Sunday, November 5, 2017

Did Not Finish

A DNF is a book or story that, for one reason or another, a reader Does Not Finish. Whether they simply drop it with a yawn, or fling it across the room with a righteous roar of disgust, something about the book compels them to put it aside.

There are all sorts of reasons for not finishing, and not all of them have to do with bad writing or ineffectual storytelling. Sometimes the reader has personal issues that make the story painful or disturbing. Sometimes they’re just not suited temperamentally or intellectually to be the “proper observer” of a particular work of literature. (Unfortunately, such readers are usually the ones who end up leaving one-star reviews.) Sometimes it boils down to nothing more than being easily bored.

Whatever the reason, there’s not much a writer can do about DNFs. Once the story is “out there” and available to the wider public, it’s beyond its creator’s control. Authors, publishers, and booksellers can target an audience with laser-like precision, but they can never wholly eliminate those pesky personal variables that throw the best-drawn curves askew.

I do a great deal of reading in my capacity as a reviewer, though, as an independent, I am not required to begin or finish anything I don’t fancy. Even so, I’ve been encountering a lot of DNFs lately, many of them from writers and editors whose work I’ve respected and enjoyed in the past. I’m not sure why this should be. I wonder if I’ve gotten so heavily invested in my own extremely intense process of self-criticism as to become hypersensitive to flaws in the work of other writers?  Or is it that I, too, am becoming ever more easily distracted? Yet, when I don’t like something, my inclination is not simply to say “this sucks” and move on, but to wonder why I don’t like it. As such, I’ve tried to identify some of the most common reasons I end up not finishing a book. Broadly speaking, the things that are most likely to wind up impaled on my DNF spike are:

(1) Stories that fail to catch and hold my attention.
I once had an aspiring author complain that I stopped reading their story before I got to the “really good part in Chapter 5…” This same passive-aggressive spoiled-brat dilettante turned around in public and sniffed that I “couldn’t be bothered to give [their] book a fair chance…” In fact, I’d slogged through the entire first chapter—about twelve pages—even though I could tell from the opening line that the story wasn’t going to work.

Where they may only dampen a full-length novel’s promise, a dull first line or paragraph is downright fatal to a short story. Life is fleeting and time far too precious for most readers to waste on the hope that things might pick up in a page or two. A smart author grabs her readers right away and does not let go. Beyond that first line, the writer needs to keep giving the audience reasons to read on. Barring this, it’s more than likely that all but the most stalwart or masochistic members of the author’s own family will abandon the effort, probably with a great sigh of relief.

(2) Stories bogged down by superfluous detail.
In his essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell remarked on Dickens’ inclusion of unnecessary detail in his novels. These little slices of everyday life were meant to make characters more relatable yet, at the same time, more unique, imbuing scenes with a charming sense of realism. Yet this great surfeit of superfluous detail is the very thing that many readers find so off-putting about Dickens; it can be like slogging through a mud-choked nineteenth-century London street to get anywhere near the bloody point of the story. Description for its own sake, no matter how rich and colorful, does not move things forward, and often ends up exhausting a reader’s patience, if not suffocating their interest altogether.

Some authors seem bound and determined to put a Fit-Bit on their characters’ wrists, cataloging every single step they take, every insignificant gesture (“He handed the barista a crumpled twenty-dollar bill and twiddled his thumbs while waiting for her to hand him the six dollars and thirty-seven cents she owed him in change…”), and every solitary thing they see, starting from the moment they open their eyes in the morning to the second they sit down in front of the computer in their burlap-lined institutional-beige cubicle at work some 6,792 torturously-documented steps later. (Honestly! I’ve encountered stuff just like this, not only from free-range amateurs, but from supposedly respectable traditionally-published authors who should damn-well know better!)

WE DON’T NEED TO SEE ALL THIS UNNECESSARY CRAP! What we need is a hawk-eyed focus on CHARACTERS, their thoughts, and feelings, and needs. If an action has nothing special to do with the character’s motivation within the narrative, the core problem of the story that must be solved, the particular conflict that gave rise to the story in the first place, GET RID OF IT! Details must serve the character’s story, and contribute to the reader’s understanding of that character’s journey to the ending. 

Closely related to the issue of excess detail is the problem of…

(3) Stories full of overelaborate, belabored transitions
In classic animation, when a character had to move quickly from one place to another, the animators did not draw every movement involved in that transition, which would have involved a lot of extra labor and expense. Instead, they used a type of shorthand in which the character’s image was blurred on their way from one cell to the next.  (Look at something like Don Bluth’s An American Tail or The Secret of N.I.M.H. frame by frame to see how this technique worked.)

In fiction, of course, characters sometimes have to get from point A to point B, and readers need to know that they’ve moved. But even the shortest transition passages tend to place a drag on forward momentum, and drawn-out transitions full of needless description can halt that essential momentum dead in its tracks. We don’t need to see everything a character sees as they cross a room, unless, for example, what they see is the object of their most passionate desire somewhere off in the distance. Then, it’s much more interesting to talk about their reaction to what they see—what’s going through their heads as they near their destination. Best advice to avoid landing on the DNF pile is to keep transitions as simple, short and sweet as possible, or consider whether they need to be included at all.

