Nicholson Baker: The Mad Scientist of Smut – NYTimes article + critique

The following article is about a novelist who writes in the genre of sensexuala (erotica, pornography) and now according to NYTimes writer McGrath – dirty. Below the article is Shanna Germain’s critique of article along with links to other critiques by writers of this genre.

Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer. His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator. He wears round, owlish glasses­, and in early book-jacket photographs, when his beard was darker and more closely trimmed than it is now, he reminds you of one of those earnest Russian intellectuals of the 19th century. Nowadays, with the beard grown out and nearly white, he could easily get seasonal work as a shopping-mall Santa.Baker is tall and a little awkward, with size 14 feet that keep getting in his own way. And he is shy and sweet-natured. Talking about sex makes him turn maroon. Yet he is the author of “Vox,” the 1992 phone-sex novel so steamy that Monica Lewinsky gave it as a gift to Bill Clinton. It ends with a woman on one end of the line crying out: “Oh! Nnnnnnnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn!” and climaxing so powerfully that she sees the great seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Two years later, Baker published “The Fermata,” a sequel of sorts, about a man who has the ability to stop time and uses it to undress women.

Baker’s new novel, “House of Holes,” which comes out this month, has the apt subtitle “A Book of Raunch” and is dirtier than “Vox” and “The Fermata” combined. It’s a series of loosely linked vignettes set in a sexual theme park where the attractions include Masturboats; the Porndecahedron, a 12-screen planetarium showing nonstop blue movies; and the Velvet Room, where the Russian composers Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov use their genitals to give foot massages. One visitor to the House of Holes temporarily surrenders his right arm in exchange for a larger penis, while the arm enjoys a happy sex life of its own. Another voluntarily submits to head detachment and becomes a walking pair of gonads. The book coins dozens of new terms for the male member, like “thundertube,” “seedstick” and the “Malcolm Gladwell,” and near the end there is a sort of Joycean explosion, an “Atlas-shrug shudderation of arrival” that makes a young woman named Shandee “shiver her way through the seven, eight, nine, twelve seconds of worldwide interplanetary flux of orgasmic strobing happy unmatched tired coughing ebbing thrilled spent ecstasy.”

What kind of person dreams up this stuff? It’s as funny as it is filthy and breathes new life into the tired, fossilized conventions of pornography in a way that suggests a deep, almost scholarly familiarity with the ancient tropes. “When ‘Vox’ came in, I thought it was both hilarious and horny,” David Rosenthal, until recently the executive vice president and publisher of Simon & Schuster and Baker’s editor in the ’90s, recalled in June. “I kept thinking, Where on earth did this come from?” Before leaving to become the president and publisher of Blue Rider, a new imprint at Penguin, Rosenthal also saw an early version of “House of Holes.” “It pains me that I’m not there to publish it,” he said, adding: “The fantasy life of Nicholson Baker — that would be a great psychological study.”

As Rosenthal pointed out, Baker is no ordinary, adult-bookstore pornographer. In addition to what might be called his sex trilogy, he is the author of six other novels, none of them racy in the least. “Mezzanine,” his first, takes place entirely inside the head of an office worker going out to buy shoelaces at lunchtime. It was followed by “Room Temperature,” about a man giving his infant daughter a bottle. “The Anthologist,” his most recent novel before “House of Holes,” is about a second-rate poet unable to finish an introduction he’s supposed to be writing for an anthology of rhyming verse.

Baker has also written several nonfiction books, including “U and I,” a memoir about his lifelong infatuation with John Updike; “Double Fold,” a manifesto against libraries overeager to dump their physical books and newspaper collections in favor of microfilm and digitized versions; and “Human Smoke,” a long, documentarylike account of World War II that implicitly makes a pacifist case, suggesting that a truce could have been negotiated and that Churchill was almost as much of a madman as Hitler.

Baker lives in South Berwick, Me., a small town not far from the New Hampshire border, in a white colonial-style house, bolted together from a wing built in the 18th century and one from the 19th. The south side badly needs a coat of paint, and the first story of the barn is so filled with books that last winter the floor caved in and had to be shored up. In person, Baker is a little like his house: a wired-together bundle of charming, eccentric, mismatched parts. He is happily married, with two children, sociable but also a bit of a loner. He says he has trouble forming male friendships and doesn’t know how to talk to other writers. “I don’t do all that well in the writerly world,” he told me recently, sitting at his kitchen table, a faucet dripping loudly behind him. “I’m happier being outside the flow.”

