Who Decides?

I’m confused. I know what porn writing is: several homes I babysat in as a teenager had Hustler and Penthouse (sometimes I had to search, but they were there). One woman had The Happy Hooker. And now there’s “erotica,” which doesn’t seem a whole lot different. Of course for years contemporary romance writing has been around, which is basically erotica light, but with only one male and one female protagonist, and a happily ever after together forever ending. (Plus there are other romance lines, some less explicit, etc.) All of this is pretty much scorned by the literati, no?

But the literati apparently love Nicholson Baker. I’ve been reading glowing reviews of his “highbrow” sex novels. So I went to look for excerpts. Read a few. Here’s a link to one from his latest novel, House of Holes. Before you click, I have to warn you though it’s only text, the language is graphic, so if you’re at work or simply offended by such, then maybe you should pass. Otherwise, I’d appreciate some opinions. What makes this literary?


Here’s the link.

P.S. This is why AskMen believes it’s literary: new interesting synonyms for “penis,” the flaunting of a prodigious vocabulary, and the diverse nature of human sexuality. [source]


13 responses to “Who Decides?

  1. ‘This is why AskMen believes it’s literary: new interesting synonyms for “penis,” the flaunting of a prodigious vocabulary, and the diverse nature of human sexuality.’

    Okay. You asked. So here goes.

    “Literary” means “stuff guys with PhDs like.” AskMen identified some of the usual characteristics. Instead of being realistic (as yours is), this is a total fantasy: it’s writing as play and pushing boundaries, not writing to create a sense in the reader of truth or beauty or simple pleasure. It’s a different kind of show-offy thing. You will notice that most good writing by women does not go there much.

    “Diverse nature of human sexuality” (as well as “interesting new synonyms for penis”) means “creepy depersonalizing boys pulling wings off of flies kind of sexuality, not the kind most women get or WANT to get.” This is the weird shit that made me say to ex-boyfriend, erm, keep that kind of filthy fantasy to yourself because it creeps me out (and eventually turned me totally off of sex. For awhile.).

    Yours, my dear, suffers from being plausible. And it’s a turn on. Sent me hunting for the battery operated boyfriend. Baker’s was engaging ONLY in the final important way for the judgers of these things: it has political content. Yours is apolitical. You lose.

    Plus you’re a girl. So you’re out of the running by definition. Whether Baker is just pulling the wings off the literary boys here or not would take reading the full novel, to understand that all important political context (and to see whether the AskMen guys were just stacking the deck by pulling the worst bit of text they could find).


  2. Okay. I have a brilliant idea. You know the blog “Stuff White People Like”?

    How about “Stuff Guys with PhDs –or Pretensions– in English Like”?


  3. I’ll quibble with Chris.tine a little. Not all people with Ph.Ds like this kind of drivel but I suspect people with artsy Ph.Ds do.

    Now, the time-honored distinction between pr0n and erotica is lighting.


  4. (Also posted on G+)
    OK, actually I thought it was a hysterically funny take cultural over-sexualization in general and a backhanded incidental slap at TSA and national hypersecurity which may be linked elsewhere in the story to be a really sharp political shot at something or another. (I mean, c’mon, going through a TSA scanner results in EVERYONE getting nekkid and groping passengers? HAH!)

    I think the difference between porn (which I’ve written a bit of) and not-porn (which I’ve written more of) is that in porn, the story serves the sex, and in not-porn, the sex serves the story.

    God, that doesn’t sound a bit pretentious or anything, right? How about this: In porn the story IS sex. In not-porn, no matter how much sex is involved in getting there, there’s a non-sexual (mostly) story/opinion/viewpoint or whatever that’s the actual point of it all. And of course, there’s an enormous grey area between the two that keeps the courts and social conservatives all in a lather.


  5. What Baker is doing is taking the sexual fantasy out of the realm of the real and giving it a wholly imaginary background. In Vox it was phone sex, in The Fermata it was the ability to stop time and do what any adolescent would do. In the new one, there’s a rip in the space-time fabric that allows entry to an entirely fantastical world — which may not be as great as it sounds.

    I think what makes it literary is simply that: he creates a new world for his fantasies, rather than portraying them as fantasies tout court. It’s all wanking, but his is wanking on a higher level. Plus too also, he’s a very good prose writer.


  6. I’m just curious, Alan, if you are responding to Baker’s work in general or to the excerpt in the article. If you didn’t know his work, would you read that bit the same way?


  7. I couldn’t get through much of the excerpt – the writing struck me as pretentious in exactly the way I can’t stand. But I’m sure Alan has a point – maybe his porn just has more story attached, a better plot and better worldbuilding, etc? Plus a lot of people respect that kind of highbrow writing, although I myself find it self-indulgent and would rather you just tell me the damn story rather than try to distract me from it with your cleverness.

    Some people just refuse to give anything they can label as “genre fiction” a chance. They’ll dismiss a romance novel out of hand, even if you assure them it’s very well written and they should check it out, yet fawn all over Jane Austen. Or turn up their noses at horror while agreeing that Poe was a genius. On the other hand it would be an interesting experiment to pull a random novel out of the romance section in Barnes and Noble, give it a sedate and dignified cover, and change where it’s shelved. I bet you’d get a fair chunk of people claiming they could see the Emperor’s clothes.

