Young actors, as we all know, will take any paying job they can get while hoping for a part—the cliché is that they’ve all waited tables at one time or another.
It’s not so different for young writers. They’ll write anything, if the job pays. Catalogs, instruction manuals, even pornography. I can personally attest to the latter, having written a baker’s dozen “dirty books” as they were called then, in the mid-1960s—almost fifty years ago now.
I’m not talking Henry Miller here, or D.H. Lawrence, and certainly not the Marquis de Sade. I’m talking about the stuff of Penthouse letters, except more explicit. And longer. Think Fanny Hill, in modern language, and not so well-written. Nothing to do with children or violence.
Now you have to understand the public morality of the mid-1960s—an age of short haircuts, Brooks’ Brothers suits, and no facial hair, when marijuana was rare, feminism not yet a force and the sexual revolution undreamed of.
Of course, everyone was just as interested in sex as they are now, but they kept their fascination as secret as they could, embarrassed by it. Today, the Internet, Lady Gaga and TV shows like “Two-a-Half-Men” make that pretense difficult. We all just assume.
Anyhow, in those years, New York City, which where I lived at the time, was the American capital of secret sexuality. And the epicenter of this fascination was that great mid-city thoroughfare, 42nd Street, between Sixth Avenue and Eighth Avenue.
Today, 42nd Street is among the most family-friendly boulevards in America. outside of Disneyland. Back then, it was home to a couple dozen “bookshops,” selling pornographic novels, magazines, films and erotic paraphernalia, as well as six or eight ratty but once glorious movie palaces, continuously running films designed for men in raincoats.
Practically every city in America had at least one or two of these specialty bookstores, patronized by quite upstanding businessmen and politicians, by clergymen and police chiefs, all shopping as quickly as they could, praying never to bump into anyone they knew. These were the outlets for my shadiest writings, which were in no way illegal, but which were unlikely candidates for the New York Times bestseller list.
I wrote these books under a variety of pseudonyms, mostly for a publisher that called itself Midwood Press. The deal was this: $1000 per book, COD, no royalties, no publicity, no remainders, no agent, no editing, no nothing. The book had to be in story form, between 250 and 275 manuscript pages long (we didn’t think in word counts in those days), grammatically correct and competently-typed. Did they sell? I suppose so, enough that the publisher encouraged me to write more.
Why, you might wonder, was I willing to do such a thing (and it wasn’t just me, dozens of other writers did the same)? What about my moral scruples? Well, I’ve always been a free speech absolutist and I’ve always thought sex was a natural and positive part of the human experience, so scruples really didn’t enter into it. Besides, the books paid the rent and put food on the table. And they allowed me to practice my trade.
Each of these books took me three or four weeks to write, at the most. I’d start by making a three or four page outline, divided into chapters, then use the outline as a kind of writing guide, a habit I still follow. Each book had five or six sex scenes—lengthy descriptions intended to be erotic–connected by a thin plot of no special merit. While I took care with my spelling and my grammar, re-writing, even polishing was beyond the job requirements, or my inclinations.
So what did writing pornography teach me? Most important, it taught me that I was capable of writing a coherent, 275-page book, with characters and a plot, and rather quickly at that. It forever banished the lurking fear that such an accomplishment was simply beyond me, that I would be forever limited to writing news and feature stories.
For a young writer, that’s no small deal. No writer is sure he can write a novel until he or she does it. So even writing a terrible novel, a novel unworthy by any measure, with zero redeeming social value, is a terrific confidence builder.
If I ever happen to teach college-level novel writing, in fact, this would be my final exam: One complete and coherent novel, at least 250 pages long, with a beginning, a middle and an end, of no literary merit whatever. Could be pornography, but a romance, a thriller, a detective story or a sci-fi tale would be just fine. Rewriting and polish would be unnecessary, in fact penalized if used excessively.
If the student’s novel met all these criteria, I’d give it an A. But the grade would be much less important than the effect on the student’s psyche, the proof positive that he or she was able to write a novel.
As I wrote the dirty books, with their studly men and voluptuous vixens, with their routine, almost vestigial plots which connected a series of sex scenes, I slowly began to believe that I could write something better. I felt I could create some reasonably credible characters, beef up the plot, and could replace the sex scenes with actions that had no prurient intent.
Eventually, I wrote myself out of this job. I started making puns, telling jokes and involving my characters in funny situations. My editor warned me: “Sex is not funny.” But I persisted and when my porn became more and more satirical, my editor said she thought it was time for me to move on. So, move on I did.
I decided to write a spy thriller, a genre I’d always enjoyed and knew pretty well. The result was Endgame (Avon, 1975), an Arab-Israeli spy story set mainly in Copenhagen, the first work of fiction I’d written under my own name. It sold pretty well. And there wasn’t a sex scene in it, in fact I’ve never written another.