(4) Stories that get stuck in traffic, going nowhere.
I once stopped reading a story when I came across something very much like this:

The secretary got up from her desk and walked on high heels to the area where the filing cabinets were kept. She bent down to reach the drawer marked W, opened the W drawer and filed the folders that were supposed to go under W, then closed the drawer, stood up, and walked back to her desk… [where she spent the rest of the day daydreaming about her super-hot boss].

Aside from the fact that this sentence didn’t put the story forward in any meaningful way until the very end (which I added), the author wasted words and time on a pointless bit of stage business. While movement was depicted, this wasn’t a real transition so much as a trip down a blind alley. Every word in a narrative needs to function in relationship to the totality of that narrative. Every word in a story needs to facilitate and enhance the forward flow of that story.

Stories and writing that are rambling, turgid, and unfocused invariably end up as DNFs. Static passages like the one cited above practically guarantee a DNF, not to mention all those stories that are literally about going nowhere. I am SO SICK of stories that begin with a character stuck in traffic, worrying about being late as they curse their boss or their boyfriend or their own rotten luck, spouting shopworn shite like “Damn him!” and “The bastard!”

And it’s a pretty safe bet that when nothing’s moving…

(5) Nothing Changes
In Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig tells us that “stories begin when things change.” I’ve consigned way too many stillborn stories to DNF oblivion for the simple reason that they portray static characters living in worlds where nothing ever truly changes. (This seems particularly rife in erotic romance involving happily married couples, devoid of conflict or transgression.)

Maybe it’s the influence of domestic realism as purveyed by the academic/creative-writing industrial complex of the last few decades, but a lot of authors nowadays seem to think they’re telling an “authentic” story when all they’re doing is cataloging a series of unextraordinary events. (Characters wake up in the morning, make coffee, sit at their desks, or arrive home from work…) Almost nothing compels me to stop reading a story faster than the prospect of having to wade through pages and pages of this bland boring shite. Give your characters a problem to solve! Force them to deal with change! Make then do something, dammit!

(6) Buried in Backstory
Backstory can be important to understanding a character’s present circumstances. If handled well it can lend depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters and the problems they have to solve. Ideally, it should also be entertaining in itself. Unfortunately, I’ve run across a fair number of stories lately in which backstory is presented as a massive data dump right near the beginning, about as subtle as a mudslide. It feels like the authors are treating backstory as something to be presented and gotten out of the way all at once, as opposed to a gradual unspooling of detail, a delicate narrative thread woven through the fabric of the whole. (I recommend the novels of Margaret Atwood to anybody who wants to see how a true master handles backstory.)

Especially in shorter fictional forms, extended backstory does very little to advance a story. I’m not saying don’t use it; I’m saying introduce it subtly, employ it artfully, and resort to it only when necessary, that is, when it is essential to an explanation of the present. Drop it on the reader like a ton of bricks and prepare to have your book disappear into DNF limbo.

(7) “Too too”…
Stories and characters that are too perfect, too pat, too simple, too obvious. Mysteries that are too easy to solve from the get-go. Conflict that requires no real effort to overcome, giving the characters nothing interesting to do. Dialogue that’s too straightforward and “on the nose”. Plots that are too conventional and cliché-ridden, or too reliant on coincidence. To paraphrase a song by Jethro Tull, too many “toos” add up to a DNF.

(8) Sucky Settings
I’m no fan of stories that depend on vaguely ‘exotic’ locales for interest, where, in effect, the setting is forced to do the characters’ work for them. Setting, no matter how alluring, can never redeem an uninteresting character.

Yet, there’s an even bigger issue with setting that’s annoyed me for years; that is when authors fail to take full advantage of a setting’s potential. Sometimes this is because they haven’t bothered to do even the most basic research. More often, it’s because they’ve simply failed to close their eyes and use their own imagination. Look at a room through your mind's eye: what props are available in that room for your characters to use? (View some of the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons to see how Hannah and Barbera took full advantage of even the smallest detail in a particular setting to create brilliant physical comedy! I’d recommend The Bowling Alley Cat, The Cat Concerto, and Cat Fishin’ for a start.)

(9) Trope-heavy stories.
These are slick, facile stories that rely on conventional plot devices, usually so predictable as to encourage readers to “skim” the text. (Think pretty much anything by Dan Brown.)

This issue is especially prevalent in erotic writing, where sex scenes have all the originality and passion of a checklist for an oil change. I’ve complained often about the sing-songy, almost somnolent quality of these scenes; the predictable “I do this/you do that” back-and-forth, seesaw action and reaction. There are very few authors anymore who can compel me to read straight through a sex scene. I am far less likely to skim if the scene is skillfully and subtly integrated into the narrative flow of the text—if the sex doesn’t seem like an authorial obligation or a passionless afterthought.  NEVER GIVE READERS AN EXCUSE TO SKIM!!!!!

