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Flatbush Flashback

An Encyclopedic Knowledge of Applied Obscenity Laws

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.
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