Baker is very funny but also a little melancholy. He sighs a lot. He is modest to a fault, so polite and decorous that he would never dream of employing in conversation the kind of vocabulary that lights up “House of Holes,” a blue-flaring plume of smut-talk. Baker is a classically trained musician who listens to trance and electronica, a retiring, mild-mannered person given to strong feelings and passionate obsessions. I gathered that there was a period not long ago when he tended to get a little emotional at South Berwick town meetings when some locals wanted to tear down an old building and replace it with a new one. In 1999, during his “Double Fold” phase, he got so upset that the British Library was deaccessioning its collection of 19th- and early-20th-century American newspapers that he cashed in a large part of his retirement savings and bought them himself: five trailer-truck loads, 6,000 bound volumes and another thousand wrapped bundles, which he stored in an old mill building in nearby Rollinsford, N.H. The other tenants were the Humpty Dumpty Potato Chip Company, a French thermal-underwear company and an outfit that collected old medical equipment — gurneys, examination tables and what Baker described as monster-movie X-ray machines.

When he is not writing about sex (and also when he is), Baker is one of the most beautiful, original and ingenious prose stylists to have come along in decades. He has some of his idol Updike’s visual acuity and some of Nabokov’s gift for metaphor, but he is funnier than either and takes a kind of mad scientist’s delight in the way things work and how the world is put together. Here is the narrator of “Room Temperature” describing his infant daughter, whom he has nicknamed the Bug: “The Bug’s nostril had the innocent perfection of a Cheerio (and Cheerios were in my mind, since lately we had begun to offer them to her), a tiny dry clean salty ring, so small, with the odd but functional smallness of the tires on passenger planes, or the smooth rim around the pistil of the brass pump head that you fitted over a tire’s stem valve to inflate it to a pressure you preset with a crank on the air machine.”

Years before David Foster Wallace popularized the extended digressive footnote, Baker stuffed “Mezzanine” with dozens of small-type, bottom-of-the-page mini-essays about doorknobs, staplers, plastic drinking straws and this one, about Jiffy Pop: “Jiffy Pop was the finest example of the whole aluminous genre: a package inspired by the fry pan whose handle is also the hook it hangs from in the store, with a maelstrom of swirled foil on the top that, subjected to the subversion of the exploding kernels, first by the direct collisions of discrete corns and then in a general indirect uplift of the total volume of potentiated cellulose, gradually unfurls its dome, turning slowly as it despirals itself, providing in its gradual expansion a graspable, slow-motion version of what each erumpant particle of corn is undergoing invisibly and instantaneously beneath it.”

Some critics have called this style miniaturist, which is true up to a point, and even minimalist, which seems all wrong. Baker prefers to think of himself as a maximalist: a writer who, in books where very little seems to happen, packs in “the most thought per elapsed unit of time.” Another way to think of his writing is that the kind of precision that Updike uses to render the background of his books becomes in Baker almost the whole point. In one of the very few passages in “U and I” that take issue with the master, Baker chides Updike for complaining about descriptive passages that “clog” a narrative and says: “The only thing I like are the clogs — and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling and I start bending the pliable remainder of the book so that it makes a popping sound, and I pick off the price sticker on the back and then regret doing so and stick it back on.”

Not surprisingly, Baker’s evolution as a writer has taken a roundabout route. He was born in New York City in 1957 but grew up in Rochester, where his father ran a small ad agency and his mother taught art. He went to a public experimental school, a place so free-form that there were no grades and his only transcripts were ones Baker typed himself. “At the time I thought: Give me structure!” he told me. “I yearned for a more traditional school. But now I think it was the best thing. I learned what it was like to be incredibly bored.” Baker’s main interest then was playing the bassoon, an instrument that originally appealed to him because he thought it looked like a steam engine and that he grew to love because of the beautiful middle-range melodies it could produce. At 13 he began taking lessons with Abraham Weiss, the principal bassoonist of the Rochester Philharmonic. Weiss was then only 21, and the two became unusually close. “I had a one-track mind when it came to music,” Weiss said recently, “and Nick had this incredible range of interests. It amazed me that he could be so good at the bassoon and also know all this other stuff. He was always using new words. I remember he came to a lesson once and he had the word ‘phlegm’ Scotch-taped to his bassoon.”

