The Sporadic Beaver

Personal Faves: Volume I

February 13, 2013

Tags: Occupy Wall Street, performance, Lou Perretta, Scott Garrett, Susannah Breslin, pornography

As the third anniversary celebration of The Daily Beaver continues, I'd like to now share some of some of my personal favorite blog posts. The pieces below were selected at random. They're stories I’ve written over the years, most of which I haven't looked at since the day I wrote them. But reading them today, I think they still stand up, and they give a good sense of the type of material I've been covering here and will continue to cover.

'72 (Sept. 29, 2011)
My report from Zuccotti Park (which I call "Liberty Square") in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Jewish New Year, 5772.

The Writer as Performer (March 27, 2012)
What does it take to get a book published in America these days? Good looks, primarily.

The Lou Perretta 20-Point Plan for Demoralizing Employees: A Guide for Postmodern Office Management (Feb. 1, 2012)
How bad was it to work in a Paramus porno factory? This satirical guide explains.

What’s the Matter with Jersey? (March 21, 2012)
I was subjected to a surprising amount of criticism for writing about my former boss Lou Perretta, the abysmal working conditions at his company, and his campaign contributions to Tea Party congressman Scott Garrett. This is my response.

Blog’s in Your Court, Ms. Breslin (Oct. 19, 2011)
A spirited online debate about blogging, criticism, and books about pornography.

Tomorrow, Volume II

Bobby on Beaver Street

June 20, 2012

Tags: Beaver Street, Bloomsday, Killarney Rose, performance

The author in performance at the Killarney Rose on Bloomsday. Photo © Bette Yee.
Getting up in front of people and reading from my book is something I prefer not to do. I’m not a natural performer. The reason I became a writer is because I’m good at sitting alone in a room and writing. But the way things are in today’s book business, that’s not an option. Once a book is published, if you want people to buy it, then you’ve got to get out there and sell it. And one way to sell it is to organize events like Bloomsday on Beaver Street, as I did last Saturday, in New York, at the Killarney Rose.

If I’ve improved as a performer, it’s because I’ve done more readings in the past three months than I’ve done in the past 12 years, and I’ve come to look upon these events with excitement and anticipation rather than dread. I think I did a more than adequate job at the Killarney Rose, despite the fact that I slipped off the chair as I was attempting to balance the book on my thigh as I adjusted the microphone. I’ll blame that on Guinness. But I dare say that I recovered nicely.

Rather than critique my performance, which I’ll leave to others, I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned recently about performing in general, and reading from Beaver Street in particular.

1. I read better when I’m sitting down then when I’m standing up. It’s more relaxing, it gives me less to think about, and it allows me to get lost in the book. The ideal setup, which I didn’t have at the Killarney Rose, is sitting behind a table on an elevated stage, with a microphone, good lighting, and a bottle of water within easy reach. After about ten minutes, my mouth tends to get mighty dry.

2. The so-called “dirty part,” from “The Accidental Porn Star,” about how I posed for an X-rated photo shoot as an experiment in participatory journalism, is something that I wouldn’t read in a lot of bookstores. But it was just the right passage for a New York crowd at the Killarney Rose. The excerpt is one of the comic highlights of Beaver Street, and what makes it work as a performance piece is the fact that it’s written in my natural speaking voice—a perfect rendition of the way I’d tell the story if I were sitting at a bar and talking to a good friend.

3. I found this bit of advice last week on the Internet, and it came as a revelation: Read the funny parts as if they’re not funny.

In previous readings I’d been putting emphasis on certain words and phrases to accentuate the fact that they were supposed to be laugh lines. I didn’t do this at the Killarney Rose, and it seems to have worked.

4. Like any performer, I feed off the energy of the crowd, and the energy Saturday night was electric. I felt the love. It was, simply, the best crowd I’ve ever read to.

A Brief History of Performance Anxiety

April 11, 2012

Tags: Beaver Street, St. Louis, Nowhere Man, performance

In 1971, in my sophomore year of college, when much to my parents' dismay I switched majors from architecture to creative writing, the idea of promoting my work with public performances was completely foreign to everything I saw myself doing as a writer. I hated getting up in front of people and talking. The idea of going on radio or TV was terrifying. I wanted to be a writer because I was good at sitting in a room and writing. And I believed that if I wrote good books then people would buy them, and that's all there was to it.