And other common and extremely irritating issues:
(10) Clunky, awkward or far-fetched plotting.
(11) Poor Pacing.
(12) Head-hopping.
(13) Sloppy editing (allowing many of these other problems to make it into print).
(14) Downright stupid stories that fail to engage viscerally, intellectually, or even on the level of pure entertainment.
(15) Boring, annoying, or dismally forgettable writing (with the gentle admonition that some things truly are a matter of individual taste).




Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review of 'Italian Sonata' by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s latest foray into erotic romance gets an ‘A’ for atmosphere. There are so many gorgeously-written passages in Italian Sonata evoking a rich Gothic ambiance, like a moonlit night garden in extravagent bloom, drawing us in with its cloying hypnotic perfumes, it's hard to choose which blossom we like the best. Maupassant elegantly distills the night-haunted tropes of nineteenth-century Romanticism to build a storyworld at once delectable and foreboding—a world in which shadows themselves seem to come alive, disgorging mystery and horror. This is hardly surprising in a novel where Dracula assumes the role of recurring literary symbol, Bram Stoker’s classic story with its powerfully erotic subtext opening dark doors in the naïve young heroine’s imagination. There’s a nod to the Bluebeard story as well, that oft-told tale of gruesome secrets refracted through the language of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber. Where Maupassant’s influences show, they are only the very finest, indeed.

Italian Sonata is set in 1899 at the cusp of the new century, a time of near-boundless optimism limited only by the obsolescent mores of the fading Victorian Age. A follow-up to Maupassant’s acclaimed first effort, The Gentleman’s Club, if anything, her style has become more assured, her language more fluent. The Italian setting is vivid and colorful with here and there a smattering of the native tongue to add a spicy dash of verismoI like the strong-willed female characters; not so much modern-day ass-kickers like Buffy or Xena recycled in Victorian corsets and bustles, or anachronistic ‘proto-feminists’ like Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, but equally adventuresome in their own way, thoughtful, curious, questioning, unwilling to accept the stultifying status quo just because “that’s the way things have always been done.” At their best, Maupassant’s heroines have genuine agency unlike so many of their airheaded counterparts in countless pot-boiling bodice-rippers and Regency romps. (I liked the way the future granny from Maupassant’s Highland Pursuits makes a brief cameo near the beginning of this novel, remarked upon for her independent, adventuring spirit. Very cute!) These women are fearless when they must be, finding depths of courage within themselves they never realized they possessed until the moment of crisis calls it forth. from hearts that are better than they know. When Maupassant sets up her romantic m/f/f triangle, we know who we want to see on top!

All so fine so far. Unfortunately, there are a number of troubling flaws in the fabric of this novel—amateurish oversights unbecoming a writer of Maupassant’s well-earned stature. Where to begin? Casual head-hopping and inconsistent points of view, not once or twice, but frequently; anachronism, though thankfully rare ("It was super to meet you..." In 1899 it might have been "grand" to meet someone, but super? Probably not so much), and the occasional confusing arrangement of episodes without sufficient set-up or transition, especially later in the book. All rooky mistakes that a competent editor would have caught and corrected immediately. Alas, there's more: poor pacing around rising action, set pieces either too perfunctory, with action seeming to come out of nowhere, or fuzzily drawn without explanations for why or how certain things happen (like the door to a chamber suddenly, and very conveniently, being "kicked open" for no apparent reason, and with nary a "kicker" in sight). 

Maupassant’s philosophical digressions can be quite fascinating, but too many of them tend to inhibit the logical flow of action, so that, often, what ought to be the emotional high-point of a well-paced scene feels like deflated anti-climax. They can also feel forced, as if the author were using her characters to score ideological points rather than deepen the reader's understanding of inner conflict and motivation. (I am not a fan of the authorial "Mother Knows Best" voice.)  There are too many maddening examples of what I would call ‘exposition after the fact’ in which one character condescendingly explains “what just happened” or offers details of backstory that ought to have been foreshadowed or seeded in the reader’s mind much earlier on. (These passages have the stagy feel of old-fashioned melodrama, more quaint than helpful.) Add to this, the occasional example of jarring, artificial-sounding expository dialogue or inner monologue that read as if they had been deposited into the text almost at random.

As if all this weren’t enough, we are treated to contradictory character arcs, taking established traits and turning them around, if not ignoring them altogether. Yes, we admire the strong-willed women when they are allowed to be in character; but what are we to make of a heroine, having absolute proof of her would-be suitors utter unsuitability, vacillating and what-if-ing about marrying the monster anyway? (Shades of Anastasia Steele, unflattering to say the least!) And how are we to regard what is possibly the most disturbing turnabout-against-type in the entire novel: Madame Noire as a damsel in distress? Needing to be rescued by a MAN, after everything we learned about her character in the first novel? (It’s all I can do to keep my book-hurling reflexes in check!) Maude's dilemma—its cause un-foreshadowed, at least in this book—seems forced at best, an excuse to punch up action in the story without adding much real value to the whole. Narrative threads need to be taut after all; dramatic plotlines need to intersect dramatically, and these just seem to elide briefly before drifting off on their own flaccidly merry ways. 

