Bits & Pieces: Acclaimed baby-boomer genre Jewish writers, erotic fiction and science fiction

This article is very much a change of pace. No politics, no exposé of any anti-Semitic bigotry coming from any genre folk, whether ‘new’ or old style. Lighten things up a bit…

However this article does have a bearing on Jewish writers and science fiction, so it’s certainly an article that is appropriate to this blog, even if tangentially. Something that is fairly well-known among SF cognoscenti is that  a fair number of prominent science fiction writers moonlighted as erotic writers, especially when they were young and starting out and struggling to pay the bills. The interesting this is that so many were Jewish, in fact they appear to be predominantly Jewish and of the baby-boomer generation. They are also not lightweight writers, but well-known and acclaimed within the genre community. At the outset, let me make it clear that I do not criticize any of these writers for what they did, not only because they needed to pay the bills, but because I am no stuffy prude. In fact I am impressed by how they found the time to churn out erotic fiction and science fiction, on top of whatever else they were doing in their lives. I also recognize that – whether they are all in agreement here or not is another matter – they surely honed their literary craft and skills in the writing of titillating fiction they would not necessarily admit to authoring in polite company, hence the routine use of pseudonyms in this regard. Of course probably a well-worn joke by now is that it’s science fiction that is the more disreputable genre, the more embarrassing one to fess up to writing in; and thus the more requisite need for pseudonyms in writing for a genre that at least back then was considered very much ghetto fiction, and still is to a large degree!

So it’s interesting to see who these Jewish American genre writers are and how some of them were not just peripherally involved in writing erotic fiction for men’s magazines, but how prominent some of them actually were in this regard.

Cultural commentator Jet Heer has authored an informative and detailed article that pertains to the topic, entitled Smut and literature, from 2003.

Jet Heer informs us re Harlan Ellison for example:

However, in the early 1960s he [Ellison] was a struggling writer who, under the penname Cordwainer Bird, wrote “numerous extremely soft-core stories in such magazines as Adam, Knight, Adam Bedside Reader and other Los Angeles-based girlie journals.” Typical Ellison/Bird titles include The Girl With the Horizontal Mind, Tramp, and The Fine Art of the 15-cent Pick-Up. Ellison remains slightly embarrassed by these stories. “While they could bring me a desperately needed two or three hundred per appearance, they were — how shall I put it — less memorable works,” he once recalled.

In the early to mid 1960s, Ellison’s mate Robert Silverberg wrote a number of pulp sex novels, complete with garish covers, under the pseudonym Don Elliot. Such memorable titles include Diary of a Dyke, Pickup, No lust tonight, Would-be Sinner, Those who lust, Good Girl Bad Girl, The Nite Lusters, Orgy Isle, Sex Bait, Orgy Maid, Sin on Wheels, Gang Girl/Sex Bum and quite a few others it would appear. Check the excellent resource  for all the details here.

The interesting thing is that in 1965 a documentary called Perversion for Profit was released in the US, a reactionary and prissy fear-mongering screed, that today is recognized for its unintentional humor.

As the wiki entry informs us

Perversion for Profit is a 1965 propaganda film financed by Charles Keating and narrated by news reporter George Putnam. A vehement diatribe against pornography, the film argues that sexually explicit materials corrupt young viewers and readers, leading to acts of violence and “perverted” attitudes regarding sex–including inclination toward homosexuality. Although Perversion for Profit is quite serious in its suggestion that pornography could erode the integrity of American culture, its broad claims and dramatic presentation make the film somewhat comical.

But here is where it gets interesting from our angle, again from the wiki entry:

In order to provide an example of corruptive literature, Putnam reads a lurid passage from a pulp fiction novel entitled Sex Jungle. Published in 1960, Sex Jungle was credited to Don Elliot, a pseudonym for Robert Silverberg, a prolific science fiction novelist. In a 2000 interview, Silverberg explained that the erotic fiction that he published under the Don Elliot pseudonym

was undertaken at a time when I was saddled with a huge debt, at the age of 26, for a splendid house that I had bought. There would have been no way to pay the house off by writing science fiction in that long-ago era, when $2500 was a lot to earn from a novel that might take months to write, so I turned out a slew of quick sex novels. I never concealed the fact that I was doing them; it made no difference at all to me whether people knew or not. It was just a job. And it was, incidentally, a job that I did very well. I think they were outstanding erotic novels.

Barry Malzberg, a fellow baby boomer and highly regarded Jewish genre writer and critic, authored a few sex potboilers under several pseudonyms back in the ’60s.

