Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:01 AM 29th February 2024

The Aestheticised Obscene: Dirty Books By Barry Reay & Nina Attwood

Barry Reay and Nina Attwood’s compelling enquiry into the murky publishing world of the early to mid-twentieth century uncovers several complex truths regarding motive and reward. For here, in a period of turmoil and transition, we find an efflorescence of writers – often embryonic – whose high literary ambitions were necessarily subordinated to the greater demand for erotica, and to the imperative to earn a crust. Commissioned by small publishing houses to turn-out pornographic stories, for the public and for high-paying and wealthy ‘clients’, the group of writers begin to resemble the aspirant artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were not, themselves, averse to knocking out canvasses of women in various states of déshabillé - known thereafter as princesses lointaine - for the requisite ‘coin’. In a pre-celluloid age, pictorial art sometimes served vicarious onanistic demand, much as the super-rich Oklahoman oilman presumably satisfied his erotic craving whilst helping to keep a New York publisher with artistic pretensions, afloat. The difference is one only of geographical scale and commercial availability.

Art, including decadent art, thrives in times of existential crisis: the Renaissance yielded an incomparable flowering during an era of warring city states, plague and religious persecution. And the period just before the Second World War was preceded by the groundbreaking development of Modernism, whose tropes were shaped by the cataclysm of the First. For Reay and Attwood, the appearance of the Obelisk Press in Paris was no more than a subtextual extension of a literary experiment whose pornographic motifs were already embedded in the architecture of Modernism:

‘Modernism employed the sexually graphic in the service of literary innovation in what has been called “aestheticized obscenity.”’

In fact, Obelisk’s pre-war stable of writers included several late Modernists, amongst them Henry Miller (whose seminal Tropic of Cancer was published by the Parisian erotica house), James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin. Under the auspices of maverick English publisher, Jack Kahane, Obelisk evaded British and American censorship laws by setting up shop in France, and by bankrolling the more serious business of avant-garde literature with the publication of ‘dirty books’. But Kahane always had one eye fixed firmly on the main chance, and he knew that condemnation generally acted as a huge fillip to otherwise flagging sales. Sheila Cousins’ ghostwritten novel of prostitution - To beg I Am Ashamed (1938) – produced large orders ‘from all over the world’, in spite of the vociferous (for Kahane, ‘maladroit’) press criticism.

A ‘syndicate’ of American writers, organised under the loose curatorship of sexual researcher and amateur pornographer, Gershon Legman, made a coterminous foray into the US market, though here, the erotic stories were commissioned by the Oklahoman oilman, one Roy Melisander Johnson, who supported a whole group of writers with artistic pretensions, but whose tastes demanded what the writer Iris Owens (aka. Harriet Daimler) would later refer to, intra-novella, as the hydraulic and ‘lavish fascism’ of sexual brutality, rather than subtlety of disquisition or claims to literary artistry.

The same could be said of the wider market. When Maurice Girodias, the son of Jack Kahane and sharer of his father’s publishing interests, founded the Olympia Press in Paris in 1953, one of his early publications was Lolita. Nabokov subsequently felt that Olympia’s reputation as a publisher of ‘dirty books’ tarnished his own by association; the conflict of interest was best illuminated in the attitude of one ‘disappointed’ soldier/reader, who was said to have exclaimed: ‘Damn! … It’s God-damn Litachure!!’.

Reay and Attwood’s research in Dirty Books is extensive: running to sixty pages, the study’s addendum is both comprehensive and diverting, grist to the mill for students of an under-worked period of literary history. Conceived, like several of the many writers who make up the book’s ‘dramatis personae’, with one eye on a mainstream commercial market, Dirty Books is calculated, stylised, elegantly written and necessarily respectful of the kinds of vernacular expression in which pornographic literature is steeped. Aimed primarily at academia, the book takes no prisoners in the interests of authenticity. Mostly linear in chronology, but fully cognizant of the semantic quandaries that are bound to beset any examination of the art / pornography binary, this fulsome history of several publishing enterprises, set over several decades and with astonishing attention to period and (con)textual detail, remains sensitive to contradictions that inhere to the idea of ‘aestheticized obscenity’, and evolve in line with a transitory cultural landscape.

