Friday, September 23, 2005

BOOKS: Sometimes It's Hard to Be a Woman... Who Likes Porn

I should be more specific: sometimes it's hard to be a woman and talk about liking porn. So most times I just don't. But in the spirit of full disclosure (and if you can't overshare on the internet, where can you?), I must tell you that I recently read an item of pornographic literature, and it wasn't bad. If you like your porn on the arty side, you might like it, too.

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker (#39)
Women who talk openly about liking porn tend to fall into one of two camps. First, you have your Anka Radakovich types who, by virtue of being Chicks Who Dig Porn! Just Like One of the Guys!, act as if they
invented it. And then you have your "erotica" fans, who seem to take their filth a little too seriously. I'm all for living and letting live, but personally I don't think orgasms need to be all that earnest.

I can appreciate how it is that women get into their respective camps. Most people's first exposure to porn is through those ubiquitous seven-word-sexual-vocabulary Penthouse Forum letters. I can see how some chicks would embrace the laddish filth, while others would wrinkle their noses and head toward higher(brow) ground.

My older brother was far too skilled at hiding his porn stash, so I missed out on this rite of passage. Instead, I cut my teeth on a copy of Anais Nin's Delta of Venus, which I stole from my best friend's dad's library when I was fourteen. (Is there anything more awesome than stolen porn? If there is, I don't want to know about it.) So the bar automatically set itself a bit higher.

Me? I like good dirty stories. I like them to be well-written by obviously smart people. I like them to have original plots. And, please lord, I like them not to be riddled with typos. Call me a freak, but almost nothing turns me off faster than spelling mistakes.

The Fermata is all these things. Written as a first-person Humbert Humbert-esque confessional, it tells the story of a man who, on and off since he was a young boy, has had the ability to stop time for everyone but himself. During this void, he doesn't choose to rob banks or catch up on his sleep (usually). No, instead he chooses to disrobe and study attractive women.

It's a creepy premise, and it's meant to be. And yet, as invasive and predatory as the narrator is, there's a core of harmlessness in his actions that lets you see them in a different light. He's delusional, yes, but he's also rather fumblingly charming and he rationalizes his behaviour thusly: he only does what he does out of sheer love and admiration for the female form, and he doesn't hurt or traumatize anyone.

You would think that this premise might not sustain for an entire novel, but miraculously it does, and even evolves into a rather sweet -- if bizarre -- love story. Baker is an amazingly inventive writer, creating situation after situation, each more convoluted than the last. And he's a dazzling word ninja; I frequently found myself re-reading passages solely to enjoy the wordplay.

As creative smut goes, I give this an A-. Nice work.

Hollywood Wives: The New Generation by Jackie Collins (#40)
I found this on the meagre bookshelves of a cottage that
Rusty Iron and I rented a while back. As we all know, the first rule of vacation reading is that any novel found at your destination trumps whatever books you brought with you to read, no matter how great. And the second rule is, so long as you don't pay to read a trashy novel, you can read it without any loss of self-worth.

Hollywood Wives: The New Generation is no The Fermata. That's fine. Problem is, it's not even as good as the original Hollywood Wives, which, after Delta of Venus, has the dubious honour of being the second dirty book I managed to get my mitts on and devour (over and over).

Don't get me wrong. The first Hollywood Wives (published in 1983) is not literature. It's not even terribly imaginative. But what it lacks in creativity, it more than makes up for in enthusiastically raunchy, detailed descriptions of (rather vanilla) sex. But Hollywood Wives: The New Generation lacks even that.

What happened to Jackie Collins? She's lost what edge she had. And surely people aren't buying her books now based on the strength of their
plots, are they? And don't even get me started on the grammar and punctuation. I've never seen so many libido-destroying comma blunders in one place in my life.

Sadly, Ms. Collins gets only a D+ for this effort.


Anonymous said...

Could you give me your opinion of the Anne Rice Sleeping Beauty series? I loved it but I didn't know how it ranked it your world of arty porn...

Anonymous said...

I finished The Fermata, about a month ago. And, I felt like you did. It was my second Baker book; my first was his Vox. I know Vox has gotten a strange reputation after becoming known primarily as a gift exchanged during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, but it's really a better book than that. I'm so happy to see someone else talking about how sexy his writing can be.

Dave said...

"Call me a freak, but almost nothing turns me off faster than spelling mistakes."

Hmm. I'm just gonna go ahead and rank 'fecal matter in the teeth' a step higher than 'typos'.

Tammy said...

Well, Dave, there's where you and I will have to agree to disagree. Heh.

Hmm... Jenn, I haven't read the Sleeping Beauty series, but I have read Exit to Eden and thought it was surprisingly good. Well, the dirty bits were. The storyline bogged down, but the first half of the book was solid. Prior to reading it, I thought that S&M sounded rather tedious, at least as practised by all the people who write articles or make documentaries about it. Yaaaawn. But Rice actually breathed life into it, both by making the S&M scenes truly original and by explaining some of the reasons why people practise S&M in a way I could finally understand.

I remember about ten years ago wanting to understand S&M more, because while I'm not into it at all myself, I am interested in the idea of sexual subcultures. So I got a copy of the Marquis de Sade's Justine. I say "got a copy" because I could only read about a quarter of it before I had to put it down. I don't know if any of you have read it, but it starts off fairly mild and gets increasingly more hardcore -- eventually getting into some stomach-churning torture and necrophilia -- to the point that I had to turf my copy because it looked evil to me after that. I was kind of upset that I'd even tacitly supported it by paying for it.

So anyway, THAT was my early conception of S&M, so then learning about how S&M is mostly practised (at least in the sources that are out there in the mainstream public) was more than a little anticlimactic. It just seems so vanilla. I'm not saying S&M-ers should be more like de Sade's characters -- good god, no -- but it just seems like they've traded one kind of formulaic sex for another. What I liked about Exit to Eden was that it showed something between de Sade's world and the vanilla S&M world: a place where adults could engage in some pretty freaky, imaginative stuff while still being totally consensual.

Did any of that make sense?

Er, anyway. Thanks for the props, Anonymous. I have to admit though, that I went into The Fermata with not an entirely open mind. I was inclined to write Baker off as a bit of a ponce -- all style, no substance -- but as I made my way through the book, I realized that he's actually quite funny, and his clever wordplay isn't a cover-up for having no ideas. I don't think I was as impressed with Vox, but I read it so long ago, I can't really remember.

Anonymous said...

If you liked The Fermata, you should read Vox, also by Nicholson Baker. The premise is simple - just 150 pages of two smart, creative and horny strangers having phone sex. It has the bonus of being both very hot and well-written.

For added titillation, read it in a crowded coffee shop. It adds a certain something to the experience...

Anonymous said...

Since the Sleeping Beauty series is almost all "dirty bits" and Anne Rice seems to do those pretty well, you might want to pick them up. I enjoyed them.

(And yes, your post made sense and thanks for the warning about Justine.)