through the nose and flying private.”

Isn’t it time for this guy to check into a nursing home?

Ten Days Without the Times

February 25, 2013

Tags: The New York Times, Joan Didion, Junot Díaz

My wife, the Mistress of Syntax, likes to have The New York Times delivered, and when I know the paper's lurking outside the door, I can't resist reading it first thing in the morning. I also know that a half hour of total immersion in all the news that's fit to print about looming economic catastrophe, militarized computer hacking, and the latest Republican plot to hijack what's left of the democratic process, topped off with a dose of David Brooks's and Thomas Friedman's utter bullshit, will, by the time I need to put down the paper and get breakfast going, leave me feeling despondent. Reading the Times is hazardous to my mental health, and it should come with such a warning.

That's why, when my wife went out of town for ten days, I suspended the subscription. Instead, I began my day with a book. The first book I read was Joan Didion's Political Fictions, in part a bracing analysis of why much of what passes for "objective" political reporting in the Times (and elsewhere) is little more than a fantasy that the people in power and the journalists who cover them have agreed to tell. And though the book made me angry, it was a pure and satisfying kind of anger that confirmed my worst suspicions and brought me to a higher level of understanding, rather than leaving me feeling despondent and helpless.

The book I’m reading now, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories, by Junot Díaz, is literature in the best sense of that word. Díaz is all about voice—the natural voice of the street—as much as he’s about storytelling, and it’s the kind of writing that inspires and motivates me, which is the highest compliment I can pay any author.

But Díaz will have to wait, because tonight the wife returns, and that means tomorrow morning, The New York Times will again be lurking outside the door, and I will not be able to resist its siren call, and I will give myself over to the illusion that if I read it, I will know what’s happening in the world.

How to Kill a Book

January 22, 2013

Tags: Amazon, The New York Times, reviews, Twitter, Facebook

I feel for Randall Sullivan, author of Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson (Grove Press). What's happening to him could have happened to me--had my John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, been published now rather than 13 years ago, before the age of social media and before Amazon completely took over the book biz.

In yet another demonstration that the mega-conglomerate is a company out of control, a company that feels no need to treat fairly or responsibly the authors whose books they sell, a company that feels no need to answer to anybody about anything, they have allowed Michael Jackson fans to destroy sales of Sullivan's book with a barrage of anonymous negative reviews.

According to an article published on the front page of The New York Times yesterday, “Swarming a Book Online,” Jackson fans have used Twitter and Facebook to solicit scores of one-star takedowns of Untouchable; to have numerous positive reviews deleted; and even to have Amazon briefly remove the book from their site by falsely claiming that copies were “defective.”

Untouchable, like Nowhere Man, is a largely sympathetic portrait of its subject that also includes certain negative assessments. In particular, information about Jackson’s plastic surgery and his two marriages enraged his fans. According to Sullivan, many of the one-star reviews were factually false and clearly written by people who hadn’t read the book—as I can attest is also the case with most of Nowhere Man’s one-star reviews.

Amazon, however, doesn’t consider this a problem, saying that the reviews don’t violate their ever-shifting guidelines. Amazon has also said that it’s unnecessary for a reviewer to “experience” a product before reviewing it.

In the past, the Times has written about authors paying reviewers to flood Amazon with five-star reviews, and of authors anonymously trashing competing books.

There’s no question that Amazon’s review system is broken, possibly beyond repair, and that it’s relatively easy to game the system. Nor is there a question that it’s almost impossible to police phony reviews on a site like Amazon. But the real injustice here is Amazon’s refusal to work with authors and publishers to solve any kind of problem or to make any effort to adequately explain why they do what they do.

Fortunately, Amazon is sensitive to negative publicity, and the fact that the Times put this story on the front page is a good thing.

Times to Google: "You're a Prude!"

November 19, 2012

Tags: Google, Amazon, Facebook, The New York Times

Before I flee New York this afternoon for my Thanksgiving break, I'd like to bring to your attention an article that ran in The New York Times yesterday.

But let me begin with an article that ran in the the Times in 2002, “A Demimonde in Twilight,” that was in part drawn from an embryonic Beaver Street manuscript. The "newspaper of record," having no taste for double entendres, refused to print the title Beaver Street. So yesterday, when the Times called Internet monoliths like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon "prudish," they were really saying something.

The gist of the article, “You Can’t Say That on the Internet,” by Evgeny Motozov, is that Silicon Valley, supposedly a countercultural bastion of openness and tolerance, is actually a deeply conservative place that imposes its "outdated norms" on billions of people. Facebook and Apple do it though outright censorship. The former recently blocked The New Yorker's page after they posted an Adam and Eve cartoon that showed Eve's nipples, and the latter, until recently, wouldn't post in its iBooks store the title of Naomi Wolf's new book, Vagina: A New Biography.

But Google and Amazon are arguably the worst culprits, using their “dour” algorithms to insure that the autocomplete function does not lead us to morally impure sites or books that contain such words as “penis,” “vagina,” “bisexual,” “Lolita,” and “pornography.” (The potentially malignant nature of autocomplete popped up again last night on The Good Wife.)

As readers of this blog know, I’ve had my issues with these two Internet monoplies, and I’ve written about them at length. Though the Amazon problem appears to be settled for now, the Google issue has only gotten worse. To recap: Once Google sent a lot of traffic to this site. Then, a couple of weeks ago, they cut me off. Since the Google algorithms is as sacred to Google as it is secret, it’s impossible to say why. Though after reading this article I can only assume the magical algorithm has decreed my site morally unfit for public consumption.