That the creative process embodies a clear self-referent is one defining symptom of the oeuvre: if Kahane, Legman and Girodias were fully aware of their target audience’s masturbatory predilections, they may, or may not, have anticipated the degree of authorial immersion in the same impulse. Anaïs Nin’s typically open account of her own experience is remarkable not only for its frankness but for its suggestion of auto-erotic complicity:

‘I let myself go and wrote four descriptions of sexual scenes for 34. It was during the erotic madness days, I was powerfully excited by my own writing, had an orgasm while I wrote, then I went to Henry and was passionate.’

More pressing still, in this serious, though profoundly entertaining study of the genre, is a lengthy examination of the question of definition: in a chapter simply entitled ‘Literature or Pornography?’ no resolution is offered, but the travelling towards it, like R.L. Stevenson’s train journey, is at least as satisfying as any conclusion the authors might posit. The contradiction exposed in one of the book’s earlier vignettes gives notice of the wider semantic difficulty: citing John Phillips’ corrective assessment of the humour / pornography axis in Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les Onze Mille Verges

‘The novel’s images function above all to vitiate the pornographic elements, not merely because they are amusing…but because they interfere with the arousal of erotic and/or sadistic responses in the reader’.

…Reay and Attwood suggest that erotic intention may be destabilised by authorial tone; Phillips’ scholarly thesis is given a frank summation: ‘The logic seems to be that if one is laughing they are not masturbating’.

In a book of diversion and good humour, the précis is characteristically direct. Girodias, who later continued his Olympia venture to New York and into the decades that followed, almost provided a framework of philosophical justification for his curatorial policy by reaching back to the eighteenth century to Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in order to loosen the ligature of Judeo-Christian moral control, or ‘The imbecilic belief that sex is sin, that physical pleasure is unclean, that erotic thoughts are immoral’. If the nineteen fifties remained, to some degree, in the shadow of such religio-cultural strictures, then Sade, via Girodias, provided his own brutal counterpoint with a surfeit of eloquent energy whose tone of defiance leaps off the page – ‘Oh double name of God be fucked!’

Sade’s linguistic violence explains, no less succinctly than Machiavelli’s adjectival shorthand, the term by which the behaviour of his protagonists is most closely defined. The conflation of Sade with ‘Sadean’ aligns the relationship between (wo)man and proclivity, whilst vouchsafing a handy term for describing a range of behaviours that exceeds the boundaries of the culturally acceptable, most especially, that of sexual sadism. Reay and Attwood’s extensive research broaches the term both directly and indirectly, examining the connection between writers/readers and the pleasure to be derived from propagating/absorbing intra-textual erotic violence, while acknowledging that the phenomenon of titillation, and worse still, of Erotic/Thanatic impulses, occludes the boundary of artistic integrity.

The advent of liberalism and a more open view of sexual mores – Olympia’s development in the US mirrored the temporal transition – sharpened the literature/pornography debate and makes an apposite conclusion to Dirty Books. The insightful, self-aware Nin recognised the difference in her own work, almost as a palimpsest of the increasingly moribund stuff unfolding in the bedroom: ‘Sex’, she wrote, ‘becomes a bore’ when it ‘becomes a mechanistic obsession’. Similarly, the cash nexus, and the limitless demands of the ‘one-handed’ reader, imperil the quality of the art, whilst setting up a stark contrast with some of the postwar modes of imaginative erotica, such as Pauline Réage’s Story of O, which, for Reay and Attwood, transcends, in ‘psychological and moral’ complexity, its own estimable ‘pornographic elements’. A view not possible for the affronted and skeptical Nabokov, who felt that pornographic representation embraced the lowest artistic denominator by pairing obscenity with 'banality'.

And if some writers of erotica remained aware of the limits and exercised measures of restraint with self-censorship, others, like the eighteenth century novelist John Cleland, were subjected, in absentia, to twentieth century circumscription in obscenity trials, whose aim was to set legal boundaries around the difference between literature that arouses the ‘reader to libidinousness’, and that which manifests ‘high literary quality’. Whilst opening the field to a fulsome range of academic speculation, Reay and Attwood are wise to avoid giving precise definition to a debate that will continue to mutate in tandem with the evanescence of cultural landscapes. And in this fine, thorough and profoundly literate reading of a time of major change, culminating in a ‘Sexual Revolution’ that was, to some degree, precipitated by the efforts of Maurice Girodias and others, Reay and Attwood point, ultimately, to attitudes that can only be viewed in time and context:

‘The borders were vague in the sense that obscenity was historically contingent, the previously condemned becoming literary classics.’

Dirty Books: Erotic Fiction and the avant-garde in mid-century Paris and New York is published by Manchester University Press (2023)

More information here.