The Sporadic Beaver

Deconstructing Sonja

August 9, 2011

Tags: Sonja Wagner, art, smut, Beaver Street, Steve Colby, John Lee-Graham, Falcon Foto, D-Cup

They're rioting in England! The economy's melting down! Everything's out of control! So let's talk about art again.

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.

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.

Thy Daily Sonja

July 26, 2011

Tags: Sonja Wagner, art, smut, Beaver Street, Falcon Foto

The past few days I’ve been posting the erotic paintings of Sonja Wagner, a character in Beaver Street and my art director when I was editing porn mags. I’ve used these images to explore the question: What is art and what is smut? The three previous paintings, “Reclining Girl,” “Single Girl in Motion,” and “Standing Girl,” are all, clearly, art, and for that reason I didn’t hesitate to post, uncensored, the entire image.

Today’s image is a detail from “Tropical Girl/Boy,” a startling 90" x 60" oil on canvas, based on a pictorial shot by Falcon Foto. Yes, this, too, is art. But I’m not posting the entire painting because it’s far filthier than any of her other erotic paintings—the “girl” is holding in her hand the semi-erect penis of the “boy.” Even if Sonja were as famous as Michelangelo and dead for 500 years, The New York Times wouldn’t post the entire image, and those are the unassailable standards we go by at The Daily Beaver, at least when it comes to art.

However, if you’re over 18 and you want to see “Tropical Girl/Boy” in all its naked glory, please click here.

Why? Because the art of Sonja Wagner is fun to look at. Do you need a better reason?

Reclining Girl

July 25, 2011

Tags: Sonja Wagner, art, smut, D-Cup, Beaver Street, John Lee-Graham, Danni Ashe

Between the massacre in Norway, the death of Amy Winehouse, the domestic terrorists posing as Republican Congressmen who are threatening to torpedo the US economy, and the 100-degree temperatures that baked New York City, all of which happened over one dreadful weekend, there’s a lot to recover from today. And one way to recover is to contemplate a work of erotic art.

To continue the ever-provocative Art vs. Smut debate, I’ll share another painting by Sonja Wagner, who was my art director on D-Cup and numerous other smut rags for 15 years.

If you’ve been keeping up with this blog then you know that Wagner’s a character in Beaver Street, and the only “private citizen” who allowed me to use her real name in the book. And if you’ve read Beaver Street, then you know she has some of the best lines. (See pages 123-124, for example.)

The woman in “Reclining Girl”—based on a layout of a John Lee-Graham photo set that Wagner designed for D-Cup—is Danni Ashe. Ashe, whose career I discuss in detail in Beaver Street, was the first model to discover that it was possible to have a virtual career in cyberspace. She launched her website, “Danni’s Hard Drive,” in 1995. It made her a “dot-cum” millionaire and took her from the cover of D-Cup to the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

But is it art? Ms. Wagner, would you care to respond?

“One of the pornographer's stock images—the ‘single girl’—returns in this work, but turned to my own ends,” says Wagner. “Instead of a quick, crude, easily replicable photograph intended for physical release, I offer an intensively detailed painting that asks the viewer to look again and again: to take pleasure in line, design and color.”

I hope “Reclining Girl” brings you a moment of pleasure in these traumatic times.

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.

The Business of Smut: Critique #5

June 18, 2011

Tags: John Holmes, Mike Sager, Slate, Rolling Stone, Boogie Nights, Wonderland, Susan Faludi, smut

John Holmes
Well written, well researched, and consistently interesting, “The Devil and John Holmes,” by freelance journalist Mike Sager, is the best of the five pieces about the smut biz recommended by Slate. I read this 12,500-word article when it ran in the June 15, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone. I enjoyed it then and it still holds up now. According to Sager’s Website, the story served as inspiration for the films Boogie Nights and Wonderland.

Thumbnail Critique
Plot: A detailed account of John Holmes’s involvement in the mass murder of a gang of LA drug dealers.
Mood: Hard-boiled crime story meets the history of pornography.
Highlight: John Holmes discovers he has an enormous penis.
Sample Quote: “In a career that would span twenty years, Holmes made 2,274 hardcore pornographic films, had sex with 14,000 women. At the height of his popularity, he earned $3,000 a day on films and almost as much turning tricks, servicing wealthy men and women on both coasts and in Europe. Since the late Sixties, Holmes had traded on his natural endowment. His penis, when erect, according to legend, measured between eleven and fifteen inches in length.”
Also See: “The Money Shot” by Susan Faludi

The Business of Smut: Critique #4

June 17, 2011

Tags: Slate, Zak Smith, We Did Porn, Tyra Banks, Sasha Grey, smut

Zak Smith is a serious writer and artist; one of his books is titled Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow. He’s also “alternative” porn star Zak Sabbath, and he has a great haircut, the importance of which should not be underestimated, especially in the writing biz.

“Barely Legal Whores Get Gang F***ed,” a 3,600-word excerpt from Smith’s book We Did Porn (2009), is an archly knowing, anti-erotic critique of Tyra Banks and an episode of her TV show, featuring porn star Sasha Grey (whom Smith calls Tasha Rey), a teenage prostitute, and a “fat whore.” Why Slate chose this as a great piece of writing about the smut biz isn’t clear. It’s only tangentially about the smut biz.

