By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In this respect a comparison can usefully be made with an article about the porn industry by Martin Amis, first published in Talk and then reprinted in the London Guardian. Amis’ research revealed some extraordinary figures: “The average non-homeowning American male spends more on porno than he spends on his rent. Porno accounts for 43.5 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.” In the next paragraph Amis concedes that these figures are “bullshit.” He made them up. It’s a flamboyant rhetorical flourish (succeeded, it has to be said, by some real stats) and one alien to Schlosser, who uncovers real statistics that are scarcely less mind-blowing. In 2000 “a poll conducted by Christianity Today magazine found that 27 percent of America’s pastors sought out porn on the Internet anywhere from ‘a few times a year’ to ‘a couple of times a month or more.’” (By definition the economics of the underground are off the record, but, as evidence of how rigorously he has compiled and sifted his material, Schlosser ends with a note on sources that is of a heftiness normally associated with scrupulous academic practice.)
Amis’ essay is a tour de force, powered, as usual, by his superstud style. Schlosser’s prose is altogether less spectacular, lacking the characteristic turns and topspin returns of phrase routinely served up by Amis, but his knack for the telling detail is often as acute as the novelist’s. Take, for instance, his 1996 meeting with Sturman, by then age 71 and serving time in jail in Kentucky. “He had a firm handshake and a strong air of authority, like a proud, recently deposed head of state.” This encounter also says something about Schlosser’s handling of structure. Up until this point we don’t know he’s actually met the fallen emperor of hardcore. The meeting is no less charged for having been completely unexpected. Throughout, Schlosser’s artistry is no less impressive for being so discreetly concealed.
In the final piece he is perhaps discreet to a fault. Amis had great fun detailing porn’s amazing ability to sate every taste, however niche-specific (the piece opens with him asking a well-known pornographer to “account for the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex” in the industry). Schlosser doesn’t get off on this kind of thing at all. His ultimate concern, after all, is always economics. Still, I don’t think the fact that I felt a bit shortchanged on this score was down to my interest being salacious. Or at least it was not just down to that. Given the genre’s near-religious devotion to explicitness, it feels a little odd for Schlosser to be so well-mannered. Using the argot of the industry, he talks, broadly, of the pressure on porn actresses to do “‘nasty things.’” However, it probably is a failing of this reader that, having been captivated by every line of the marijuana section, he became impatient, reading about toiling migrant workers, to move on to porn. But again, that in itself is probably symptomatic of the attention-deficit culture that the underground economy seeks to serve and exploit and, in so doing, exacerbates. To that extent the difference between the underground and overground economy is as slight as the traffic between them is substantial. If you’re in a hotel room it’s difficult to immerse yourself in a paperback of The Grapes of Wrath when Unfaithful From the Front, Punished From Behindis available on pay-per-view and one hand is already fingering the remote. It’s a problem facing even the very best American writers.
Geoff Dyer’s most recent book is Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. He is theWeekly’s 2003 critic in residence.