The Hot Topic, vol. 5: Henry Miller and the Bookshelves of DoomBy Lana Fox
March 10, 2011
In Boston where I live, every Borders store is closing. It’s sad news, especially for sex. I’ve always found the Borders staff to be a sex-positive bunch who don’t keel over with horror when I ask for the Sex section. What’s more, Borders actually has a Sex section. And that’s a political stance. Acknowledging the need for Sex or Erotica shelves is akin to announcing that sex is important – and baby, that’s a statement I respect.
Frankly, my relationship with bookstores often turns sour when I ask for the Sex and Erotica sections. Recently, in a little indie establishment, the bookseller responded by raising her nose in disgust and telling me this was a family store. Well, where the hell does she think family comes from, dammit? To prove a point, I spent my final few moments hunting the shelves for hypocrisy. I found Nabakov’s Lolita, Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, and Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. All of them can be classified as erotica and two of them contain incestuous sex. I’m pretty sure incest isn’t “family store” material. Snort. It seems that snooty woman was housing the bookshelves of doom!
In truth, any bookseller who claims they don’t stock books about sex has got to be pretty naive. Let’s face it, you can’t avoid the topic. It’s where we come from. And understanding sexuality is vital. For instance, a teenage boy who is beginning to believe he might be gay should be able to easily get his hands on a book about sexual identity. Likewise, he should be able to find literature about safe sex without having to ask stony-faced people who send him away with a flea in his ear. I can’t think of a more family friendly policy than having a sex section that anyone can locate. Not getting pregnant by mistake, not living in shame, not having unprotected sex…these are family friendly notions.
Still, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Bookstores with sex-positive policies do exist, and thankfully many librarians are knowledgeable about sexuality. I used to live near an excellent library where the collection of sex books was expanded every year. That said, I once borrowed a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and was greeted with a glare when I handed it over at the desk. (It was actually so hilarious that I got a fit of the giggles!). But would she have glared if I was a shy teenage girl who was borrowing a book on abortion? And what if that shy teenager wasn’t used to libraries, and had to ask a library assistant for help locating such a book?
So that’s one of the reasons I will miss Borders. But the battle isn’t lost. Next time you’re in a bookstore, ask for the sex section, especially if you know there isn’t one. Do it because you’re politically proactive and want plant a seed. Because the more we learn that sexual openness is vital, the more healthy this world will be.
This was an excellent topic and column.
You also live in a city that was founded on conservative puritan values a really long time ago.
That might be influencing the nature of many of these indies. Borders is a national chain so they HAVE to carry erotica and sexual tinged material. The demand for this material is probably higher in other parts of the country and they are “pressured to carry it” from other markets too.
I find shopping at smaller bookstores that religion/philosophy sections are not too extensive either. There might be one or two rows of Judaism, Christianity, etc….but Borders will carry a much broader selection.
I’d be curious if adult bookstores are more likely to carry erotic literature since their clientele is specifically seeking out sexual information like videos, etc to begin with. That might be something to pursue in a future column for yourself. Keep writing and having fun.
Thanks so much for commenting. I’m thrilled you enjoyed the column. And of course, what you say makes very good sense. Interesting that you’ve found the same with religion/philosophy sections – that’s a very cool point. As for adult stores, Good Vibrations in Brookline has some really excellent sex books, thank heaven! After all, as you say, the conservative puritan values seem to have made their mark in these parts. (Mind you, I’m a Brit, so I come from one of the most repressed places in the universe!).
Lana, thanks for responding. After I posted my comments, it occurred to me that another reason why indies might not have a section on erotica/sex writing is because there is no money in it for the store. The average person on the street is not walking into a bookstore asking for the Karma
Sutra or a similar item. So they might put sexual material in “Health” or “Family Planning” or “Women’s Health” if there is any interest, but not the primary interest. If someone stood by a cashier in a bookstore for 8 hours and saw what people checked out during a day, the chances of someone checking out an adult oriented book is probably pretty slim compared to mysteries or classics, or biographies. Or the new york times bestseller lists. When I wrote my comments above about religion/philosophy sections in stores, the same principle could apply. There is not great demand by the stores needs and they work closely on margins.