Baker eventually became good enough that when the Rochester Philharmonic needed an extra bassoonist for a Mahler symphony, say, he was enlisted. He had his own tux and union card. Weiss thinks that he was talented enough to make a life in music, but Baker disagrees. “I really practiced hard and got to a certain level of technical proficiency,” he said. “I overcame some of my limitations. I was a hard-working, dedicated bassoonist, but I have to say I’m not a natural musician.” He went for a year to the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, and then transferred to Haverford College, where he majored in English. “The music wasn’t going to happen,” he said, “and I realized I had read so little. I didn’t know my way around any century. I was very underread.”

In his junior year at Haverford, Baker roomed in a co-ed dorm at neighboring Bryn Mawr, where he met and fell in love with Margaret Brentano, the daughter of a Berkeley history professor. She is now his wife. “It was incredible,” Baker said of that chapter in his life, which sounds like a more innocent, pre-lapsarian episode from “House of Holes.” “I’m very happy around women, and I had this tremendous experience there in the third floor of Rhodes Hall. Even the bathrooms were co-ed. It was very heady and exciting. I was very shy and somewhat awkward. I studied too hard. And to have this exciting dorm life was a whole new thing.” One way the students entertained themselves was by giving dramatic readings from the Penthouse letters department — the ones that begin, “I never thought I’d be writing this, but. . . .”

By then Baker already had notions of becoming a writer, even though one of his teachers put this comment on a story he turned in: “This, to be frank, is boring.” (Margaret remembers that he had a chart keeping track of all the rejection letters he received.) Before he became a full-time writer, though, Baker had a misguided interval of trying to be a businessman, and briefly even became a neoconservative. “I liked the idea of picking good companies and helping the American industrial miracle,” he recalled. “Now I have my reservations. I know I was a very confused young man.”

For a year or so Baker was a stock analyst on Wall Street. “I didn’t exactly get fired, but it wasn’t the best exit,” he told me. “I didn’t make any great contribution to the world of finance — let’s put it that way.” Even more briefly and disastrously, he was a broker whose few clients included an uncle and Abe Weiss, his old bassoon teacher. While selling a few stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic, he temped for a couple of years — an experience that he actually enjoyed and that supplied many of the details of office life in “The Mezzanine” and “The Fermata.” Perhaps because he spends so much time alone, writing in his barn, at the kitchen table, even in his car (where he wrote much of “Human Smoke,” storing his research material in the back seat), Baker loves workplaces. “I sometimes think I’d be happier doing restaurant work or manual labor,” he said after describing how difficult it is to make a living as a writer. “I remember one of my temp jobs was working for a part of Gillette that was selling blister packs of shampoo to Bolivia. I was part of this team. I love all that.”

Baker’s last real job was as a writer of technical manuals, which he held until he grew so anxious and obsessed that Margaret figured out a way to support them for six months while he devoted himself to writing the novel that would become “Mezzanine.” Part of what sealed his resolve was a remembered moment of literary Freudianism so pure that Harold Bloom might have made it up: one day he heard his mother laughing out loud at a humor piece by John Updike.

That Baker wrote “Vox” right after “U and I” is probably no accident. It takes an Updikean delight in sensuality. What accounts for the novel’s title is that he was trying and failing to learn Latin. “Latin is actually an extremely idiomatic, very messy language, and I was so far from being able to master it,” he said. “One day I said to myself: I know English. I know English so well I can make up a conversation right now.” He added: “This was 1990, when it felt like there was a mini-sexual revolution going on after the real sexual revolution. And I felt that by starting the book with that phrase, ‘What are you wearing,’ it just tilted everything forward. It seemed like literary novels then had a very set sexual pattern: four or five sex scenes among some literary-sounding writing. So I said to myself: ‘Just do it. Stay with the sex. Accept that you’re reading and writing this with mixed motives.’ ”

