My First Library Was a Library of Porn

Brian Bouldrey Wanders Through the Smutty Old Times Square of Literature

If you look back at any period of repressive order or puritanism in history, the underground thrives, whether it is samizdat literature in Soviet Russia, privately printed porn in Victorian England, or naughty netsuke made in the highly ordered Edo period in Japan. Porn and nonsense change as we change repressions, and porn and nonsense might be the unlikely place where culture rescues itself.

In 2017, Northwestern University’s Library acquired over 6,000 gay pulp novels, with porno-nonsensical titles like Roll Call in Sodom, Growing Old Disgracefully, Home is Where the Hard Is, and, with less wit but careful distinction, Hot-Ass Hippie and Hot-Assed Hippie. These books were published anywhere between 1950 and 1993, spotty beginnings leading to a very abrupt end.

These books, exciting and shocking for a different time, served, first, a pre-Stonewall readership by offering readers an escape, a coded world where, at least for a few pages, one could leave the self in order to become more himself. After Stonewall, the pulp novels provided a different sort of escape—from AIDS, from small-town life, from the closet, or from a bad marriage.

The quality in writing, editing, and production, varies widely: the worst are full of malapropisms and egregious production gaffs; in one, the publisher repeated the same chapter over and over, as if they were offering some sort of raunchy Calvino novel; the best were written by literary writers who decided to try their hand at smut for any number of reasons—experiment with genre, honest blue memoir, providing a record of an invisible culture, seeing if a silk purse could be made from a sow’s ear.

My first experiences with pornography, besides the Playboy I found in my father’s briefcase and mistook for a jokebook, were the grocery bags full of Harlequin Romances my grandmother exchanged with her sisters in the 1970s. “Grocery bag” was the unit of measure by which they were purchased and passed, and as a young reader, I was amazed at my grandmother’s literary prowess. “Why do you like them so much?” I wanted to know early on, thinking I might like them too. “They’re nice,” was what my grandmother said, and sighed. Picking one up, I found that “nice” meant no surprises, safe as houses, with the occasional frisson of kissing, and, rarely but electrically, a nipple going erect or something in the man’s pants pressing against the heroine referred to by the author as his “urgency.” The author wasn’t lying, I’m not saying that.

Urgency is general, all over America, and rather than waste your time trying to turn my pubescent experiences with porn into a bittersweet memory, I would like to jump to a conclusion: my first library was a library of porn. It was pieced together from things discarded, inherited, and outright stolen. It was catholic, in the catholic sense of the word, because certain pages from the underwear section of the Sears catalogue were allowed to be part. One major source was, coincidentally, the public library itself, where I worked as a page after school and on weekends. I was tasked with emptying the night deposit box by the street, and on Saturday mornings, after the bacchanal of Friday nights in a bored little town, I would clear out rotten Danielle Steele novels, eggs, dog feces, and beer bottles, but this was all made worthwhile at least once a month when somebody “returned” a Hustler, or something even more lurid.

My collection of bad romance novels was shared, and not shared, among my friends in a wooden box in the tree fort in the woods, the woods being the speakeasies of rural America, where pot was grown and guns were shot and beer was chugged. The collection’s value was beyond price, overvalued, as anything forbidden or in short supply is, like Soviet samizdat, or Cabbage Patch Dolls. The gay porn and pulp, even rarer, was mine alone, an enigma, wrapped in a sack, kept in a hollowed-out chemistry set case, wrapped again in a blanket, and stored in the basement under the winter coats, and it would cause me so much anxiety and self-loathing that I could bear it no more, stuff it all into a lawn trimmings trash bag, carry it into the woods with a shovel, and bury it under a tree like the body of an overdosed prostitute.

My dog hates baths, and when he is in the tub getting scrubbed down, will stick his head far out of the tub as if pretending that his body is some other dog’s, not his own as it is scrubbed. I would do the same when reading the porn—this is somebody else’s desire, not mine; I am reading this as I would read history, or science fiction. Similarly, they say a criminal will be seized by a particular wooden feeling just before committing a crime. This wooden feeling would occur. I would feel that out of body experience, the distance growing and growing. I would travel so far away from myself that I would travel all the way around the world back to me—I was closer to myself than I had ever been. There I was, again, just the guy I wanted to get away from. Pulps were an escape from repressed life, and later, an escape from AIDS, but ironically, it was an escape from the self toward the self—Frankie Goes to Hollywood, in “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome,” chanted, “We’re a long way from home / Welcome to the Pleasure dome / On our way home / Going home where lovers roam.” I did not want “away” to be “home.”

