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Far From Flatbush

On the Responsibility of the Critic

 

The other day I responded to a review of Beaver Street, by Kate Gould, posted on a British site, Review 31. I took Gould to task for what was essentially a dishonest review, but limited my criticism to the review's most blatant and verifiable misstatement: "Rosen excluded female pornographers entirely from his history." Female pornographers, I said, are one of the book's main subjects.

Another critic, Neil Chesanow, has now taken this one step further, posting on the Review 31 site a detailed deconstruction of the review's inherent dishonesty. Chesanow's critique, in my opinion, is far more interesting and informative than the review itself. In fact, it does what Gould's review should have done in the first place: It provides an accurate picture of what
Beaver Street is about.

Since Chesanow's piece might get lost among the other comments, I'm posting it here in its entirety.


By Neil Chesanow
It is a pity that a tyro reviewer with a political ax to grind saw fit to trash a funny, witty, engaging, informative history/memoir of the modern pornography industry because it wasn’t the feminist screed she had absolutely no right to hope it would be. As a result, her review is much more about her than it is about the book: a mark of rank amateurism.

Ms. Gould announces her misgivings about the porno industry early on. That alone should have disqualified her from reviewing the book; she lacks the objectivity necessary to write a bona fide review. She writes, for example, that she had hoped “Rosen’s account of the industry might engage intelligently with such issues” as “consent and the way in which porn teaches boys to view and treat women.”

If Ms. Gould knew a little bit more about feminist history, however, she would know that such a book—in fact, a whole flock of them—has already been written, primarily by feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, by women (and some men) who were mainly members of the radical feminist group Women Against Pornography. They included Susan Brownmiller, Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley, Gloria Steinham, Shere Hite, Lois Gould, Robin Morgan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and the incomparable Andrea Dworkin, who maintained, among other bizarre notions, that all sex is rape.

There is no need for yet another of these books, and Mr. Rosen’s publisher, Headpress, would surely have rejected a manuscript along the lines that Ms. Gould would have liked to see because it has been done (and done, and done), and the desire for such a book today, even among the pathetically small number of women left who still consider themselves card-carrying feminists, is next to nil.

The subtitle of Mr. Rosen’s book, A History of Modern Pornography, Ms. Gould insists on taking literally in order to score her own points. In fact, Beaver Street is a memoir through which history is interwoven, and this is evident on the very first page. Ms. Gould writes that Mr. Rosen is “heavily biased” and “unable or unwilling to consider the existence or validity of any opinion other than his own.” Well, yes, because, you see, that is what a memoir is. Ironically, the same could be said of Ms. Gould’s review.

Ms. Gould unfairly takes Mr. Rosen to task for asserting that porn actress Traci Lords transformed “the ‘young girl’ into an object of such intense fascination, it’s now the single most profitable sector of the porno-industrial complex.” Mr. Rosen has scapegoated Ms. Lords, Ms. Gould contends, because “paedophilia is as old as time.” Yes, yes, but the porno-industrial complex, about which Mr. Rosen writes, is not as old as time, it is a recent invention, and its emergence roughly coincides with Mr. Rosen’s entry into it, which is precisely what makes his perspective on that industry valuable. It would be lovely to have a reviewer who could get such basic facts straight.

Ms. Gould snarkily sums up that “if you're looking for a dude’s take on smut mags, Beaver Street might be quite titillating.” Unfortunately, though, it seems she does not understand what the word titillating means: pleasantly stimulating, exciting, and erotic. Beaver Street is none of these things. Mr. Rosen’s deep ambivalence and frequent disgust with what he was doing during his porno years precludes that. Yes, the book mentions gangbangs and all manner of sexual acts, but none of these are lovingly described in salacious detail, not even Mr. Rosen’s account of his brief romantic relationship with a porno actress, which is tender and tawdry all at once—fascinating, yes, but erotic, no.

Ms. Gould is free to dislike Mr. Rosen’s book, but when one reviews a book for a public audience, one has a responsibility to review the work fairly on its own terms, not on a completely different set of purely solipsistic and irrelevant terms idiosyncratic to the reviewer. Ms. Gould fails to live up to this responsibility. Instead of serving us, the readers, she uses her review as opportunity to serve herself. Her review is titled “Masturbation Fodder.” And that is exactly what it is: not the book, the review.

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