Monday, June 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #169: My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt

I never met Andy Offutt. Maybe it's better I didn't: he was one of my favorite writers, in the early Thieves' World age, when I was around that golden SFF reading year of twelve. And that admiration and enjoyment might not have been able to survive meeting the man himself, at least as his son depicts him.

But then all sons can tell stories about their fathers, can't they? I could tell a few about mine, though this isn't the place. And I'd like to hope I'm giving only light, pleasant stories to my two sons to tell someday, even as I know that's never how it works out.

Chris Offutt had it worse than me, obviously. Worse than a lot of people, particularly those living in comfort in the first world in what looks like a stable family with a nice house. He had something that looked like that, too. A lot of things can look like that.

In my mind, Andy Offutt was a fantasy writer, author of the "Shadowspawn" stories in the Thieves' World shared-world series (including one novel named after the character), a couple of trilogies, some other stuff. He was a SF writer, too -- major enough to have a story in Again, Dangerous Visions, major enough to have a term as SFWA president in the mid-70s. Enough to look like the trajectory could have continued upward, and he could have become one of that small handful of writers able to actually make a living from writing SFF.

But he was already making a living from writing, almost a decade before Thieves' World. Like so many others before him, Andy Offutt was also a writer of pornography -- it paid at least as well as genre fiction, and those markets could take vastly more from one writer than SFF would. Andy Offutt wrote a hell of a lot of pornography, mostly under the pen-name "John Cleve," in the '70s and '80s. He had other pen-names, too, and others took over entirely from Cleve later.

It was an open secret at the time -- open enough by the early '80s that it was discussed in fan publications, and generally known. His SFnal soft-porn series Spaceways, as by Cleve, traded at least as much on Offutt's reputation as Cleve's. Still, that still could have made a single career: SFF with sex in it, sexy books with SFF in them. By that point, no one was actively censoring books anymore.

So what happened? Why is this book My Father, the Pornographer rather than My Father, the Fantasist or My Father, the Alcoholic or more generically My Father, the Raging Asshole?

Andy Offutt was at the end of the mid-century porn boom, and stayed in that world far longer than the other genre writers who started there. Silverberg, Westlake, Block -- and a dozen others -- wrote some softcore porn, and sometimes harder stuff, as the years piled up and the line of what was allowed in "legitimate" books kept moving forward. But they all moved on. They all thought of porn as journeyman work. They could eventually write sex into their "real" books, under their own names, and make their own money that way. They did, or moved on entirely, as with the writers we don't remember at all.

Andy Offutt didn't. Andy Offutt couldn't. Andy Offutt was a porn writer at the core, a porn writer who sometimes wrote other things. That's the story Chris Offutt tells here, and I believe him. The list of books published doesn't lie, from Bondage Babes in 1968 through Barbi's World 16: Thade's World 10 more than forty years later.

Andy Offutt was obsessed with sex and bondage, for whatever central psychological reason -- a man entirely focused on being in charge and in control and who made fictional worlds all day long to be able to keep doing that every minute he could. Chris Offutt can tell you about that: as the eldest son, as the writer son, he inherited his father's books and papers, which constituted, among other things, nearly a ton of porn. Porn by Andy Offutt, porn he traded for, porn he bought, porn he drew crudely himself for decades.

My Father, the Pornographer is the story of three things: of Andy Offutt's life, as seen by his son. Of that son's life, as twisted by living with this domineering, cruel father. And of the ton of porn Andy Offutt left behind, and what it said about him.

Chris Offutt mercifully doesn't try to examine his parents' sex life -- his mother is still alive, and she's a character in the modern-day sections of the book. He does say that his parents had an open marriage, at least at SF conventions, at least for some long span of years, and that can explain some of the questions we all have bubbling up. But nobody is going to ask his mom if his dad liked to tie her up. And nobody will be upset that the question doesn't get asked.

And porn, of course, is not about sex: it's a solitary activity most of the time for most of us. Often a very fun solitary activity...if it has a healthy place in your life. Andy Offutt's porn wasn't healthy for him. Chris Offutt thinks he used porn to keep his urges in check -- has some evidence that Andy Offutt might have thought he was uniquely damaged, a potential serial killer or psychopath, and kept himself in check with massive doses of porn and iron will. Chris Offutt doesn't think that self-myth was true, and it's almost certainly not -- a lot of people in a lot of times have liked bondage and other kinks without being deeply damaged people. My Father, the Pornographer would be an interesting book to read along side Joe Ollmann's recent graphic biography of William Seabrook -- the two shared a lot of obsessions, but came from different places and took it to different places.

I'm neglecting Chris Offutt here: I'd never read him before, didn't know his work. He's a literary writer who's also worked scripting classy TV shows, like Treme and Weeds. He grew up with a horrible father, in a big old house out in the middle of West Bumfuck, Kentucky. He got out. He tells this story well, the personal parts and the hard parts -- and they're nearly all hard parts. I can't imagine what it was like to live this, let alone to write it.

This is one of the best books about a SFF writer I know, up there with Julie Phillips' biography of James Tiptree, Jr. And it's not about his being a SFF writer, except occasionally in passing. The most SFnal thing about it is the place of SF conventions in the family's life, and Chris Offutt hated those: they were opportunities for his father to indulge his worst impulses, to lord it over star-struck fans and shove his family aside for the duration.

But that's life, isn't it? You don't get what you want; you have to live with what you get. Andy Offutt never got the fame and admiration he was sure he deserved. Chris Offutt didn't get a father who could give him any normal human affection. And the SF world got the partial attention of a man whose mind was on other things. But, eventually, we got this book. And it will live on.

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