Forty-one years later, I spend most of my time in sitting a room, writing. And though I still believe that if I write good books people will buy them, I now know that marketing and promotion are far more important than the quality of the book itself. A well-promoted piece of dreck will outsell a great book, if not every time, then certainly most of the time. The trick, I realized, is to write the kind of books that people really want to read, and then emerge from my isolation cell and find a way to sell, sell, sell.

Thirteen years into the game, I’m hardly a novice. It was relatively easy to promote my first book, Nowhere Man, a “controversial” bio about John Lennon that became a bestseller in five countries. When it came out in the booming economy of 2000, people had lots of disposable income to spend on books. And, of course, everybody wanted to talk to me about Lennon. In the first year alone, I did about 150 interviews, spending entire days talking on the radio, doing one show after another, from before dawn until well into the night.

The live radio interview became my medium of choice. When the chemistry’s right, and the interviewer has actually read the book and knows how to put me at ease—The Louie Free Show, which I’ve done about two dozen times, comes to mind—my performance feels like free-form jazz; it can go anywhere.

In the dozen years since Nowhere Man was published, it simply wasn’t necessary to do a lot of readings. But in 2012, with the economy in shambles and the book business in chaos, every book is a tough sell unless your name’s Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. I know that if I want people to read Beaver Street, then I’m going to have to hand-sell it myself, event-by-event, blog-by-blog, reader-by-reader. Which is, of course, why I went to St. Louis.

Unlike, say, New York, St. Louis was immediately receptive, offering me three very different venues—Left Bank Books, Shameless Grounds, and Apop Records—where I could focus on Beaver Street’s literary and pornographic qualities. The media, too, was supportive. The Riverfront Times, for example, chose my Left Bank reading as a pick of the week, along with Fiddler on the Roof.

It was strange to do three live performances in a week. The nervousness-bordering-on-fear before each event was the worst of it. But I have to accept the fact that I need to do this kind of thing as much as possible. Yes, I’m learning as I go, and I know there’s room for improvement. But I also know I’ve written a book that’s well worth reading, and I thank the city of St. Louis for allowing me to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

Now, it’s on to L.A.

Sacred Grounds

April 10, 2012

Tags: St. Louis, Beaver Street, Shameless Grounds, performance

Never in my life have I gotten up in front of a group of people, mostly strangers, but also family and friends, and read to them a passage from a book about how, 25 years ago, as an "experiment in participatory journalism," I committed an obscene and exhibitionistic act with a model I'd never met, as one of my co-workers kneeled before me taking pictures, and another one, ostensibly acting as chaperon, just sat there watching with her eyes bugging out.

But that’s what I did last week, in St. Louis, at the Shameless Grounds coffee house, at the first American Beaver Street event. And the funny thing was, not only did it not feel strange and awkward, but, unlike the experience I was describing in “The Accidental Porn Star,” it felt perfectly natural. As soon as I got the first laugh, I knew it was going to be okay; I knew that I’d somehow matched the perfect passage with the ideal audience. And as one member of that audience, Magnum Chlenow, wrote on the Shameless Grounds site, “The excerpts read by the author were both hilarious and educational. My fiancée and I eagerly bought a copy of the book.”

In fact, when it was over, and people came up to my table to hand over some very hard-earned money for a signed copy of Beaver Street, I felt touched. Which may be why I keep saying “Sacred Grounds” when I mean to say “Shameless Grounds.”

It was an auspicious beginning.

My Midwestern Odyssey

April 9, 2012

Tags: St. Louis, Beaver Street, Shameless Grounds, Kendra Holliday, Left Bank Books, Apop Records, performance

I've just returned to New York from ten days in St. Louis, where I launched Beaver Street in America. I did three readings in six days--more readings than I've done in the past five years. Thus begins the latest phase of a process that began in March 2011, when I went to London to launch the UK edition of the book. And if Beaver Street is anything like Nowhere Man, then these events are going to continue for the next dozen years or so, if not forever. I've got about a month to recover before the next scheduled reading, at Book Soup in L.A.

Sometimes I find it difficult to write when I can’t lock myself in a room, which is one reason I didn’t blog in St. Louis. But I do plan to sort out my thoughts, photos, and videos, over the next few days, and further explore my Midwestern odyssey.

But for now let me say that the atmosphere at each of the three readings was distinctly different. At the Shameless Grounds event, hosted by Sex Positive St. Louis co-founder Kendra Holliday, I read from what I’ve been calling “the filthy chapter.” “The Accidental Porn Star” is about my experiment in participatory journalism: posing for an X-rated photo shoot to gain insight into the mind of a porn stud. The Shameless crowd was enthusiastic, they laughed at all the right parts, and they were full of excellent questions about everything from the legal ramifications of the book to the Traci Lords affair. I’ve never had more fun at a reading.

