Monday, August 15, 2011

A Dirty Smutter Writes to the New York Times Sunday Magazine

I'm not sure why I was so affected by Charles McGrath's profile of Nicholson Baker, "The Mad Scientist of Smut."  There are certainly many more issues involving the future of our economy, the environment and education that I feel much more strongly about than an elite journalist's discomfort discussing sexual themes maturely and his glaring ignorance about sexually authentic literature in our country.  In fact, after reading a few more reviews of Baker's latest book, House of Holes, I'm beginning to suspect poor McGrath found himself with a difficult assignment--trying to frame a truly pornographic book (and I use that term not with derision but in the sense that the writing privileges fantasy and avoids the complications and consequences of sex in the real world) as something a New York Times audience should find significant.

Nonetheless this article and its many assumptions touched a nerve and have inspired me to write not just a blog post at Good Vibrations, "Does Sex Have to Be Stupid?" but also a letter to Mr. McGrath himself.  I haven't received a reply, and I don't expect one.  I honestly don't imagine the man continued to read my email after the first line or two.  But I am glad, for the sake of refining my own position about an issue I do care about, that I organized my thoughts and spoke out for all writers who have the courage to explore sex honestly.  (Mr. Baker hardly needs my support as he cries his way to the bank!) I suspect Mr. McGrath felt "dirty-book writers" were an easy target for his insults as surely none of us would dare to come forward from our slimy holes to protest.

But I did.

Here's what I said:

Dear Mr. McGrath,

Although I’ve admired your articles in the past, I feel compelled to write to you to express dismay at the tone of your recent profile of Nicholson Baker, “The Mad Scientist of Smut.”   Presumably Baker and his work were deemed worthy of an article in one of our country’s most prestigious magazines.  He is a literary author with impeccable credentials, who also has the courage to explore one of our last literary taboos.  Why then is he demeaned, even mocked, as a “dirty-book writer,” with quotes chosen from his work that, out of context, indeed sound as ridiculous as if they come straight out of Penthouse Letters?  I expected more from a journalist of your stature than a titillating supermarket tabloid description of Vox as “so steamy Monica Lewinsky gave it as a gift to Bill Clinton.”  Surely your readership would appreciate a more nuanced look at a possible reason for the gift of a book about two lonely people who form an unexpected, momentary, but profound connection through intimate confessions.  Semen-stained dresses and cigars aside, this very likely constituted the essence of the Clinton-Lewinsky friendship and acknowledges that Baker’s work has value far above “smut.”

I was also confused by the presentation of Baker as a both a bizarre anomaly (“What kind of person dreams up this stuff?”) and the only serious author of our time who dares to tackle sexually honest themes.  Countless writers of literary merit, many of them women, have been writing frankly, and therefore often in an arousing manner, about sexuality. This is not a case of “mixed motives.”  An exploration of the secret and often subversive aspects of the human experience is the great project of literature—eroticism has finally been allowed its chance alongside the other passions of the human heart.   Unfortunately, as I read your article, I felt I was learning more about our elite culture’s lingering prejudices and discomfort with sexual honesty than Baker or his work.

I’m sure you will acknowledge that intelligent people, no matter how cerebral and dignified in their public lives, have sexual feelings and erotic imaginations.  The Judeo-Christian religious tradition has long attempted to deny this.  William Shawn's New Yorker endeavored to protect its refined upper-middle-class readers from unseemly words and topics.  But we live in a very different world now.  We can leave sex to the “dirty-book writers,” or, like Baker and so many other fine authors, we can try to approach it with intelligence, wit, and an eye for complexity and nuance.  We can feel soothed that Baker’s children will, “very sensibly,” not admit to a journalist that they’ve read much less admired his sexually explicit novels. Or we can question why sexuality and parenthood, one undeniably linked to the other, must be kept at such a distance in our culture.

It is perhaps too romantic of me to expect that The New York Times would be able to transcend deeply-rooted cultural messages about the “dirtiness” of sex, but in the American tradition of optimism, I nurture the hope that more journalists will treat the erotic imagination with the respect and maturity it deserves.  Perhaps you, too, will consider doing so in future articles?


Donna George Storey, Ph.D.


Erobintica said...

Wonderful letter, Donna!!!

Sekrit Shoppa said...

Dr Donna, you are my heroine. Wonderful, wonderful stuff, and if he doesn't reply he is a churl.

Kathleen Bradean said...


Anonymous said...

Bravo, Donna!

Felix Baron

Donna said...

Thank you so much for your support, Robin, Justine, Kathleen and Felix. Part of the reason I can allow myself to speak out like this is because there are so many excellent, smart writers--and I mean you guys!--who can capture the complexity and magic of sex who are unacknowledged by places like the NYT. They act as if Baker comes out of nowhere, the only "smart" person who ever dared to write about sex. They choose not to take a good look at the erotica revolution of the past decades and how "dirty-book writing" has changed, especially with women finally being given a voice. Well, obviously I could go on and on, but again, thanks!

Jordan LaRousse said...

Really wonderful response Donna. We all need to stand up for the value of erotica in our literary canon. It's been belittled by far too many for far too long.

Craig Sorensen said...

Hear, hear, Donna. You've hit the nail on the head.

I hope he does read this in its entirety; it can only serve to open his mind.

Susana Mayer, Ph.D. said...

Wonder how I would be viewed? As Muse to erotic writers, perhaps the 'Mother' of smutter.

Anonymous said...

An extremely thoughtful and intelligent response to an article written in ignorance and riddled with prudish bias.

You wrote: An exploration of the secret and often subversive aspects of the human experience is the great project of literature—eroticism has finally been allowed its chance alongside the other passions of the human heart.

So much can be gleaned about a character (and thus, humanity) through their sexual lives; indeed we have learned a great deal about previous cultures such as the Greeks and Romans by including the sexual mores of the time juxtaposed with the sexual deviations displayed by certain historical figures, Caligula for instance.

It's a shame that this fact is lost on a literary reviewer of Mr. McGrath's stature. Donna, you've represented writers (and readers) of smut very well. Great Job!!!!
:) DeDe

Donna said...

Thank you, Jordan! Now I have the perfect chance to commend you for all you've done to bring smart, well-written erotica to so many readers :-).

Donna said...

Hey Susana--

Interesting point about how you or anyone would be viewed in such a profile. The positioning of the author of the piece is obviously as judge and the judgment is rendered through "clever" labels so we are all reduced to cliche. You'd think the point in a profile would be to avoid that, but a nuanced exploration is never quite as clever, is it?

Donna said...

Wow, I really appreciate your thought-provoking response, DeDe. I just so happen to be studying the sexual culture of 18th century America, so the historical element is particularly pertinent. Instead of giggling at the dirtiness, McGrath could have explored all sorts of issues about Baker's place in a broader openness to sexually explicit fiction in the publishing world, or why he seems to have been chosen as the respectable smutter, and so on. Not that I'm telling him what to write, just that, as you point out, this is what educated publishing insiders can offer us. We can get the winks and titters anywhere!

Donna said...

Hey Craig,

I did try to write the letter with an eye to what might possibly have a chance of reaching him. That's why I didn't dwell on the insults to erotica writers or my own pedigree as a dirty-book writer. There are other ways he served his subject and audience poorly. McGrath graduated from Yale in the same class as George W. Bush, so he's in his sixties. But hopefully we're never too old for a new idea :-)!

Emerald said...

Brilliant, Donna!