Jet Heer again:

Ellison’s friend and fellow science fiction writer Barry Malzberg is equally queasy about his days of youthful porn writing. Malzberg’s first two books — Oracle of a Thousand Hands (1968) and Screen (1970) — were both written for Olympia’s porn line. Like Silverberg, Malzberg wrote his porn novels with astonishing speed. He tossed off one novel, Diary of a Parisian Chambermaid (1969), in sixteen hours.

When I [Heer] tried to contact Malzberg to find out about his days writing for Olympia, he rebuffed my requests for an interview. “I don’t know if I want to do this,” he e-mailed me. “I do know that I don’t want to be characterized as Would-Be Literary Writer… [who] Wrote Porn!”

Under the pseudonym Mel Johnson and Gerald Watkins, back in the late 1960s, Malzberg wrote several simply bizarro erotic novels with a pseudo-historical and intellectual undercurrent, the kind of thing that only somebody like Malzberg could write.

Titles include The Box and A Way with All Maidens (under the pseudonym of Mel Johnson).

We are informed re The Box that:

... it is set in the past, the 1900s this time, narrated by William Jennings, a solider in some sort of military unit that is in conflict with “the Indians.”  At first we think this might be the cavalry vs. the American Indians, but a few pages further in, we realize the action takes place in India, and this is a British military unit enforcing colonial rule, fighting against rebels who want to oust Her Majesty’s reign.

So this is a historical “sex” novel, with hints of political commentary, such as discussions about British culture vs. Indian culture and worldviews:

The erotic novel A Way with All Maidens appears to be about the sexual affairs of a troupe of actors staging The Tempest, where the narrator may or may not be Shakespeare, and we may or may not be in Elizabethan England. It goes to show that even writing sex pulp, Malzberg could not avoid exploring the themes of his serious fiction!

Under the pseudonym Gerrold Watkins, Malzberg wrote the sex potboiler Southern Comfort. Yes it’s set in the Civil War!

However it is acclaimed American Jewish genre writer Mike Resnick, who really appears in some respects to be the most interesting of all.

In a lengthy blog article from 2007 entitled ‘Me and the kingpin‘, Resnick recounts his employment by Reuben Sturman, one of the kingpins of porn back in the 1960s, as an erotic writer for hire. And Resnick churned them out, with the best of them. And made a fair bit of money from it.

Resnick recounts Sturman’s wild ride, his friendship with this um entrepreneur and later Sturman’s imprisonment. Resnick is clear that he has no regrets here.

Also it is hardly original of me to point out that the debatable growing maturity of science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s had a lot to do with its incorporation of more sexually explicit material that was previously taboo, and that this sexual material was added to the science fiction mix often enough by genre writers moonlighting as writers of soft or not so soft pornography.

Jet Heer in fact writes:

Despite their shame, writing porn probably helped Silverberg, Ellison and Malzberg develop as writers. Up until the 1960s, science fiction had been a singularly sex-less genre. Bug-eyed-monsters might put their throbbing tentacles around blond heroines, but the heroes of sci-fi rarely seemed to have any sexual passion themselves. All this started to change when Silverberg and company started hitting their stride in the late 1960s, writing an array of taboo-breaking books that remain shocking in their audacity. Silbverbeg’s The Book of Skulls, Ellison’s Deathbird Stories and Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo are passionately written books filled with lurid sex. Arguably, writing porn gave these men the courage to achieve their best work.

So in closing, is there anything more significant to the fact that many influential and highly praised baby-boomer American genre writers wrote a lot of erotic pulp fiction back in the day, and that many of them were also Jewish? I think not (but I may be wrong!); other than the obvious point, that writing genre fiction, then and now, is not the way to get rich and that writers will do what they have to do to pay the bills. There is and was a demand for erotic fiction, because men and women are erotic beings. Thankfully. And its simply a case of supply and demand, market forces. Their Jewishness is neither here nor there, I think!

It’s just that Jewish writers are plentiful, both within and without the genre, so their conspicuousness in writing erotic fiction, with grudging reluctance or otherwise, is simply because Jewry are conspicuous as writers. All kinds of writers. As they are as editors, literary agents, humorists/comics, filmmakers and musicians. Perhaps the relative lack of prissiness and repression in the Western Jewish psyche (well perhaps) meant that they were less likely to have the concerns of WASP writers desperate to stay in the good graces of the respectable WASP establishment. Think of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a seminal Jewish and seminal American novel, famous for its groundbreaking sexual honesty and rawness. I also think writing erotic potboilers back then (and even now) was seen as anti-establishment, a way of earning street cred. And so it attracted for that reason, even if said writers wrote under pseudonyms anyhow and profess to be somewhat embarrassed by it all!

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