Meanwhile, Maupassant’s men—particularly Maude’s husband Henry—are shallowly drawn, their inner monologues, such as they are, one-dimensional, uninteresting and predictably plodding. Worst of all, after the brilliant, icon-busting, psycho-sexual revelation of The Gentlemen’s Clubthis sequel seems to be reverting to the most disgustingly atavistic—dare one say Victorian?—notions about moral consequence; that a character, especially a female character, who is too free in their sexual attitudes and appetites must somehow, yet always necessarily, be punished for “enjoying it,” only truly happy once she’s been "brought to heel," domestically settled and married with children. Uggh! (Could Italian Sonata, in fact, be a cursory re-working of an earlier novel featuring these characters, one that predates The Gentlemen's Club?)

Many readers—particularly the ones who aren’t writers themselves—will have little difficulty glossing over these flaws, to the degree they notice them at all as the story carries them along. I read more deliberately than most, slowly and analytically with deep comprehension, and tend to catch everything—more’s the pity sometimes. As such, I try to seek out the very best writing if only for the sake of my sanity, so on that rare occasion when a good writer lets me down, it has the sting of a personal affront, if not an outright insult to my intelligence. My problem here is that I know damned well Emmanuelle de Maupassant can do so much better, because she has done so much better in the past. 

Yet in the end, I do think that what’s good here far outweighs what's not. Italian Sonata is recommended, albeit with the serious reservations already noted. I wish I could endorse it with greater enthusiasm, but that would neither be honest, nor fair, nor helpful. 




Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review of 'Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative' by Chuck Wendig


The poet Miya Angelou once remarked that people won’t necessarily remember what you said or how you said it, “but they will always remember how you made them feel.” The most memorable stories, Chuck Wendig insists, are the stories that make us feel. A good story can also make us think, and, quite possibly, entertain us along the way. But the way it makes us feel is paramount.  This may well be why so many badly-written books routinely make it to the best-seller list: whatever we may think about an author’s adolescent mangling of the English language, their torturously limited vocabulary, or the utter dearth of style in their stories, those stories managed to make readers feel something—and, rightly or wrongly, that trumps good grammar and proper spelling any day of the week. But it doesn’t always have to be that way; good writers can become better storytellers, and that is the aim and thrust of this fascinating and extremely useful new book. In Damn Fine Story Wendig lays out the elements of effective, powerful, thought-provoking, memorable storytelling—not writing per se, but storytelling, whether through books, movies, comics, or games—often with a surprising depth of detail, in a fresh, engaging, sometimes-salty style, never too far above our heads, but invariably enlightening.

Like so many others, I became aware of Chuck Wendig through the insightful, often breezy and hilarious postings on his blog, terribleminds, which has become a regular on-line destination for many writers today. I picked up Wendig’s book shortly after finishing two other exceptional volumes on writing; John McPhee’s superb Draft Nr. 4, which deals with the craft and technique of ‘creative nonfiction’, and Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, a brilliant, paradigm-shifting discussion of dramatic fiction that cannot be recommended highly enough. Insights gained from McPhee and Percy dovetailed beautifully with the ideas and concepts in Wendig’s book and reinforced them at a deep level. As a novelist and traditionally-published author of short fiction, I found myself referencing my own work-in-progress to discussions and examples in Damn Fine Story and this was immensely helpful! Following Wendig’s lead, I went back and chopped out a great deal of inessential material in my current novel, while working to tighten up the threads that bind the story together. This, for me, was worth the price of the book, along with Wendig’s 50 Storytelling Tips at the back, a concise summation of his many invaluable lessons. 

We’ve all heard that old chestnut, “write what you know.” But that’s really a rather nebulous and silly, if not completely meaningless, piece of advice. Instead, Wendig exhorts us to “write what you understand… Write who you are… We are at our best as storytellers when who we are…helps to inform the stories we write.”

And what goes into writing or telling a great story? Wendig lays out six concise rules—more like guidelines—to help us understand the process. Stories begin with change, for “storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo…a push between order and chaos, a battle between oxygen and the fire that consumes it.” The best stories are not about events, but about characters: “Between the character’s problem and the character’s solution to that problem lies the story” and it is “the small story [that] always matters more than the big story.” 

How do we raise the stakes in a story? How do we create conflict and build tension that will compel and thrill an audience?  Ask questions! “Conflict is, in itself, a form of question. Implicit in every conflict, in every breach of the status quo, are a bundle of uncertainties…” And questions keep an audience hungry—“always hungry but never starved.” Wendig gives us no fewer than thirty-three building blocks of narrative tension in a chapter that’s nothing short of a didactic tour de force! Along the way, he often illustrates his points with reference to several of the best-known examples of great cinematic storytelling; the first Die Hard film, Star Wars (the original trilogy in particular), The Princess Bride, and The Hunger Games. While Wendig’s constant reliance on the same material becomes a tad monotonous in spots, it is invariably to a valuable end. It’s when he goes off in a more obscure direction that things aren’t quite so clear—honestly! How many people even remember the rather ponderous film adaptation of The Last Airbender? (That movie certainly failed to make me feel anything.)

