Under my byline

Pulp fiction

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 10 October 2009


“Above the pulp-line — but the exact boundaries are impossible to draw — lies the world of erotica, of sexual writing with literary pretensions or genuine claims,” writes George Steiner in Language and Silence, a collection of his essays dating from the 1950s and 1960s. “This world is much larger than is commonly realized.” Below the pulp-line, of course, is plain pornography.

A great deal more of this kind of writing exists — from above and below the pulp-line — than one might be aware of. It is obscure, Steiner says, because little of it is ever published or disseminated. “[T]here is hardly a major writer of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries who has not, at some point in his career, be it in earnest or in the deeper earnest of jest, produced a pornographic work”.

A glimpse of this heaving but hidden world is afforded to us Indians in a collection, assembled by documentary filmmaker and novelist Ruchir Joshi for Tranquebar Press, of short, allegedly erotic new fiction by 13 South Asian writers. (Here’s an interview I conducted with Joshi two weeks ago.) Several of them are big names. But even among the experienced writers, Steiner’s “pulp-line” is readily transgressed — the contributions range from pornography with the barest slip of narrative (Samit Basu) to psychological games (Niven Govinden) to the deftly sensual and oddly lingering (Rana Dasgupta). As to whether there’s any literature in this collection, well, I’m old-fashioned about things like that.

Steiner begins by pointing out that “Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations, and imaginings is drastically limited.” In other words, there’s little truly new to say about the sex act itself, whether the description is set in fine or lumpen prose. Those very few writers who do manage to “enlarge our actual compass of sexual awareness” — including, Steiner says, Dostoevsky, Proust, Mann and Nabokov — do so by other means than that of describing the sex itself.

“After fifty pages of ‘hardening nipples’, ‘softly opening thighs’ and ‘hot rivers’ flowing in and out of the ecstatic anatomy,” writes Steiner in anguish, “the spirit cries out, not in hypocritical outrage, not because I am a poor Square throttling my libido, but in pure, nauseous boredom. Even fornication can’t be as dull, as hopelessly predictable as all that!”

Maurice Girodias, ed., The Olympia ReaderBoy, do I agree. If you’re going to read anything but the best, take it in small doses. Steiner’s essay was occasioned by the publication of The Olympia Reader, a collection of extracts from various books published by Maurice Girodias in the 1950s. Girodias ran the Olympia Press in Paris, which was in its time the foremost publisher of quality porn — porn with pretensions. Some of his contributors were or went on to become stars. Girodias was the first to recognise Nabokov’s Lolita as something special, not to mention J P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, some works of Jean Genet, and so on.

One other writer who essayed on the basis of Girodias’s collection at roughly the same time as Steiner was Gore Vidal, the brilliant American whose notoriety was at least partly based on his terrific promiscuity. In his essay “On Pornography”, Vidal writes that “Mr. Girodias’s sampler should provide future sociologists with a fair idea of what sex was like at the dawn of the age of science.” Before, “sex was a dirty business since bodies stank and why should any truly fastidious person want to compound the filth of his own body’s corruption with that of another?” Modern medicine and sanitation took the risk out of sex (this was pre-AIDS), so Americans’ real and imagined sexual lives could, at long last, come a mite closer to alignment.

Now that middle-class Indians can count on reasonable sanitation and medical care, is our sexual universe opening up? Is hypocrisy easing? Is Ruchir Joshi’s book a sign of the times? Yes, perhaps, and yet… its overwhelming banality suggests that our sexual imagination is still impoverished, still fixated on things below the pulp-line. Perhaps we’re still at the talking stage: the doing, the literature, may or may not follow.


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