Thoughts on a recent “Dirty Books” article in GQ, a plug for Marco Vassi, and a bit of insecurity

It has gotten to the point that people know enough about me and my particular interests that they send me all sorts of wonderful random bits: articles about porn stars, books on male sexuality, photographs that display sex in a novel way, and referrals to professors who have been doing all sorts of cool work on related topics.  I love this. It makes me feel important, and keeps me engaged with the world, though sometimes I get more than I can keep up with. I got an email head’s up that December’s GQ featured an article on erotic writing. “A Reading Man’s Guide to Dirty Books,” by Tom Bissell.  It has taken me three weeks to get this post up. Too much good stuff, too little time.

The year is 2012 and books that include depictions of sex are still called dirty. Why not “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Primal Interaction?” I know, roll your eyes, and onward we move….

Tom Bissell cited five books that he thinks every guy should read. I will talk more about these books, but as a reader, I was thrilled to see book recommendations.

I just spoke with a very nice guy who said he was going to read more erotic books and he was starting with Fifty Shades because that was what his girlfriend was reading. “Oh, no.” I said as he got his pen and paper handy. “That would be like me reading Hustler to understand the male mind. That book made me feel sorry for guys. In my opinion the single most effective thing that book did was to tap into the fantasy of being with someone who pays attention. The book is a fantasy.”

Fantasy…get it, like not real. Kinda like the picture that goes with the article. A topless woman with a large and lovely pair of breasts, and these super skinny legs. Just sayin.’ That is sort of what fiction is, and when it is written as a quick piece of entertainment, that’s all you get. I wish people would stop bashing FSOG for being silly. This is not Lonesome Dove or even Story of O and that wasn’t the author’s intent either. Check out this wonderful interview with the EL James where she says this and a few other things I already suspected.

Back to the list. Guess who was not on it? John Updike’s Couples (1968) was on the list. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (1967) was on the list. Nothing by Marco Vassi was on the list! Maybe that was because he actually had something new to say but didn’t have the right pedigree.  It couldn’t be that simple could it?

Michael Perkins wrote an entire book of literary criticism titled The Secret Record (1976) that dealt exclusively with erotic fiction. He devoted one whole chapter to Marco Vassi. David Guy, who wrote The Red Thread of Passion (1999) also devoted an entire chapter to Marco Vassi. David Steinberg, the artist and sex writer, has anthologized Vassi’s essays and still talks about him.

Now to the positive portion of this thingy…sort of.  

One of the better lines from “A Reading Man’s Guide to Dirty Books”:

“A hot literary sex scene is, above all else, truthful about sex as it’s felt and experienced by actual human beings. A bad literary sex scene is cynical—a commercial for impossible sensations.”

I was so grateful that he discussed the importance of honesty, but also wondered, why does the scene need to be hot? Is it not possible to discuss sex without making an ad for it, without trying to get your reader to stick their hand down their pants? As if that were the only reason why one would read about sex in the first place.  

“Isn’t at least half of what makes sex sex what we’re thinking while having it? Not all those thoughts are kind. Some in fact, are privately cruel. Intimacy with another human being is nothing if not being constantly aware of how easily you can hurt them.”

Hallelujah! What I loved more than anything when I found Marco Vassi was the honesty with which he handled these sorts of moments. He also showed us some of the most important ones. His essay, “Bodhi is the Body” dealt almost entirely with the revelation he had–while fucking, as that was where he had many of his best revelations–that women were capable of giving men something incredibly important, but because both eastern and western religions have removed women from discussions related to the path toward enlightenment, that spiritual contribution has been totally overlooked.

And this echoed something I have always tried to be:

“To write about sex well, you have to be brave. To read about sex well, though, you have to be honest. You have to be willing to be turned on, and you have to be willing to be disgusted; you also have to understand the difference between being turned on and being disgusted.”

…and what did I say about “dirty books?” Ok, does anyone else wonder what is wrong with the physical state of being turned on? It is actually a quite fun place to be I think, though if that were the goal of everything I read I would be disappointed indeed.

 I don’t know about telling people how they should or should not read, but the quote addresses the fact that sex writing serves so many purposes. For me erotic writing is all about freedom. This also reminds us that reader’s reactions will always be varied. The thing that irks me most lately about discussions of erotic writing that always go back to a simple romance books are that they show how very watered down, cynical and just plain stupid our discussions of sex and what is even possible in our art have become. They also prove I have been talking to the wrong people.* The lines above at least go further toward addressing the need for a more generous and open approach to reading and writing about sex.

I went online to find a link to include here and found this instead. It is one woman’s response to Tom Bissell’s article that gave me a huge amount to consider. When I read  “A Reading Man’s Guide to Dirty Books,” I was glad someone was handling the topic of erotic writing with any sort of thought, and that he gave book references. When I was done reading this woman’s article I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t offended…that is a topic for another post, or a memoir probably, but I want to include a link because it helps to give an even more balanced perspective on this article and other issues that may interest readers.

She addresses the fact that the author talks about how to relate to women by reading them books with sex in them. Wasn’t this just a cutesy way to introduce his topic? Maybe I should be more outraged… Am I a bad woman because I applaud a guy who tries at all to understand us, even if he does it by being condescending and lumping us all into the same category? Admittedly, he does the easy and annoying thing of dismissing simple feminine fantasies during a time when I can still sit down at a Hooter’s, examine the cover of half a dozen magazines or glance at any billboard and be subjected to the male version.

Lately I have become aware of how incredibly low my standards were in terms of what I expected people to say in regards to sex writing. When I find people who are actually thoughtful at all I jump all over them, only to find that even more enlightened people have been writing and publishing for years and I have just, stupidly, been unaware. I am at present already on my way to fixing this situation. All that to say, I keep finding more that adds to my understanding of what is available to read and get more clarity on why it is that I want to include sex and related topics in my work.

I am troubled by the fact that I was so willing to applaud this man for his article when another woman out there was clearly so outraged by almost everything in it. On the other hand, life is nothing if not interesting, and different viewpoints and opinions are part of what make it that way.

And lastly, just to add a few of my own book recommendations:

Exit to Eden, Anne Rice

The Stoned Apocalypse and The Gentle Degenerates, Marco Vassi

The Lover, Marguerite Duras

And if you appreciate the outlandish and raunchy, House of Holes by Nicholson Baker


  • I have been promising forever and still plan to deliver interviews with several writers and artist who are handling sex in ways that I admire and think people should be aware of.

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