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In Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, a 14-year-old boy masturbates while reading a book. The film came out in 1971, when I was also 14, and that scene was one of the oddest things I’d ever beheld. Odder than the scene in Last Tango in Paris where Marlon Brando commands Maria Schneider to fetch the butter for something other than his toast.
By then, I knew that certain procedures went beyond the missionary position. But that someone could get off by reading took me completely by surprise.
It wasn’t until I started writing a novel—a novel rife with sex scenes—that I discovered the written word’s capacity to arouse. And it wasn’t until I started presenting portions of that novel aloud at readings that I had tangible evidence. Evidence in the form of obscene phone calls from women: “Tell me something about your sex life that I wouldn’t know from your readings,” one demanded before proceeding to describe herself as being young, naked, and sweaty. Evidence in the form of obscene answering-machine messages in which women would breathe my name over and over before descending into groans: “Oh Jose…Jose…Jose…oh…oh…ooohhhhhh….” It was reason to stay listed in the phone book.
That was when I was living in New York, of course. Here in Washington, when I read an excerpt from my novel at the 15 Minutes Club, women looked at me as if I’d just tried to rub up against them on a crowded Blue Line train. But it was also here in Washington where I put my real novel on hold for the purpose of writing porn.
Well, it wasn’t exactly porn. It was “erotica.” The difference is that a porn novel pays about $500 and is sold in dirty book stores, while an erotic novel gets an advance of up to $2,000, plus royalties, and is sold in mainstream bookstores.
“Yeah, this novel is basically going to be a stroke book for women,” said John, my connection at Grove Press, when he called me from New York. “But a stroke book with class and elegance, which is why we’re able to sell this shit in respectable places.”
John planned to revive Grove Press’ Victorian Library series, a series that had included such titles as Nymph in Paris, Joy, Altars of Venus, and Edith’s Strange Desire.
I was apprehensive. But two days after speaking with John, I received a bulky package containing about a dozen books from the Victorian Library series, along with a letter in which he repeated his pitch: “As I said on the phone, presently there is real money to be had for the writer that successfully grabs the “original’ market (even better if the women’s market becomes partial to you, since basically nobody publishes erotica with them in mind).”
He also enclosed sales figures from the Literary Guild. According to those, erotic novels averaged $5,000 in royalties every six months, which over two years came to about $20,000. If I could start “banging off these things at a rate of one every three months,” as John suggested, I’d end up making a living.
But what really sold me on the idea of writing erotica was another book John sent. Titled Three Men and a Maid, it was a rather tame romance written in 1907 by an obscure author named Robert Fraser. John recommended that I take the plot of Three Men and a Maid, combine it with the style of Nymph in Paris, and add sex scenes of my own creation.
Soon I began work on what I called Three Men and a Lady, the story of a young woman who, after studying in London, returns to live in the country inn where she grew up. In London, she’d been but one of many beautiful young ladies. But away from the city, with her education and sophistication, she was the most desirable woman the country squires could imagine. Throw in a duel and a hardy villain, and you’ve got basically the entire plot.
Writing it should have been easy.
The problem was that when I started trying to add sex scenes, I drew a blank. Not only was I unable to write a single dirty word, I was also unable to conceive any dirty ideas.
I spent my mornings staring at what was usually a blank screen. Eventually I was able to write the word “fuck,” and on occasion would manage to write a complete dirty sentence: “Elisabeth fucked Jameson, and then gave Mr. Bennett a blow job.” I didn’t imagine that this spare prose was right for the Victorian Library.
Every now and then John would call from New York and ask how the novel was coming. Naturally, I lied.
“It’s going like clockwork,” I’d say, turning the sound off on the afternoon soap opera. “It’s just that Washington is one horny fucking town to write in, which means that more and more horny scenes keep coming to mind…wild fucking scenes that I have to incorporate in the plot. Yeah, it’s taking a little longer than I thought it would, but when it’s done it’ll make you shit.”
It took some time—and a considerable amount of drinking—but after several months I was finally able to finish the novel. To appeal to women, I wrote in the first person as the female protagonist, Elisabeth. I even added a feminist slant that I thought would make a woman toss all her Fabio books into the fire:
And after all the time I had waited, I had to say that there was really nothing difficult about it. Getting to know a man was not in any way a complex task, whereas for him to know me—to really know me—that was a different sort of undertaking altogether. Because even after he had entered me and brought me through the initial pain of the loss of my virginity; and even after he had heard my moans of pain turn into moans of pleasure, I was, in essence, but a shadow to him. A shadow which would intrigue and mystify him and thus move him to attempt to fathom the depths of its being. A shadow for which he would hunger and over which he would spend, either alone or in its presence, many sleepless nights. A shadow which, despite its distance, had in a mere matter of moments come to understand him completely.
I called John to tell him I was done, that the resurgence of the Victorian Library was under way. But after dialing his direct line, I heard the click that tells you your call is being rerouted. A woman answered and said, “I’m sorry, he’s left the company.” I hung up, stunned.
I found out later that John had become a born-again Christian and moved to Iowa. The Victorian Library was dead, and so was my novel.
I’d spent months imagining Elisabeth in compromising positions. But in the end, it was me who was fucked.