Baker began “The Fermata” in part because he had stuff, including scenes that involved a lawn mower, dildos and a cat, left over from “Vox,” but the novel’s central fantasy — the idea of stopping time — is one that has been with him since he was 12 or 13. “I imagined a small box with a toggle switch,” he said. “it had a red light on it, and it was very heavy, like an electric train transformer. I’d click it on and the universe would stop. What would happen? What would I do?” While working on the book, Baker interviewed people, asking what they would do if they had the ability to stop time, and found that the responses divided pretty evenly between something sexual and stealing money. One man said the first thing he would do was head for the locker room of a women’s basketball team.

“The Fermata” sold less well than “Vox,” which spent several weeks on the Times best-seller list. Its protagonist, Arno Strine, is less likable than Jim, the male partner in “Vox,” and some readers complained that the book allowed him to get away with some fairly creepy behavior. But “The Fermata” is actually a better book, or a better-written one, than “Vox,” and it supplies an important clue to Baker’s work and even his life. His preservationist impulses, his hoarding of books and newspapers; that microscopic, slow-motion style, filling an instant with cascades of thought and remembrance; even his way of writing about sex, which in “House of Holes,” a raunchier and less leisurely book than “Vox” or “The Fermata,” is still more about foreplay than climax — what are they but ways of arresting time, of preserving the moment and staving off the end?

One day last spring I went with Baker to visit the mill where he warehoused his old newspapers, which were taken over by the Duke University library after Baker found caring for them too nerve-wracking and expensive. We sat in the parking lot for a while, and he grew a little wistful. “I think that was the great adventure of my life, really,” he said. “The whole excitement of the unloading. I had an electric pallet jack, and when I moved all the papers in, they looked like a giant locomotive. I feel like I could probably have spent my whole life rooting around in there, discovering things.”

Margaret later told me that she missed the papers, too. “I was not perfect about it at the beginning,” she said. “I sometimes get too much credit. I put up a few fussy objections, but Nick’s passions are very convincing. He had to do it. It was thrilling — all those pallets.”

The newspaper episode was a watershed in another way. Ever since, Baker has been trying to speed up his prose a little. “Since 1999 I haven’t felt the same urge to be so lavishly specific,” he explained. The urgency of the need to save the newspapers had brought a new focus to his writing. “Human Smoke,” which came out in 2008, is written in a matter-of-fact style with no Baker-like touches at all. He composed part of “The Anthologist,” his next book, by videotaping himself speaking in the persona of Paul Chowder, the novel’s narrator. He also adopted a method, which he used again for “House of Holes,” that he calls “speak-typing”: essentially, he dictates to himself, typing rapidly as he goes.

There are a lot of typos, he admitted, especially when, as sometimes happens, he writes at night. One of the loveliest scenes in “The Anthologist,” when Paul Chowder contemplates the moon while sitting outside on a wet plastic lawn chair, was written exactly as the book describes. Baker went outside, dumped a puddle of rainwater from the chair, sat down in his pajamas and began typing on his laptop. The advantage of speak-typing, he explained, is that “the words come out differently. The sentences come out simpler, and there’s less of a temptation to go back and add more foliage. I’m trying for a simpler kind of storytelling, and maybe I feel that I did that other stuff and maybe I can’t do that anymore. It may be that a certain kind of writing is not attainable anymore.”

Someday, he added, he would like to write a big, traditional novel, with lots of characters and a real plot. “I would love to, and I’m going to, damn it, before my day is done. I’ve vowed to, and each time I somehow fall short. I get to the point where there should be a major thing that goes wrong and I don’t want it to happen. It doesn’t feel true to me. I don’t feel entitled, because very few bad things have happened to me.”

He sighed, and added: “You have to grow up. I’m very slow about some things. I feel like I’m chronicling my midlife crisis and my halting progress toward adulthood at the same time. It has taken me a long time to get things that other people understand about novels and about why people read them — what they’re looking for in books.”