The well-publicized event at Left Bank Books was more formal and restrained. It was also the first time I’d ever read in a bookstore, rather than at a bar or a publication party. Sarah, who introduced me and is, ironically, the children’s book buyer for Left Bank, told me something I’m beginning to hear quite a bit about Beaver Street—that the book’s depth, and my analysis of the political situation surrounding pornography, surprised her. It wasn’t what she was expecting.

In my presentation, I focused on Beaver Street’s literary heritage, reading from the prologue about my exposure to the “controversial” sex books that my father sold in his candy store many decades ago. Again the crowd was appreciative, and again there were a lot of good questions, many about the fact that the porn industry, like the music industry, is no longer a financially viable business for most people.

Apop Records, on Cherokee Street, is a book/record/clothing store that’s a short walk from where I was staying at my sister-in-law’s house. In the window, among various posters, are photos of the corpses of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald laid out on autopsy tables. This is a good indication of just how edgy Apop is; it’s rare to find a store like this, even in New York. Their selection of books and magazines can best be described as eclectic and counter cultural—volumes about the Black Panthers mingle with books about porn and the zines of Robin Bougie, publisher of Cinema Sewer.

I walked in one afternoon, and introduced myself to Tiffany Minx, who’s the co-owner along with Dustin Newman. Beaver Street was on the shelf that same day, and a reading was organized for Saturday night. I took the opportunity to reprise my Shameless Grounds performance. Because if you can’t read the dirty parts in a place like Apop, with a woman like Tiffany Minx in the audience, then what’s the point in reading at all?

The Writer As Performer

March 27, 2012

Tags: Beaver Street, Mario Puzo, The Godfather, performance

The idea of the writer as performer is often a contradiction in terms. Writers, in general, are solitary, introverted people who are very good at sitting alone in a room and listening to the voices in their head. Getting up in front of a roomful of strangers and reading from a book can be a difficult, even painful thing to do. The skills required to write a good book, which can take years of sitting alone in that room, are not the same skills needed to give the compelling live performance that's often necessary to sell that book, or to get a publishing deal in the first place.

And yet, in the publishing industry, which is undergoing its most wrenching changes since the invention of the printing press, more emphasis is put on a writer’s ability to promote a book after its published than his ability to write the book. Which goes a long way towards explaining why so many lousy books are published.

Several years ago, before the age of social media, I attended a seminar on book promotion sponsored by the Authors Guild. A distinguished panel of PR people, book editors, and very successful writers shared their thoughts with an auditorium full of published authors, many of whom were accomplished in their own right. The head of PR at a major corporate publisher was the first person to speak, and the first thing she said was, “We turn down good books from people we think aren’t good-looking enough.”

You could feel the air go out of the room.

What astonished me was the simple naked truth of this statement. I’d suspected for some time that this, or something like it, was the case, but I’d never heard it expressed so baldly, by a person in a position of authority. And I’m sure a lot of my fellow authors felt exactly as I did: I don’t look like a movie star. I may as well hang it up now.

I thought about Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, one of the best-selling books of all time. Puzo, whom I discuss at length in Beaver Street, was, to put it bluntly, ugly, overweight, and hated going on TV. I wanted to ask this PR woman if she’d have passed on The Godfather because Puzo wasn’t good looking enough. But the answer was self-evident.

Later, a ghostwriter asked the panel a question about promoting ghostwritten books. “Baby,” came the answer from a famous advice columnist, “you’re too good looking to be a ghostwriter. You need to write your own book.”

What became clear by the end of this eye-opening evening was that there are three things publishers are looking for in an author:

1) Somebody who’s young, good looking, and comes across well on TV, i.e., a “celebrity.”
2) Somebody who has their own TV show, a syndicated newspaper column, or a website that gets several hundred thousand hits a day.
3) It helps to have written a book, but if the author has everything in numbers one and two, it’s not really necessary. That’s what ghostwriters are for.

I bring this up now because Beaver Street is being published in America this week, or so I’m told, and as I prepare to leave for St. Louis for the various launch events, the promotion angle is very much on my mind. I’m not young. I’m not beautiful. I’m not a trained performer. But I’ve written a good book, I’ve been doing this promotion thing for a dozen years, and I know, at the least, I give good interview. So, I’m just going to go out there and do the best I can.