    I also think that once a genre has been flooded with crap, it’s hard to live down that reputation. Chick lit wasn’t bad when it was the first Bridget Jones’ Diary, but then everyone started pushing out junk to take advantage of the trend, and now it would be an uphill battle to write something in that category that got much respect. Multiply that by a thousand for vampire stories post-Twilight.


  8. I’m not very literary. I was just trying to figure out some definition for prOn, and believe it is generally bad, sketchy fiction with lots of gratuitous, lavishly written sex in it. LIterature–with non-gratuitous sex in it–would be literature none-the-less. This struck me as literature with gratuitous sex in it, so I don’t know what it’s trying to be.
    At the risk of giving off TMI, I would say this particular piece is not arousing at all, so, for me, not a fan of high-brow literature, it’s not that good for anything. I would rather read of Laslo’s observation of Denise walking past him in her light green waitress’s uniform, or Heinlein’s description of a young woman who was “a pleasant armful.” Or, for that matter, any of a thousand descriptions of women who enter the dingy, darkly lit offices of private eyes in Anytown, USA. My favorite, by the way, was Woody Allens, saying “her figure described a pair of parabolas that would cause cardiac arrest in a yak.”
    Sorry, I realize this was a lot of comment just to say, I don’t know.


  9. @Teacake: “They’ll dismiss a romance novel out of hand, even if you assure them it’s very well written… it would be an interesting experiment to pull a random novel out of the romance section, give it a sedate and dignified cover, and change where it’s shelved.”

    Once would work.

    The real difficulty with books-written-to-a-template is that the first one can indeed be well written but all the rest are cut-and-paste.


    • I don’t think that’s entirely true. We’ve had plenty of well written hero’s journeys since The Odyssey and Beowulf. You can easily identify many parts of that template in Huck Finn, but I’d go so far as to suggest he’s an improvement on both.

      Romance’s cute meet –> misunderstanding/animosity –> sweet lurrrrve –> overcoming the final obstacle together is no different from the heroic cycle’s crossing the threshold–> road of trials –> boon –> return, apart from the latter’s being much older. Just because audiences for a particular type of story want and expect a certain structure doesn’t mean you can’t do something fabulous with it.


  10. I’m going completely non-litrary here: porn is “Letters to Penthouse.” This is nothing like that.I can’t imagine a Borders customer taking this into the bathroom like the latest copy of “Barely Legal.” This crap makes me barf, though. Simply using the word “clit” is not that provocative.


  11. Yeah, I dunno. But I still crack open my well-worn copy of “Vox” to feel anonymously tingly sometimes.


  12. Well, I don’t know what we’re arguing about here. The Nicholson Baker piece doesn’t seem to be erotica, it’s literary fiction using sexual images to talk about feeling violated. I don’t know you you get porn out of that. I can see how you could get erotica out of that, because erotica seems to me to be more out there and uncomfortable than good old fashioned sex writing. Erotica is slowly easing a 7-up bottle up your ass. Porn is polishing the knob while thinking of your mother’s hot friend.

    But whatever, I don’t think you can take the accolades of “the literati” as an endorsement of a piece of writing as porn or erotica or what-have-you. Lit fiction has always been about saying X, while meaning Y, and letting the reader understand it as Z. It’s a shell game of meaning and not intended to represent the world clearly, the way journalism or political punditry do. (heh.)

    While I enjoyed the Baker piece, it did not arouse me and I didn’t think it was about sex. Paula’s piece was more about sex and did arouse me, except that one of the characters shared my name and that made me feel self conscious and ooged me out, as if my parents were watching me have sex with Paula, which is entirely another story and which would have to be classified as “erotica” because I think it’s pretty oogy in general. (the parents watching part, not the sex with Paula part, which is totally wholesome and good, in a perverted and wrong way, if you know what I’m sayin’, even if I’m not particularly sure I do.)

    It’s been a weekend of oogy thoughts, folks, starting when my Mom’s friend, E, ever the provocateur, told me she was thinking of bringing her daughter, K, with her to the wedding (my mom’s) but that K would have to wear her Sorel boots, which are big, mukluk-looking snow boots.

    And the significance of that tidbit is that K and I had an evening involving beers, a sauna, and dashing out into the snow way back in the eighties, and, while no explicit hanky panky occured, the image of K’s overripe, naked ass, bobbing as she ran in her snow boots, was burned so inexorably into my brain that I get that tingly feeling down there every time I see a woman in Sorels.

    For many years, the origin of this feeling was a mystery to me. I recall the first time I felt the power of my fetish when my friend, K2, sadly now deceased of breast cancer two years ago, got up from our table in the cafeteria and walked away, slowly in her 501’s and… yes… Sorel boots. I nearly passed out. I mean K2 was pretty, really super model pretty, but I’m a guy that can talk to pretty women without my eyes going gray and having my armor clatter about me, to borrow a homeric idiom. It was a weird feeling.

    Apparently I had explained this phenomenon to my mother who relayed it to E, who may or may not have related it to K, who politely refused to come. Which might be a good thing, because frankly, even the thought of K, now 50 and sight unseen for so many years, naked in her Sorels was enough to make me wake up at 3 AM with a screaming Norton that I had to flog into submission if I was ever to get to sleep again. Which is great. I really need my mother’s friends coming up with ways to drive me nuts.


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