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Flatbush Flashback

Personal Faves: Volume II

This week I've been celebrating the third anniversary of The Daily Beaver with a look back at the ten most popular posts and a selection of some of my personal favorites. As I was putting together Volume II of my personal faves this morning, it reminded me that anniversaries also serve a practical purpose: They are a time to take stock, evaluate, put things in perspective--to see what's come out of this three year frenzy of writing, promotion, and travel. So, once again, here's a random selection of blog posts that caught my eye.

The Business of Smut: Critique #2 (June 15, 2011)
A review of "Hard Core," by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, one of the articles Slate selected as an example of great writing about the porn industry.

The Real Life of a Beaver Street Character (July 15, 2011)
Izzy Singer steps out of Beaver Street to publish a shocking pornographic e-book.

Still on the Bus (Aug. 4, 2011)
A review of Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Cool Place, and a tribute to my friend John Babbs, who passed away last year. I ran this photo essay on my other blog, Maiscott & Rosen, because you can't run multiple photos on The Daily Beaver.

Yossarian Taught Here (Aug. 18, 2011)
A memoir by Joseph Heller’s daughter, Erica, prompted me to jot down some of my own memories of Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, and one of my creative writing professors at City College.

The Trials of Traci Lords (Jan. 10, 2013)
A further exploration of one of the main subjects of Beaver Street: At age 44, the once underage porn superstar seems to have stopped complaining about being “exploited.” Instead, Lords complains that people won’t let her forget her X-rated teenage exploits.

Tomorrow, Volume III Read More 

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Blog's in Your Court, Ms. Breslin

A few months ago, I wrote a series of reviews about five articles that Slate had cited as "great writing" about the porn industry. Some of these articles, I thought, were hardly examples of great writing, and one of them was barely about the porn industry.

Recently, one of the writers I critiqued responded on her blog to my review of her porn book and to general criticism of her work. In a piece called “This Is Why You’re Stupid, or How to Deal with Criticism on the Internet,” Susannah Breslin took issue with anonymous posters who’ve called her a “c***,” a “f***ing moron,” and a “festering boil.” Her conclusion: Don’t blog if you don’t have a thick skin, and it’s better to get a vicious reaction than no reaction at all. I couldn’t agree more, especially about the thick skin.

I’ve written similar pieces myself, most recently comparing two Nowhere Man reviews that appeared on Amazon the same day, one a five-star rave (in Italian) and the other (since deleted) a one-star hatchet job. I pointed out that this is a microcosm of the type of criticism that Nowhere Man has been subjected to for the past 11 years, that it’s as if the critics had read two different books, and that it’s always the most ignorant critics who post the most vicious comments.

In any case, Breslin devoted a good portion of her blog to analyzing my criticism of her book They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?. She didn’t like my comparing her to the late Andrea Dworkin because Dworkin, she said, was “passionately anti-porn” and she isn’t. She thinks it’s unlikely that Senator Orrin Hatch will use her book as evidence in his anti-porn crusade, as I predicted. She disliked the fact that I called her writing “humorless” because, she insisted, she has a sense of humor. And she said I seemed to suggest that Beaver Street is a better book than They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?.

Well, I’ve reread my critique of Breslin’s book, and I think it still stands up. Breslin might not be like Andrea Dworkin, the person, but her book is definitely anti-porn in a way that Dworkin would have liked. And Breslin’s thesis—that porn is bad, stupid, ugly, and violent—plays right into Orrin Hatch’s hands, confirming everything he says about the industry and the need to investigate it more vigorously. (His crusade appears to have stalled for the time being, which may be why he hasn’t yet presented Breslin’s book as evidence.)

I didn’t say that Breslin doesn’t have a sense of humor. One can indeed be detected in “This Is Why You’re Stupid.” I described the mood of They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They? as “grim and humorless”—because it is.

And finally, I didn’t suggest that Beaver Street is a better book than They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?. I said only that Breslin covered some similar material in her book, specifically, “the predilection of conservative administrations, like Bush II, to declare war on porn, often with embarrassing results.”

Ms. Breslin, I feel as if we’re playing tennis, and the blog’s back in your court. But before you return my serve, perhaps you should decide for yourself how Beaver Street stacks up against They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?. U.S. pub date is March 23, 2012. Review copies are available now, and, in my opinion, you’re more qualified than most people to review it. Beaver Street, I might add, is very much up your pink slip and recession alley. Read More 
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The Business of Smut: Critique #5

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 Read More 
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The Business of Smut: Critique #4

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 Read More 
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The Business of Smut: Critique #3

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.”
“Of course.”
“Absolute whore, right?”
“What kind of whore?”
“Dirty whore.”
“Piece of shit whore?”
“Piece of shit whore.”
Also See: “A Rough Trade” by Martin Amis Read More 
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The Business of Smut: Critique #2

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 Read More 
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The Business of Smut: Critique #1

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 Read More 
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Five Great Reads About the Business of Smut

At least that’s what they’re calling it on Slate, in a piece that somehow overlooks my own contribution to the genre, Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. Of course, I don’t take such slights personally. I just added a comment, pointing out their oversight. (I urge you to do the same, assuming you regard Beaver Street as a great read.)

For the record, the five reads they selected are: The Devil and John Holmes, by Mike Sager, from Rolling Stone; They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?, by Susannah Breslin (self published, 2009); Scenes from My Life in Porn, by Evan Wright, from LA Weekly; Barely Legal Whores Get Gang F***ed, by Zac Smith (Rumpus, 2009); and Hard Core, by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, from Atlantic. Read More 
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