Thumbnail Critique
Thesis: Tyra Banks is a hypocrite.
Format: Highly opinionated shot-by-shot description of one episode of The Tyra Banks Show.
Mood: Ironic
Sample Quote: “Tasha talks about the ways she likes to have sex. She is still in the horrible driving shot, where she is looking not at the cameraman, who must be sitting in the well of the passenger seat, but straight out the windshield. It makes her look creepily detached from the very many deviant sex acts and perversions she’s describing.”
Also See: The Tyra Banks Show

The Business of Smut: Critique #3

June 16, 2011

Tags: Slate, Susannah Breslin, They Shoot Porn Stars Don’t They?, Andrea Dworkin, Orrin Hatch, Beaver Street, Jim Powers, Ryan Hunter, Martin Amis, smut

Next up in my critique of great “smut” writing recommended by Slate is a 10,000-word excerpt of a self-published book, They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They? (2009), by freelance journalist Susannah Breslin, who also blogs about being downsized for Forbes magazine.

A collection of interviews and reportage conducted on the sets of various X-rated videos, the piece is a classic example of the Andrea Dworkin School of Anti-Porn Writing. And it’s hard to say who might consider it “great” other than Senator Orrin Hatch, who will undoubtedly use Breslin’s book as evidence in his quest to persuade the Justice Department to launch a vigorous investigation of the porn industry.

I’ve no doubt that Breslin did an enormous amount of research and reporting. But to present her findings as “typical” strikes me as a gross distortion. The essential problem with the piece, I think, is that the author lacks any genuine sympathy for the people she’s writing about. Clearly she finds them interesting, but she never lets the reader forget that she’s not one of them, that she’s above it all, that pornographers are some other species, not quite human.

Yet, Breslin also displays far less ignorance than many others writers I’ve read who’ve done similar stories. And she explores a number of issues that I cover in Beaver Street, such as the predilection of conservative administrations, like Bush II, to declare war on porn, often with embarrassing results.

Thumbnail Critique
Thesis: Porn is bad. Porn is stupid. Porn is ugly. Porn is violent. Blame it on the recession and free Internet porn.
Mood: Grim and humorless.
Highlight: Breslin interviews Jim Powers and porn star Ryan Hunter as he directs her in Fuck Machine 5, a video in which the “costar” is an “animatronic phallus” rather than a human male.
Sample Quote: [A man interviews a porn star on camera] “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I work in porn.”
“Whore?”
“Of course.”
“Absolute whore, right?”
“Yes.”
“What kind of whore?”
“Dirty whore.”
“Piece of shit whore?”
“Piece of shit whore.”
Also See: “A Rough Trade” by Martin Amis

The Business of Smut: Critique #2

June 15, 2011

Tags: Natasha Vargas-Cooper, The Atlantic, Andrea Dworkin, Slate, Martin Amis, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Gail Dines, anal sex, smut

Allow me to begin my critique of “Hard Core,” by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, which ran in the January 2011 issue of The Atlantic, by saying that the author, judging by the photo on her website, is an exotically attractive brunette. Though looks are, of course, irrelevant to a writer’s ability, when a writer, male or female, writes about their sex life, one can only wonder: What does he or she look like? Well, Ms. Vargas-Cooper is no Andrea Dworkin. She is an LA-based freelance writer and former union organizer. And her 4,000-word essay, which Slate included on their list of great “smut” writing, can best be described as a quasi-academic, post-feminist, semi-personal thought piece that quotes from the likes of Martin Amis, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael.

Thumbnail Critique
Thesis: The prevalence and instant availability of Internet porn has transformed sexuality.
Highlight: A one-night stand with a “polite,” “educated” man who can only get aroused if he has anal sex with the author.
Sample Quote: “You could be poking around for some no-frills Web clips of amateur couples doing it missionary style, but easily and rapidly you slide into footage of two women simultaneously working their crotches on opposing ends of a double-sided dildo, and then all of a sudden you’re at a teenage-fisting Web site.”
Also see: Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, by Gail Dines

The Business of Smut: Critique #1

June 14, 2011

Tags: Slate, smut, LA Weekly, Larry Flynt, Prisoner of X

As a public service, I’ve taken it upon myself to read the “five great reads about the business of smut” recommended by Slate, and began with “Scenes from My Life in Porn,” a 10,000-word opus, by Evan Wright, that ran in the April 6, 2000 edition of LA Weekly. I started with Wright because his experiences seemed similar to my own in certain ways, and he did transform his life after his three-year stint in porn, publishing books and getting high-profile magazine assignments.

Thumbnail Critique
Plot: Total loser lands job at Larry Flynt Publications (LFP), writing “girl copy” and reviewing porn videos. He meets porn stars and directors.
Format: Anecdotal
Mood: Depressed and depressing
Highlight: Watching a gang bang video with its naked, HIV-positive star, Brooke Ashley.
Sample Quote: “Fortunately, LFP provided a safe, nurturing environment for disturbed individuals exorcising their personal demons through pornography writing.”
Sample of Wright’s Girl Copy: Dee is “now free of the psychiatrist’s drugs that once made her a complete zombie with no will of her own, nor any control over what she did with her body.”
Also See: Prisoner of X by Allan MacDonell