My collection of bad romance novels was shared, and not shared, among my friends in a wooden box in the tree fort in the woods.

At night, I would dream of the buried porn out there, the roots of the tree growing around it, turning all those male bodies into fertilizer, dust to dust. In the morning, I would run into the woods with the shovel and dig up my sweethearts. I loved and hated that collection of smut with the same ferocity that I loved and hated myself. Many people get a special high from making up after a fierce fight with a beloved. They love to get into a fight just for the thrill of reuniting. I buried and exhumed the bag of porn three times, just as many times as Heathcliff dug up Catherine in Wuthering Heights.

So why would a respectable university exhume, or purchase 6,000 smutty books printed on cheap paper with lurid, usually crummy drawings or photos on the covers? There is so much to say. Think first about writership and readership. Capable, even literary writers slipping into what they might refer to as “erotica”; bad writers given a large audience they don’t deserve. People who never even read the newspaper reading whole books; readers who will be reading Proust and Pound on their morning commute slogging through a bad writer’s smut. Christopher Isherwood openly admitted he was influenced by pulp. Bruce Benderson, one of the best authors of the pulp novels and one who never concealed his name, wrote a manifesto in 1997, “Toward the New Degeneracy.” In it, he deplores the cleaning up or “Disneyfication” of Times Square, and explains that the old Times Square was a place where people from all walks of life—rich, poor, from every race and place, prostitute and john—met and communicated. The pulp novels, too, are a sort of old Times Square of literature.

Throughout the pulps, there are an inordinate number of ways in which the pornography wishes to remain both unapologetic and legitimized, just as gay men did and do. You have never seen so many quotes from the Bible outside of the Bible, philosophical statements (Larry Townsend’s Billy’s Club launches with this wisdom from Pythagoras, “He calls drunkenness an expression identical with ruin”), psychological studies—any way to use reason to justify passion. Samuel Steward, the great tattoo artist professor, established in the 1969 series of Guild books a frontis long essay, sometimes taking up a quarter of the book itself, entitled “The Meaning and Value of Homosexual Underground Literature”:

In every culture since the dawn of history, man has inscribed on any surface, flat or round, his sexual feelings. Pornographic literature has never been defined to the satisfaction of any two people. Disagreement is common; a common ground where jurists, lawyers, the public, the artist, the educator can meet does not exist and it never has.

Sure. And all the authors of these books were the kind of person who added, “said the actress to the bishop” as an effort to sexualize everything under the sun.

When considering literary worth, there is the tradition of transgression, of carnival or the night journey—and “the demonic mode”—lifting to the level of heroic that which is villainous. In Blaze of Summer by Alexander Goodman, each story is capped with an (Im)-Moral: “Don’t Cross your Bridges before you come to them. OR: To hell with bridges. Don’t bother crossing them at all.” They also created and broke down literary structures: the “case study,” hybrid genres of western, mystery, science fiction, memoir, parody, ballad, and essay. Many of the writers, after the discovery by mainstream media, formed a literary movement called the New Narrative or “Mandarin” movement, and its members include Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Dennis Cooper, Robert Gluck, and Benderson. Gay pulp was an opportunity for the literary writers to “forget and reclaim what everyday language is,” as George Orwell described it in “Propaganda and Democracy,” and though Orwell was not gay, anybody who falls in love with his bedbugs as he does in Down and Out in Paris and London, understands the value of Old Times Square.

The gay porn and pulp, even rarer, was mine alone, an enigma, wrapped in a sack, kept in a hollowed-out chemistry set case.

Also, these books are artifacts. There is every sort of forbidden subject in forbidden books, what was then illicit sex, but also, all things taboo—drugs, various subcultures, descriptions of parts of cities there was no reason to go to otherwise. There is an honesty that rises from there being little reason for lying: emotional states, cultural criticism about art and politics at the time of the writing, blind items, gossip, maps—the stuff we call today “creative nonfiction.” These are “sketches,” as if all were hunters and serfs in Turgenev’s Notes from a Hunter’s Album: character descriptions, situations, occasions, and the hard to define “uninventable detail.”

These books served as community. There are examples of early crowdsourcing with questionnaires at the back asking what readers wanted more of (Work? Career? Family? Generational? School?). Star Books had personal ads in them in the early 90s, and it would be interesting to know of their veracity and effectiveness. In one of the books, the author described a street-by-street catalogue of Chicago’s gay bars and haunts. It is as accurate and complete a map of the city’s gay community as can be traced.

