Book review: We did porn

It took me quite a while to read this, mostly because I read it at home rather than at work on my breaks (two fifteen minute breaks and a half-hour lunch break give you a ton of reading time if you are antisocial like me!).

Anyway this is only indirectly related to D&D, miniatures, and the other stuff that are the meat and mead of Swords & Dorkery, but there is a connection. Among the prominent OSR bloggers on my blogroll you’ll see “Playing D&D with porn stars,” which describes the games run by Zak Smith, mostly with other people from “the industry.” We did porn is his memoir of his porn career. Spoiler: there is almost nothing to do with D&D in the book. The only things that were gaming or fantasy related were some discussions of video games, and a few lines about zombies that have also appeared in his blog. Also, some of his players, including his girlfriend Mandy, appear in the memoir (with names slightly modified).

Anyway based on the quality of the writing & illustration at the blog, I thought this book might be worth a look. I worked in a video store where the bulk of the business was selling pornographic videos, so I also wondered to what extent my assumptions about the business would be validated or refuted too, and honestly pretty much anyone would have to admit some curiosity about how an Ivy-league educated artist might describe the the porn industry from the inside. Am I right?

Although this is just a memoir, and not a full autobiography, enough details of Smith’s life emerge that I could not help but compare it to other artist’s autobiographies I’ve read, to wit: Me, Alice by Alice Cooper, The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa, White Line Fever by Lemmy Kilmister, and The Secret Diary of Salvador Dali, by Salvador Dali. These books taught me that there seem to be two kinds of autobiography, when it comes to artists. One kind is basically a frank and honest description of one’s experiences, usually told with a certain amount of wonder (how did I get here?) and humor and which make you feell like you have actually listened to the sort of stories this person tells at parties (Zappa and Lemmy). The other kind is basically self-promotion and marketing and tells how incredibly awesome this person is or thinks they are and why you should love them please (Dali). There are obviously going to be many points in between these two kinds (Cooper), and I assume there are other kinds as well, but those two kinds pretty much cover my own reading.

So which kind is this, or is it a third kind? I can say pretty definitively it is not the second kind, because Zak refuses to name drop about famous people (everyone not in the industry is called “Dwight Eisenhower,” and industry people are also disguised or composites) and he has very little to say about his art, really, although he does discuss the “art world” in order to set of comparisons later on in the book. Much of memoir paints him in a rather negative light, in fact — sometimes for comedic effect and sometimes perhaps unconsciously. I say “perhaps” because it is hard to believe he put anything in there unintentionally. The chapters are generally very tightly constructed and many seemingly insignificant asides turn up again later to be used in analogies and metaphors (some of which are hilarious or brilliant or both ). So call it self-deprecating and hilarious and you’re on the right track. But there are certainly moving and painful passages as well.

Zak tells his stories with a generally deadpan, nonjudgmental voice. This is not a snarky book about how vapid or hopeless or broken people in porn industry are, although there is a certain amount of despair about vapid & hopeless & broken people in general are. Zak seems genuinely affected by the suffering of others, even if he seems to be utterly powerless to help most of the people around him, and there is nothing more honest or human than being able to admit that. A reader, or at least this reader, can’t help but care about the people in the book, even if you probably wouldn’t invite them over to your house or have much to talk to them about in person.

The content might make prudes uncomfortable at times, and there is a lot of political and social commentary which some might not care for. For my part I really liked the stuff about politics and culture and even read some of those parts out loud to the wife. Also, there are several chapters toward the end where Zak rather valiantly and effectively defends his friends in the porn industry from those who get off on judging, psychologizing*, pitying, or condemning them. The chapter on one actress’ spot on the Tyra Banks Show (where the host monstrously and unselfconsciously and hypocritically tries to degrade and humiliate the actress) is particularly great, being sad and funny and enraging all at once.

At one point he expresses great frustration over the question he and presumably many pornographic performers are asked: “Why do you do it?” The obvious answer, he says, is they enjoy it and love the sex and the people and are having a great time. I think he doesn’t fully appreciate that many people, myself included, would probably follow up with “Yeah, who doesn’t like sex, but why do you want to film yourself doing it?” That is something he can probably answer, but it is a little disingenuous to pretend that anyone who asks, “Why do you do porn?” can’t imagine the first answer that “It is fun.” What at least some mean to ask is, what makes this specifically (filming sex acts) fun for you? I think Zak must be very tired of the questions that assume it is not fun to do, though, and I’ll cut him some slack on that, considering the surprising level of intellectual rigor that actually characterizes 90% of the book.

So, very highly recommended. The drawings are mostly good (one review I saw claimed that some are photographs (!) but Zak explains how achieved the effect in an afterword on his technique). The writing is much like the blog (i.e. excellent), but more obviously polished and edited, as you’d expect, and featuring the incredibly vivid imagery you’ll find there. I guess artists do see the world a little differently than the rest of us.

I won’t say I couldn’t put it down, because I did, but I will say I looked forward to reading it when I could find time. The relatively short chapters (in a 400 page book) made it a lot easier to read in bits, so there that too. It would have been nice to have the illustrations refer to the text, or vice versa, though.

*Not sure if this is really word, but back in grad school that’s what we called attempts to dismiss or refute someone’s ideas/values/whatever on the basis of some psychological “diagnosis” (for example, to dismiss belief in God as merely childish desire for a father figure, as Freud did, or to dismiss atheism as rebelliousness or despair, as many evangelicals do), or to use the fact of unambiguous psychological problems/insanity to likewise dismiss the whole of an author’s writings (Nieztsche did go insane, so let’s ignore all those books from before his breakdown). In this context, many people apparently dismiss any claims from porn workers that they may actually enjoy or like their work, because they’re broken or scarred or abused or addicted. However you look at it, psychologizing easy and snarky but, logically, fallacious.

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Published in: on June 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great review and change of pace. I might look for that book.

  2. I will say firstly that I am not a big fan of Zak. I think he rambles a lot on his D&D blog and I think that he is overly sensitive about his D&D blog.

    However, this does sound like a good book and I am glad that he takes a stand to defend people in the porn industry. Americans in general are totally interested in porn, but treat the actual people in that industry like second class citizens, oddballs or freaks. In other countries you might commonly see porn stars on panels on television with no stigma attached. That makes sense, but the double standard that is common here doesn’t.

    So for exposing people to the genuine side of that industry and hopefully getting some people to think twice about those that they deride, I take my hat off to Zak. I will be actively seeking out his book. Thank you for the heads up on it.


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