Of particular interest to me as a writer of erotic fiction were Wendig’s many practical insights into the narrative potential of sex—which ought to be studied and taken to heart by every aspiring author of literary fiction coming up today! “A scene of sex or violence,” Wendig tells us, “doesn’t stop a character from being who they are, it reveals it… The great thing about sex as a driver of tension is that so many outcomes are possible…” Sex “is ultimately about characters, and about the tension of what happens when you smush [characters] together…”

Sex, violence, taboo and transgression are all deeply rooted in character and all highly effective catalysts for conflict, tension and story. “Every interaction between two characters…works in similar ways… A fight scene and a love scene are a kind of conversation, and they follow similar rules.”

That’s music to my ears! And these are only a few of the great insights to be found in Damn Fine Story. Chuck Wendig has clearly thought deeply about the elements of his craft, and that works out wonderfully for us, too!

Enthusiastically recommended. 



Sunday, October 1, 2017

Burying Hefner...Plus 'The Centerfold Affair' a story by TAS

We are compelled—because we do not live on another planet—to note the death this past week of Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy magazine in 1953, and went on to project his own particular brand of fantasy across a vast cultural expanse, ultimately influencing, if not forming outright, the erotic consciousness of millions.

I come neither to bury the man nor praise him: the religious right had already consigned Hefner to Hell decades ago, and he, for his part, welcomed their hate. He would be somewhat more bewildered, if not wholly surprised, at the long lines now forming on the left, feminists and their allies eager to piss on his grave. The evil men do live after them, and Hefner’s legacy is fraught to say the very least.

Hefner is often regarded as a particularly successful example of self-re-invention, so dear to the American imagination. The nerdy art student, self-described son of puritans, transforms himself into the ultimate hedonist icon, the man of leisure smokes his pipe—imagining that it makes him look so much more thoughtful and serious—as he lounges in pajamas, surrounded by all the accoutrements of success, including a veritable harem of beautiful, unfailingly submissive women. In interviews, Hefner said that his relationships were “projections of his dreams” and he was undeniably successful in turning his own prosaic paracosm into a kind of reality, though mostly for himself. He did not seem to understand—or, at least, would not publically admit—that his dreams had a way of coming true less because of any innate brilliance or personal charm, than the simple fact that he possessed the means to make them so. Nor did he seem to grasp the notion that self-re-invention only works if one keeps at it, refining the invention from time to time. Self-invention must be an on-going, life-long process, otherwise it risks devolution into self-parody and cliché. So it was with Playboy. If Hefner's relationships were a projection of his dreams, then Playboy was a mirror of his aspirations; the magazine, its fortunes and its flaws were inextricably linked to the man, his tastes, his eccentricities, his fantasies and his failings.

The saving grace of the publication was its fiction. With its broadly welcoming submission guidelines, Playboy published some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and gave some their first major breaks—for this, if nothing else, Hefner deserves enormous credit. While style and subject varied widely, the writing that found its way to the page was seldom less than superb. Ironically, Playboy did not accept erotica per se, though strong sexual themes and situations were certainly welcome. Yet every story the magazine ever published did have one thing in common: the main male character always—always—had to be “stronger” than the main female character, perpetuating a not-so-subtle literary misogyny, itself a projection of Hefner’s atavistic  notions about the “proper order” of relationships between the sexes as characterized in his rambling, fuzzy-headed "Playboy Philosophy". (*)    

The fiction editors made no secret of this policy. Harlan Ellison famously had one of his best stories rejected because of it. The first short story I submitted to the magazine in 2004 was returned for similar reasons—though the editor was kind enough to make some very helpful remarks at the end of the manuscript, which ultimately encouraged me in my present career. Early on it had been a dream of mine to see one of my stories in Playboy, and I worked assiduously at that goal for some years, honing my craft, fine-tuning my style. Unfortunately, by 2006 when I was ready to submit my story Night Vision—still one of the best things I’ve ever done—the magazine was no longer accepting un-agented submissions, and a wild, wide-open era of literary democracy had come to an end.

Why, you might ask, would I have wanted to be published in Playboy? Aside from the fact that Hefner paid $5000 for a standard-length story of 5000 words—a sum that would, in a single payday, have eclipsed everything I ever earned in all my years as a published classical composer—there was a certain cachet that came with being a Playboy author. Where else could one be mentioned alongside writer-heros like Ellison,  Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, John Updike, T.G. Boyle,  Ian Flemming, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asmiov, and on and on and on… If you got into Playboy, you were a somebody—a somebody who had arrived at that.