Most of all, the stuff was fun, free of importance or reputation. Nothing was at stake, and so anything could happen. It was like cobbling dinner from leftovers in the fridge—a feast, or a famine. We always compliment the host’s home cooking, and if it’s especially and consistently good and innovative, our highest praise is, “You should open your own restaurant.” But once you open a restaurant, there are suddenly fears of health code violations and bad reviews. Out goes the innovation. So it went with gay liberation.

An odd thing to lament, since liberation is a good thing. But repression made us wily, necessity mothered invention. It was the age of Do It Yourself, as well as the age of code. Before the internet helped destroy it and the pulp novel industry, hand-made zines served niche markets with titles like Diseased Pariah News for positive men, Frighten the Horses for omnisexuals, and two competing zines for gay anarchist skateboarders, Pavement of Surface and (my all-time favorite zine title or title of any sort) Shred of Dignity. I co-edited a zine, too, Whispering Campaign, full of sexual and artistic misfits and loners. What was done at midnight on the law firm’s photocopier is now of great value to collectors and libraries. I get a request at least once a month from somebody offering a pretty penny for the complete run of the zine, but I only have an incomplete set myself.

The late, great poet Thom Gunn, who I dare say was a friend of mine because we both canoodled and corresponded, had in his library a collection of Penguin classics in which he had altered the covers, with their tasteful museum paintings, by gluing in naked men cut out of porn magazines. I can never again consider Henry James’ What Maisie Knew without recalling that little girl, and that big man. Mild to his wild, I have in my possession a library of over 150 books that have been signed to me, by the author, with variety, “For Brian, you were great in bed.” I have slept with none of them, though I have taken great pleasure with their books in my bed. The pleasure of the word is erotic, whether you like it or not. Even my grandmother knew that. “They’re nice.”

Throughout the pulps, there are an inordinate number of ways in which the pornography wishes to remain both unapologetic and legitimized, just as gay men did and do.

For a few years, I considered it a great honor to be the copyeditor of Cleis Press’s Best Annual Lesbian Erotica series, for the best judge is a disinterested party. It was my weighty responsibility to clear the spelling mistakes and bad grammar (orgasm can be stymied quite easily by a typo), as well as rescue fantasy in its efforts toward reality. “CONTINUITY” I once wrote prudishly on a post-it for the author’s consideration, “She can’t have her hands there, as they were tied up on the previous page.”

My friend and longtime editor Miriam got her start out of college editing the texts for Twilight Zone and a trio of straight porn magazines, Gallery, Fox, and the high-class High Society (any gay man will tell you that “fancy” words and men are code for sex; if you see the silhouette of Mr. Peanut or anybody in a top hat and monocle on a bar sign, you can bet that it’s for gays or strippers). “As you probably suspect,” she told me, “I did write some fake letters to the editor, but most of them were real, if sometimes embellished. The letters by the boobs fans were always the worst—lots of bad spellings and grammar. But the fetish guys? I never had to do anything to their letters. They were perfect if not lurid.”

Not that breast lovers are unintelligent—in the writing about and doing of sex there is always a casual brilliance that has no responsibilities but lifts its laurel’d head every now and then with a perfect portmanteau or metaphor that can get the job done. Certainly, if the brilliance were formal, it would ruin everything.

Well, not everything. I love to laugh at a good bad sentence in these pulp novels. “Ricardo Armory,” whoever he was, wrote this dedicatory quote to Fruit of the Loon in 1968:

As Abdul Ben-Gurion writes in Sex and the Senile Satyr: “Blessed is he who gets a little.” There can be little doubt of this remarkable insight when viewed in the light of the poly-ambivient [sic] dichotomy of the homosexual socio-economic milieu. The following tale, fraught with historic overtones, innuendoes, and outright lies, certainly illustrates this point, among other things.

Or giggle at a dirty limerick. Alexander Goodman, photographer and pulp novelist, assembled the Gay Psychedelic Sex Book, each page a collage of men’s body parts with a limerick strategically placed where you wish it were not.

Because of young Edward’s virginity
His friends thought he lacked masculinity
Till he gave them one day
An amazing display
Of his prowess. He’s now their divinity.

Even the great nonsense poet Edward Lear would approve of Goodman’s prosody, and—given that he, too, was gay and depressed because of it—content. Goodman’s naughty, jaunty rhymes can be suddenly clouded with depression and even troubling horrible truth now and then:

There once was a man with a wife
Two kids and a nice, settled life
Then one day he saw
A boy in the raw
And now he knows terror and strife.