Temperature Rising

October 3, 2011

Tags: Occupy Wall Street, The New York Times, Beaver Street

Liberty Park (aka Zuccotti Park), where three weeks ago the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators set up camp, is about a mile from where I live. I've been dropping by there on a regular basis, usually in the late afternoon, to take the temperature, so to speak.

The temperature is rising.
The energy remains peaceful, cooperative.
The free food provided makes the atmosphere seem almost Woodstockian.
The drum circle continues to provide the heartbeat.
There is an edge.

It occurred to me that it wouldn’t take much of a spark to set off something more confrontational, and possibly ugly, as police encircle the park.

At least one liberal New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, disagrees. He said that the occupation “feels like a spark set down on wet grass: It’s just hard to see how it truly catches fire.” In a front-page article, a protester was quoted as saying that the occupation will end when the temperature drops below 50 degrees.

The Times, which depends on companies like Tiffany’s, and real estate brokers selling $5-million condos, for advertising revenue, is never going to endorse the occupation.

I think that when the occupation continues into the dead of winter, the media will begin to draw analogies with Valley Forge. And, if they’re smart, companies like Marmot and The North Face will donate winter clothing, and local stores, like Paragon, will donate camping gear.

I stopped by again on Sunday and donated a copy of Beaver Street to the free library. The librarian—yes, they have a librarian—graciously accepted my donation. I departed with a free copy of The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

A few blocks to the south, near Beaver Street, the Wall Street Bull is now surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards. He needs them.

You can follow the occupation on their website or on Twitter.

Beaver Street: Well researched, Smartly Written, Surprisingly Funny

August 19, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, pornography, Matthew Flamm, The New York Times, Izzy Singer, Maria Bellanari, Stag, Swank, Mario Puzo, Marvel Comics, Amazon, Nowhere Man

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. "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.

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.

Loot This Book

August 15, 2011

Tags: Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book, riots, The New York Times

I read Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book in high school. Hoffman, co-founder of the Yippies, proclaimed that it was immoral to not steal from the American Empire, and he explained how to get pretty much everything for free (or close to it). I found the book so inspiring that I embarked on an extended career of using subway slugs, making free long-distance phone calls, and acquiring free record albums and books through the mail. My life of liberating things from the "pigs" lasted through graduate school, and the only lesson, an arrest for subway slug use, taught me was to be more cautious.

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.

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.

Art vs. Smut

July 22, 2011

Tags: Beaver Street, The New York Times, Lucian Freud, smut, Sonja Wagner, Steve Colby, D-Cup

In these schizophrenic times, as ever more deranged Internet pornography reaches an increasingly wider mainstream audience, people who lead “respectable” lives live in mortal terror that somebody may find out that they enjoyed reading a “dirty” book, such as Beaver Street. In an atmosphere this repressive, it’s hard to know what’s considered “appropriate” to post on this website, hosted by the Authors Guild.

A partial answer to this question appeared in The New York Times today, in an obituary of the artist Lucian Freud. The so-called “Gray Lady,” which once refused to print the title Beaver Street in an article about the porn industry, ran a photograph of one of Freud’s paintings that showed breasts and pubic hair.

With that lofty standard in mind, I’ve chosen to share another uncensored image of a painting created by Sonja Wagner, a character in Beaver Street. (I ran one of her milder erotic images yesterday.)

The painting, “Single Girl in Motion,” is based on a layout of a Steve Colby photo set that Wagner designed for D-Cup magazine, which she art directed for decades. (A detail of this image appears in the Beaver Street photo section.)

Some people may call it smut. I call it art.

Sonia from the Block

July 5, 2011

Tags: Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court, The New York Times, Metropolitan Diary, obscenity, Beaver Street

It has come to my attention that the amusing little anecdote I wrote about my neighbor, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which was published yesterday in the New York Times “Metropolitan Diary,” has come to the attention of the Supreme Court of the United States. Somebody from the court Googled me, and ended up on the home page of this website. Perhaps they were surprised to learn that this innocent New York City street scene was written by a guy who wrote a book about pornography. Perhaps it was Justice Sotomayor herself or one of her clerks who did the Googling. Well, if that’s the case, allow me to offer Justice Sotomayor a neighborly hello. And since she’s writing her own memoir, perhaps she’d like to check out my investigative memoir, Beaver Street. There’s quite a bit in the book about the limits of the First Amendment, criminal justice, and certain Supreme Court decisions. I dare say that Justice Sotomayor and her colleagues would find the book enlightening. And who knows, I may be standing before the Supreme Court someday, facing obscenity charges. Allow me to be the first to say that Beaver Street contains much in the way of redeeming social value.

The Marvel Comics Porno Connection

June 29, 2011

Tags: Stag, Marvel Comics, Beaver Street, superheroes, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Spider-Man, The New York Times, pornography


Stan Lee explains his partnership with Jack Kirby.

The intimate connection between porno mags, like Stag, and Marvel Comics is a subject I discuss at length in Beaver Street, in a chapter called “The Secret History.” A few days ago, The New York Times weighed in with an essay about the ongoing copyright battle between the heirs of Jack Kirby—who, along with Stan Lee, created many of the Marvel Superheroes, like Spider-Man—and the Marvel Corporation, now owned by Disney. Produced as a “works for hire,” these characters are now worth billions of dollars.

The Times article, “Marvel Superheroes and the Fathers of Invention,” by Brent Staples, is an interesting companion piece to Beaver Street, shedding even more light on how the company that gave rise to a both a comic book and pornographic empire has exploited its workers through three generations.