Yet, in many ways, the magazine’s literary reputation had been built, much like Hefner’s image as a sexual revolutionary, on laurels well past their sell-by date. Looking at Playboy with growing disaffection in the early twenty-first century, I sometimes wondered how it could ever have been considered cutting-edge anything. So much of what passed for non-fiction was little more than  autoerotic gobbledygook, while even many of the entertainment pieces were jejune, self-servingly pretentious exercises in quasi-literary masturbation. (Or was I expecting too much?)  All these nagging annoyances might have been overlooked—and more often than not, were—but for a deeper problem, or, perhaps, more accurately, a considerably shallower one.  Hefner’s ideals of feminine beauty were still trapped like some quaint artifact in a time capsule from the 1950s: his “girl-next-door” always perfectly made-up and painstakingly coiffed--if not tastefully airbrushed--seen but seldom heard, preferably in bleach-blonde multiples of two. This fossilized aesthetic sensibility inevitably metamorphosed into grotesque caricature, perhaps best exemplified by the deification of Anna Nicole Smith, a creature as brazen and vacuous as a cartoon balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Where once the notion of a naked woman looking shamelessly into the camera with a knowing smile like Manet’s Olympia had shocked and inspired a culture, Playboy offered little more than softcore primpery, a predictable standard repertory of innocuous pouts, pop-eyed come-hither leers, and bubble-assed ennui. By the time the magazine announced it would no longer include nude centerfolds, most readers’ reaction seemed to be the equivalent of an apathetic shrug.

No, indeed, I do not come to bury Hefner, for, in truth, the man buried himself long ago.


(*) Regarding Hefner's "philosophy", as stated in the story below, little more than a pseudo-intellectual repackaging of  classic Hedonism, reminding one of some pompous college professor trying to talk his way into a naive coed's panties. Much like Ayn Rand's contemporaneous Objectivism, Hefner's Playboy philosophy was nothing more than a grandiose attempt at justifying his own selfish whims--a megalomaniacal self-entitlement extending to his final wish to be buried next to Marilyn Monroe, as if, in the end, he might lay claim to the one thing he could never possess in life.  (That poor woman! Hounded, abused, and tortured by users and creeps in life, now stuck next to the creepiest abuser of them all forever.)



* * * * *

I thought it might be apropos to include some fiction with this post, especially as this story deals with the formative experiences in which Playboy so often had a role. The experiences described here were quite common, I think, up to a certain point near the end of the century when the internet began to play a greater role in erotic self-discovery. The story—part of a chapter from an early draft of an unpublished novel—begins when Ben, a boy about 13, finds the magazine in his uncle Jerry’s bedroom. (Note that subsequent to 1991 when this story takes place, Playboy finally did feature a centerfold from Iowa, Jordan Monroe (Miss October 2006))


THE CENTERFOLD AFFAIR
by Terrance Aldon Shaw



Then I found it.

There, stuffed between the wall and the side of the bed, was a thick, glossy magazine, a real honest-to-goodness copy of Playboy. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! This was like coming on buried treasure. I’d heard guys effusing breathlessly about what they’d seen on these pages, swaggering and boasting the way obnoxious junior-high boys always do.

But here it was within my sweaty, trembling grasp.  Wait till I told the guys!

I opened it up to the centerfold, a dark-haired punk-inflected Euro-skank escapee from the Amsterdam red-light district. Her name was Lyka or Ilka or Rikka or something like that; the kind of name people on this side of the Atlantic usually reserve for their show dogs. I stared at the picture for what seemed an impossibly long time, ogling and drooling till what’s-her-name seemed to come alive in my imagination. Then she began talking to me: “Ben, my turn-ons include well-hung men in Speedos, steeplechasing on the beach by moonlight, and a good snuff flick.”

As she spoke, Miss June began to sway and shimmy, revealing the secrets of her body in a wild one-dimensional striptease. Before I knew what was happening, I’d reached down into my pants, touching myself in time to the imagined rhythm of the dance, the exotic enchantress urging me on. 

And before she could say “cum here often?” I found myself in the grip of a strange, shivering sensation, so surprising in its power, so overwhelming for the sheer pleasure of it, that I nearly cried out; it felt as if I were melting and exploding all at once. Indifferent to the mess I was making, my milky essence spewed, almost leapt, from my body as I collapsed into a kind of ecstatic twilight.

Later, I cleaned things up as best I could, put the magazine back where I’d found it, and tried to be as nonchalant as it was possible to be under the circumstances. But I wanted more; I was hooked like a junkie, all strung out, breathless for my next fix. Getting off was all I could think about. I wanted to feel that wonderfully intense build-up of pleasure, the almost unbearable tension that came just before the final moment of sweet out-rushing, and the near-nirvana of release. I tried again later that night after the lights were out and the house had grown still, tried to recreate the experience of the afternoon. But something was missing; I needed Miss Neked Netherlands of 1991, and she was sleeping with my uncle.

Next day, I crept back into the guestroom, tingling with anticipation.  I’d swiped a hand towel from the linen closet, smuggling it in under my shirt. I found the magazine where I’d left it, and got right to business. The centerfold started doing her one-woman production of Gypsy in my head, dancing and stripping, talking as she took it all off. “Men are like the stallions I enjoy riding on the beach at night.  I put a bit in their mouth, jump on their backs, apply the spurs, and tell them I have ways of making them enjoy it. Yet, somehow, they never seem to.  Why is this, I wonder?”

I was on the beach with Ilsa—or was it Ilka?—willing her to ride me through the pounding surf. The overwhelming newness of arousal flowed over me like breaking waves. “Ben, if you want to win me over you need to buy me the biggest plush dildo you can find; I’ll put a dog collar on you, and ask you to obey, and you can tell me how you Americans decide where to eat; you have so many crappy second-rate restaurants.”