Baker has no idea whether people are looking for a book about a sexual theme park. “I don’t know how this book will be accepted,” he said. “You could almost say we’re in the postpornographic era now. There’s so much porn around it’s part of everybody’s life. It’s not something you find in a certain seedy part of town or in discreetly wrapped parcels that come in the mail.”

His main goal was just to write something entertaining. “I wanted to avoid the flavor of arty erotica,” he said and admitted that “House of Holes,” which is written in a quicker, less baroque style than, say, “The Fermata,” in some ways resembles a porn movie. “It has characters,” he said. “But how deeply do we know them? It’s not like I’m plumbing the depths of each person’s soul. Initially, I thought I would have fewer characters, but it’s actually less sexually exciting if you have the same people doing things.”

Baker would like to think that “House of Holes” is more than just a guilty pleasure. “You want to have some surprises and some literary value,” he said. “After all, I’m in the novel-writing business. But it has to be arousing. A book with this level of smut, filth, whatever — there would be no point if it wasn’t arousing to write. There’s nothing like writing a sex scene. You’re writing a little slower. You’re in a world that you’ve invented, and you’re slowly describing it. It’s a turn-on, no question. It’s self-seductive.”

Margaret is always Baker’s first reader. He hovers on the stairs sometimes, listening for a laugh or the sound of her pencil making a note on the manuscript. She was a little squeamish about a scene in “House of Holes” in which a woman who has been magically miniaturized finds herself trapped inside a man’s penis and can be released only by ejaculation. Baker made a few changes, and she told me she now likes the book a lot, even if she decided not to mention the title or subtitle to her mother. “She’s in her 80s now,” she added, “and she loves Nick. She loves that he’s a good dancer.”

Baker’s 24-year-old daughter, Alice, who was the model for his novel “The Everlasting Story of Nory,” about a 9-year-old attending an English day school, lives in New York now, where she is trying to become a novelist herself. She and her father are very close, but as far as Baker knows, she hasn’t read any of his novels.

Baker’s son, Elias, who is 17 and still lives at home, is working this summer on a nonfiction book about high school. He has seen the cover of “House of Holes” and thoroughly approves of the title but, very sensibly, has decided to put off reading it. “That’s for some years in the future,” he said. “Maybe when I’m living in a different house.”

 

Charles McGrath (mcgrath@nytimes.com) is a writer at large for The Times. His most recent article for the magazine was about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s whisky.

Editor: Dean Robinson (d.robinson-MagGroup@nytimes.com)

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/magazine/nicholson-bakers-dirty-mind.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

Shanna Germain’s blog reply – The Times, how you break my bloody heart. You promise me a delicious, interesting article with a title like, “The Mad Scientist of Smut,” and then you deliver… this?
Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer. His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator.
Seriously?! Author Charles McGrath couldn’t come up with a better opening line that something that is clearly derogatory, insulting, condescending and perhaps worst of all, uninformed?
Premise 1: In order to be a sex writer, your color must be bad.
Premise 2: In order to be a sex writer, you cannot have good eye contact.
Premise 3: In order to be a sex writer, you must be a compulsive masturbator.
Premise 4: Being a compulsive masturbator is bad.
Premise 5: Being a compulsive masturbator makes you look at everything with sidelong, furtive glances.
Oh, the sidelong, furtive glance! There is it!
The amount of anger and disappointment I feel over something like this bypassing any editorial stopgaps and actually being published is immeasurable for the moment. So, in the meantime, I say let’s compile a group of sex-writers, erotica-penners, smut-peddlers who have color in their faces and directness in their gazes. If you post a blog with a photo (or even a reaction to this post/the article), let me know and I’ll add the link below.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.

http://shannagermain2.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/the-mad-scientists-of-smut/

*
For Your Viewing Pleasure: The Mad Scientists of Smut!
The pale- and paper-faced Jeremy Edwards!
The cocked brow of Nobilis Reed!
The gorgeous-eyed Donna George Storey!
The straight forward sorta sidelong glance of T. Harrison!
Darth Vader sandwiches with Alessio Brio!
The greenish glow of Kristina Lloyd!
The glacier-glow glare of Janine Ashbless!
Emerald’s nuanced gaze!
Margaret Killjoy with a furtive glance!

 

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