You can’t judge a book by its cover. Particularly these days when there’s no cover to judge because everyone is reading books — including oodles of dirty ones — on their Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other e-readers.
I don’t know about you, but I did the bulk of my dirty book reading the old-fashioned way — holding it open and paging through an actual book — as an adolescent while babysitting. Once the rug rats I was watching were tucked into their beds, I’d rifle through their parents’ record collection to decide if these thirty- or fortysomethings were even vaguely hip, then head for their bookshelves to find the smut. It was always there.
While babysitting, I read The Story of O, The Pearl (a collection of Victorian erotica), Rosemary’s Baby (which counted as dirty if you were 14), Candy, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask and The Harrad Experiment. (My own parents were highbrow academics, so about as dirty as it got in our household was a paperback copy of George Orwell’s 1984 with a particularly lurid cover depicting protagonists Winston and Julia in tight-fitting, tattered shirts.)
Memories of my prurient reading came flooding back recently when the New York Times ran an obituary for journalist Mike McGrady, the literary mastermind (or should that be minor-mind?) behind Naked Came the Stranger, another of my babysitting reads.
Naked Came the Stranger was a salacious novel published in 1969 that quickly climbed the bestseller lists. It purported to tell the story of a Long Island housewife and her numerous sexual encounters, including a rabbi, a hippie (remember, it was the ‘60s) and an accountant. The book’s author was identified as Penelope Ashe, whom the book jacket claimed was a “Long Island housewife” and whose photo depicted as an attractive brunette.
In reality, Naked was an elaborate literary hoax. It was actually written by two dozen journalists who worked at Newsday, a newspaper serving New York City’s suburban Long Island towns. Each of these conspirators scribbled a single chapter, with the overall project edited by McGrady and colleague Harvey Aronson.
McGrady said he was inspired to undertake this literary creation after suffering through Valley of the Dolls, the lubricious 1966 bestseller by Jacqueline Susann. In a memo to potential contributors on the Newsday staff about what he wanted, McGrady made it clear that triple X marked the intended target and no one should be aiming any higher. “There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex,” he wrote. “Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.”
McGrady was just keeping up with the times. Sex was everywhere in popular culture in the late '60s and early '70s, thanks to the sexual revolution and protracted court decisions that finally allowed the publication of what had once been considered scandalous books (Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer) and showings of pornographic movies (I Am Curious (Yellow) and Deep Throat). Even Hollywood could see that the times they were a-changin’ and finally dropped in 1968 its restrictive Motion Picture Production Code, which had prohibited even married couples from being seen in bed together.
More than 40 years later, everything has changed, yet nothing really has. There are still dirty books, and though we're consuming them in new ways, we're doing so just as surreptitously as before. A huge spur for recent book sales has been what’s known as “Mommy porn.” This is erotica — most notably, 50 Shades of Grey, the new S&M novel by E.L. James that’s currently No. 1 on the bestseller lists — that female readers are consuming at a frantic pace on e-readers, that keep the content under wraps. Who’s to know what steamy stuff that decorous-looking woman sitting next to you on the subway or in the dentist’s office might be perusing on her Kindle?
(Demand for all types of genre fiction is, in fact, exploding, be it romance, spy or old-fashioned tough guy novels. Readers are gobbling it up on e-readers, enough so that popular authors are now under pressure to increase their output to two novels a year rather than one to keep up with demand, according to a recent article in The New York Times.)
The tale is identical for on-screen porn. When was the last time you passed a dirty movie house or even a shop selling X-rated videos or DVDs? The entire market has migrated to the online world — and into greater secrecy. Video porn is now just a couple of clicks away on your laptop or iPad, much of it even for free. Heck, in a survey published a year ago, 3 percent of respondents even owned up to watching online porn while at work.
I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing. The key is to remember to erase your browsing history. That goes double if you’re babysitting the grandkids and the parents are about to come home.
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