Everything started to spin around. A rapturous warmth radiated through my limbs like a mainlined narcotic, powerful and addicting; an all-encompassing sense of connectedness, a feeling of being at one and in love with everybody and everything in the entire universe. I was gone.

But when my spirit got back together with my body, I realized that I was not alone; Uncle Jerry was in the room with me.

“Hey Ben, I see you’re getting acquainted with Miss June.”

“Aw Geez, Uncle Jerry!” I tried to cover up the evidence of what I’d so obviously been doing. “You scared the crap out of me!”

“Funny thing about Miss June; not one has ever gone on to be Playmate of the Year. Did you know that?”

“I’m really sorry, Uncle Jerry.”

“Neither has a Miss July—not once. And it seems like those June, July women are almost always brunettes. ‘Course, I don’t much care for this particular Miss June, myself.”

“I won’t do it again.”

“And did you know that there’s never been a playmate from Iowa? Funny thing.”

“Please don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“Now, why would I do that?” said Jerry. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”


Somewhat later, it occurred to me.

“So, how come you don’t like this month’s centerfold?”

Jerry rested his chin on his fist like The Thinker

“Everybody has different tastes in women, Ben. Each month in Playboy there’s always at least one letter from a guy saying something like ‘last month’s centerfold is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!’ and I’m sure one or two guys will write in to say the same thing about this month’s Playmate.

“But to my eye, she’s kind of hard around the edges, almost gettin’ into butch territory, if you know what I mean. She reminds me of Sue the Shrew, or a naked Bride of Frankenstein; sorta scary.”

“Really?”

“That’s one guy’s opinion, Ben. I’ve been enjoying this magazine for over twenty years; I’ve seen lots of beautiful centerfolds. Miss June here wouldn’t even make my top twenty.”

“So who’s your favorite centerfold of all time?”

“That’s an easy one!”  Jerry said, “Vicki McCarty, Miss September 1979, hands down.”

 “What was it about her that you liked so much?”

“I’ve always preferred my women brunette and brilliant—funny how I always end up with dumb blondes. Not only was Vicki McCarty one of the most strikingly gorgeous  brunettes I ever saw in  Playboy, she was also very probably the smartest woman ever to pose for the magazine; a brilliant Phi Beta Kappa scholar studying for her advanced degree in jurisprudence at Oxford. Would you like to see her?”

“You still have it; the magazine from back then?”

“Yeah; it’s been one of my most prized possessions all these years. Had to keep it hidden from Sue the Shrew while we were married, but I think I managed to find a pretty good place.”

Jerry rummaged through the old army-surplus ammo box he kept at the foot of the bed.  It was crammed with paper, reams of notes, half-finished manuscripts, drafts of his ever-expanding but somehow never-quite-finished take on the Great American Novel. And, nestling down near the bottom of the pile, a battered plastic bag, sealed and resealed many times with duct tape.

Inside the bag, reposing like a treasured holy relic, was a pristine copy of the September 1979 issue of Playboy. The cover was cleverly designed to look like the front page of a daily newspaper; in the lower right hand corner a small eye-catching headline and picture; Playboy finds Phi Beta Kappa Playmate.

As he flipped through the pages heading towards the centerfold Jerry began to speak in hushed reverent tones like an eye-witness to history, somebody-who’d-been there-no-shit at Woodstock when Hendrix played The Star Spangled Banner or stood in line for hours to get Marilyn Chambers’ autograph at the premier of Behind the Green Door. “Back in the ‘70s a lot of the editorial content in Playboy had this annoying breathless nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind of quality that didn’t help you feel very smart or mature. It tended to sound like a bunch of guys sitting around a locker room snapping towels at each other and shooting the breeze about babes. ‘There’s something about blondes, ya know? They’re more—what’s the word?—errrr, willing.’ I started referring to that style as errrotica. From a literary point of view it was just godawful.

“But nobody was buying the magazine for the literary quality of the captions. It was the pictures, man, the pictures. Some of those images are still burned into my memory, like a spread they did once called Sex in the Great Outdoors. And the images were a lot more overtly copulatory then—you know what I mean?—with couples doing it left and right; boy-on-girl or girl-on-girl or girl-boy-girl-on-boy-girl-boy. Things were wild and wide-open back then, Ben.

“But after a while a couple of things happened. First the ‘80s happened. Reagan and the Republican Revolution came to town, and suddenly the people who’d been waaaaay out on the loony-toon fringes of the far-right were the ones in power, passing the laws and appointing the judges. People started paying attention to all the shit these crazy hypocritical pig-ignorant fucks were shoveling about morality and family values, all the outright lies they were telling about the so-called evils of so-called pornography.

“And as much as Playboy tried and still tries to fight back, they also caved to some of this criticism. They toned down a lot of the explicit content, tried to make it seem more respectable and artsy like a slightly racier version of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. It became almost like a trade publication for the lingerie-modeling industry. Now when you look at a copy of the magazine you’ll hardly ever see heterosexual couples in the act except in the movie stills or the cartoons. There’ll be twins or triplets taking a shower together or stuff like that but the old days—the wide open sexual frontiers of the ‘70s—are gone forever.