Why did all of this end, almost suddenly in the early 1990s? Desire lines, those paths stamped into the snow when the sidewalk is buried, revealing the way we really desire to go—are evident in the history of pornography, too, for Eros and Thanatos have always held hands under the table. There are several obvious reasons for printed porn’s end—the rise of the VHS tape, and then the internet; the liberation created by ACT-UP and Queer Nation, the treatments for HIV that resulted in more “doing” than “describing,” and the fact that porn, like all information, wants to be free. But I would offer another reason, another blame: me.

In 1993, my first novel, a gay bildungsroman called The Genius of Desire, was published by Ballantine books, part of a tidal wave of LGBTQ+ books picked up by major publishing houses. There had been, for years, fierce supportive publishers like Grove and St. Martin’s who published gay literature, but when the ease of repression and the rise of community made it clear that money could be made from queer books, every publisher in New York wanted in. There was a readership, and gay bookstores in major cities to serve the readership, and a disposable income. The home-cooking became a restaurant, and I, for one, feared a health code violation or a bad review, so I backed away from the bold strokes.

Soon after, I was asked by Little, Brown to edit the Best American Gay Fiction series, and yes, I’ll be the judge of that. And in hindsight, I wish I had published a little passage from Lights Out, Little Hustler now and then. My compatriots and friends like Michael Lowenthal and Scott Heim raised pulp porn to erotica with fancy titles like Flesh and the Word and Mysterious Skin. Those are great books, and they endure as much because they were printed on acid-free paper as they do for their complete sentences. What they lack is the potency of a good obscenity, which, as we know, can make grandmothers cry and politicians blink.

Most of all, the stuff was fun, free of importance or reputation. Nothing was at stake, and so anything could happen.

Obscenity and sacrilege are two very important and, sorry, natural activities. The nonsense of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” matures into all matter of forbidden and nonsensical activity, giving and taking power from those who have and have not. Translating “Jabberwocky” is an obscene idea, and it has been done. When William Blake invited his wife out into the back yard to strip down and read Milton’s Paradise Lost nude and aloud, he envisioned it as part of his revolution.

The danger of pornography’s power is not in the distortion of reality, but in what distortion can reveal. And the revelation can even surprise and expose the author. Here is another of Alexander Goodman’s silly sorrowful limericks:

I dream of the boy just for me
Climbing out of my table TV
And allowing my arms
To envelop his charms
Thus refuting the fate meant to be.

Goodman, by the way, was many things, including the author of the Broadway musical, “Dames at Sea.”

While I was living and thinking and making through those years, distracted by the epidemic, and seeing sexuality as mostly a thing of the past or theoretical, I was commissioned to write many gay culture pieces for various magazines and newspapers, usually commemorating annual Pride celebrations. I often considered whether there was such a thing as a gay culture, for could you, I thought, build an entire culture on lust? But as Victor Benis says in his novel The Man from C.A.M.P., “Lust, plain and simple—if lust were ever simple.”

While the Age of the Pulps has ended, its sources will never run dry. A new “Victorian classic” rises up as another constraint is imposed. As our nation slips further and further into two camps, each trying to control the other’s desires, both finding escape in obscenity and nonsense, for all of us can find ourselves acting as prudishly as the most severe Victorian. While the far and religious right wish to take away the hard-won rights LGBTQ+ citizens, the left wants to take away certain powers of expression. And so we have alt-right men, supposedly bereft, paying the likes of Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter thousands of dollars for a speaking engagement, if only for the delicious chance to hear their obscene insults and outrageous goadings.

Meanwhile, the outraged left gets off creating ridiculous memes in which the President of the United States looks like a giant baby, among other things. After all, “The literature of savage ridicule is the only honorable weapon we have left,” as Muriel Spark observed, pert as ever. Pornography and nonsense are expressions of savage ridicule, both of others and ourselves, and their shock value worked then, and now.

________________________________

Brian D. Bouldrey’s first three novels—including The Genius of Desire—are being reissued this November by ReQueered Tales.

Brian D. Bouldrey
Brian D. Bouldrey
Brian Bouldrey, is the author, most recently, of Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). He has written three nonfiction books; Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica (University of Wisconsin Press, September 2007), Monster: Adventures in American Machismo (Council Oak Books), and The Autobiography Box (Chronicle Books); three novels, The Genius of Desire (Ballantine), Love, the Magician (Harrington Park), and The Boom Economy (University of Wisconsin Press), and he is the editor of several anthologies. He is the North American Editor of the "Open Door" literacy series for GemmaMedia. He teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and literature at Northwestern University.





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