P0*n before pr0n

'Mary Van Rensselaer Buell (1893-1969), sitting in lab with microscope, reading paper' photo (c) 2009, Smithsonian Institution - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/The reboot of fan fiction as mainstream hard copy books isn’t new, but a welcome return to prominence for the dirty book.

Fan fiction is web-based writing of untrammelled relish utilising pop tropes, star crushes and further-plotted continuations of classic literature and cult TV. ‘Slash’ is the sticky end of fan fiction, as in, two pages stuck together. There’s a lot of it online. And being online, it sidesteps the discomfort of what used to be considered, in the quainter idiom of a time before vajazzling, a brown-paper book. A book you might not want others to see you reading.

Call it generational but pornography for me has always been written. When I was a teen I moved straight from Judy Blume to the complete works of Nancy Friday, who complied interviews and letters solicited from the women of America regarding their sex fantasies. I skipped Nancy’s febrile analysis of what the scenarios meant, but I greatly admired her categorisation. The fantasies in those books were touchingly baroque, revealing the individual supposedly anonymous behind the sex.

The formation of sexual taste is linked with powerful forces. What happened on your own when you were ten, waking from a vision of a teacher that infused you with incandescent joy. Or something you saw when too young that was inscrutable to you but made your blood thump. Many things could be grist to the mill. The blossoming of preference into peccadillo seemed to be linked with recapturing a certain feeling, an elusive sensation not always directly erotic.

As a fairly late virgin of bookish disposition, reading was an indispensable aspect of my sexual education. Legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres taught me a few things, including why one shouldn’t be Pamela Des Barres.

In Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker I recall a client, a Holocaust survivor, who required service involved Hollander donning a Nazi trench coat, re-enacting an abuse he had suffered in a camp at the hands of a female guard. I was pretty pure when I read that book but I thought about that man for a long time. Hollander wrote precisely about opening the hall closet where he kept his coats, overwhelmed by the smell of decaying rubber. That detail drew back the curtain on the orgy, so to speak. It suggested sex might be more nuanced, sad or therapeutic than I had imagined from Shirley Conran’s Lace.

I read all the literary dirty books I could find and discovered that most of them were in fact, not that sordid. They were full of inquiry on the nature of relationships; sex as an aspect of being human. Using the SBS principle that kink was always better in another language, usually French, I started with Anaïs Nin (florid and neurotic), George Bataille (surrealistic sex with eggs, watersports) and moved on to the louche afternoon pleasures of Radigeut and Huysmans. After that there was no stopping me. I preferred the ‘classics’ (Salter, Burroughs, the letters of James Joyce to Nora Barnacle) but had a go at modern stuff like Anne Rice’s fairytale raunch (about to be re-issued) and Nicholson Baker. The nineties was a good era for a sexy book. Perhaps it’s something about recession.

So what’s the appeal of the dirty book without pictures? Insertion. The surfaces of porn movies are impermeable, despite the efforts of women like Candida Royale to make them more inclusive. Porn stars are not you. Their appearance is so uniform as to be prosthetic. These are people whose line of work means they have to groom their anuses. But written smut is another matter. It gives you ideas. You are in the middle of those ideas. If something takes your fancy but isn’t quite to taste, well, it’s in your head now. Play it another way.

It’s safe for work. It’s safe (and how grateful I was for this) for the Sunday morning church pew. Being a reader and developing an extensive mental library of masturbatory material got me through being an overweight teenager with the usual range of problems. I loved to read that stuff. I liked what my body could do and I trusted it, despite the external messages I was being given. I may have been careful about who knew about it, but me and my right hand were just fine.

Which is why dirty books will always be superior to cinematic porn or the DIY skinfest of the internet. They just fit better in one hand than a Kindle. And they don’t fritz out if they happen to slide to the floor.


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