“The other thing that happened was a bit more subtle. Over time, the demographic had changed. Somebody figured out that it wasn’t just horny adolescent jocks who were buying the magazine to hide under their beds. There were older ex-nerds—like me—who’d been reading it since they were teenagers but whose tastes and outlook had grown up and gone to college. There were married couples reading it together. (Wish I could’ve convinced my ex to read the Adviser with me once in a while.) Many very politically astute—and some quite influential—people were reading it, too; university professors, literary types who’ve always appreciated the great short stories, feminists of the sane variety, YUPPIES, progressive activists, and a good number of Lesbians—which might explain all the girl-on-girl-in-the-shower shots.

“So gradually, but never completely, they did away with the errrotica, the worst towel-snapping-ain’t-sex-a-dirty-little-joke kinda shit, and cut back on the copulatin’ couples. Better researched and written articles on politics and sexuality replaced the bogus Playboy-Philosophy pieces, which had always been just a phony adolescent pseudo-intellectual repackaging of hedonism anyway. (It always reminded me of some horny, pompous college professor trying to talk his way into a naive coed’s panties.) You could still read some great short stories and check out the occasional interview with important thinkers or the more interesting, intelligent type of celebrity. And always, of course, you could open it up to the middle to see stuff like this—”

“Whoa!” My mouth fell open as Jerry spread out the centerfold to its full length.  A young woman with long dark hair and beautiful penetrating brown eyes, reclined causally in an antique swivel chair, resting her feet on an old oak desk. She was naked except for a small white stocking cap. The way she looked into the camera, with a soft but serious gaze, made me forget about Little Miss Dutch Treat right then and there.

“Pretty nice, huh?”  Jerry ran his fingers across the page. “Many of these photographers think of themselves quite rightly as artists, and if you know a thing or two about art history, you begin to notice how a lot of these pictures are composed to resemble paintings by Reubens or Titian or Rembrandt. The only difference being; Reubens and company had way better taste in lingerie.”

“Her tits aren’t very big.” I said.

“No, but see how beautifully shaped they are? See how they’re in perfect proportion to the rest of her body? Believe me, Ben; big tits are highly overrated. Who needs more than a mouthful anyway?”

We flipped through the rest of the Playmate spread together. “Notice something interesting about her, Ben?”

“Yeah!  It’s like there’s a different girl in every picture. I know it’s the same one, but she looks different every time.”

“Exactly! That’s the secret of a truly beautiful woman; she’s multifaceted like a finely cut gemstone. You could take a thousand different pictures of her, and every single one would show her off in a different way. It’s not a matter of the photographer telling her to do something different: 'Be coy!  Now pout!  Make love to the camera!  Be a temptress . . .’ No, my friend, it’s something much more down deep and mysterious, something virtually impossible to put your finger on.

A truly beautiful woman has a kind of glow, an inner light that’s always turned on, and never fails to show her off to best advantage. You can see it all the way across a room; it draws you, like a moth to a flame.  You can feel it when she’s close to you, and, believe me, that’s the kind of woman you want to be close to.

“But a lot of guys don’t notice, hard as that may be to believe. They don’t notice because they’re not paying attention to the whole woman. They’re too hung up on one part or another; tits, or ass, or legs, or pussy. The people who put out Penthouse magazine cater to that. It’s like the story of the mermaid and her sister; the mermaid’s a girl from the waist up, and the rest of her’s a fish; her sister’s a girl only from the waist down. You virtually never see a photo in Penthouse of the whole woman; it’s all mermaids, either tit shots focused above the waist, or twat shots from the waist down. Sorry, but in my experience that’s not the best way to appreciate a woman.

“Now, Ben, I can’t let you take this particular issue--though I  might will it to you someday. I do have one or two tucked under the bed that you can have for keeps. And I’ll share the new ones with you as they come out. Just let me have first crack at ‘em so I can read the articles, and jerk myself off a couple times with the new playmate. Then they’re all yours, OK?”

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Jerry was as good as his word, sharing the magazine with me for the year or so he lived with us. Later, he even went so far as to get me a gift subscription so I wouldn’t miss an issue--newsstands in Iowa being a bit iffy about selling innocuous softcore to minors. With the exception of pretty, red-headed girl-next-door Corina Harney—Miss August 1991, and later, Playmate of the Year—my favorite centerfolds were never the most popular. I fell madly in love with a trio of fabulous brunettes: Traci Adel, Miss July 1994, whose ambition was to write and play great rock music in the tradition of Elvis; Cynthia Brown, Miss May 1995, an aspiring environmental activist, whose come-hither pose on her back in a sea of spilled popcorn haunted my wet dreams for years. And, my all-time favorite, my goddess of goddesses, Alesha Oreskovich, Miss June 1993, a brainy bombshell of a beach babe who said that “clothes are a nuisance,” could not understand the male obsession with sports, and dreamed of becoming a college professor.