Glad you wrote the column. This has raised some good issues as to what works and doesn’t work in a store. keep writing. 🙂
Yes, that’s an excellent point, Mark. You’re absolutely right. I think what you’re speaking to is the notion that stores reach out to specific audiences – and are thus arranged for them too. Being a sex activist, I’m all about changing things…maybe this is why I will never own a successful bookstore! I’d just be all “To hell with what they buy! Let’s change things, dammit!” But I still think of those folks who *want* to know more about sex, but are held back because of stuffy attitudes. That bothers me. Grrrr. Thanks also for your kind words, and for writing!
Mark, you might be very surprised.
This is anecdotal, so may not apply quite perfectly, but do you remember back a dozen years ago, when there were local movie rental shops all over the place? Before DVDs and the internet?
I recall chatting with a young woman who worked in one, and the topic of “what are the most in-demand genres”…kiddie animated features…action…chick flicks…recent blockbuster…etc.
Her answer? porn. hands down, far and away the largest volume of the shop’s business came from the little room in the back with the curtain across the door. And this viewpoint was corroborated time and time again. And, this was in the “puritanical” northeast Boston area.
I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from this, but it seems an apropos data point in the discussion.
wow! fascinating. I wonder if there was also high demand because your example is with regard to video/film, not old-fashioned books–the kind some people still flip pages and read letters on paper. 🙂 Lana seems to be discussing strictly a “book section” in a store which is more apparent to shoppers browsing. Video also closed the adult movie theatres in many cities. I think Boston had the Mayflower, that was one of the most infamous ones, but that was before my time. One of my favorite movies ever is Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Andersen. He does a good job showing the progression of adult content from theatres to video over two decades. Lana should do a column on that movie next. LOL
good discussions out here.
I LOVE Boogie Nights!!! Thank you of reminding me of it, Mark. What a great film. A column on it…brilliant! And yeah, I think you’re right about the book thing. You and dwoz both raise very interesting points. Perhaps there are folks who believe sex and books are polar opposites? Snort.
Yeah, dwoz, glad you brought that up. I actually live in an area of Boston where there’s a big sex-positive and queer community. When Jung said, “Everything exists in its opposite,” he wasn’t wrong! When there’s a load of repression, there’s also a load of liberation. Funny old world…
I love TROPIC OF CANCER. Henry Miller is underrated.
He was a genius, wasn’t he, Greg? I haven’t read a whole lot of his work, but damn, that man could really write! Balls of steel, as well. Gotta love it.
In Asia I’ve become accustomed to no one speaking English, and so I generally walk about with my girlfriend or friends, just saying anything and everything that you would normally say in the confines of your own home. Once, however, I was on the subway in South Korea with my good friend and I decided to read him one of my favourite passages from Tropic of Cancer. It’s the one about “reaming wrinkles from your cunt” I think… Anyway, I read the whole thing aloud before I heard “cunt?” and looked at a group of small, giggling schoolchildren. I had forgotten that there are a handful of words that ten year olds of any age will know. “Fuck” is one of them, although “cunt” was a bit of a surprise.
David, Henry would be proud of you. I expect you were channeling his spirit there… Hilarious!
Have you read the collected letters between Miller and Nin? They’re amazing. He was so in love with her, that his use of “cunt” in those love-letters becomes so exquisite – romantic, frankly – that I find it quite disarming!
Hoorah for sex-positive bookshops!
I make a point of asking for the erotica section in every bookshop I visit – not making a big deal, just asking as if I was looking for directions to any other genre. In Waterstones a couple of years ago I had this conversation:
‘Can you point me to your Erotica section?’
‘It’s filed under ‘Westerns”
‘Yes, we don’t get much call for it in here.’
Hey Nikki! Thanks for commenting. They filed their erotica under *westerns*? That is both hilarious and deeply disturbing. Glad (and not surprised) to hear that you do your bit for sex-positivity in bookstores. We should start some kind of sex-positive reward system: Bookshops get a big seal of approval if they react positively to questions about sex and erotica books/sections, and also *have* sex and erotica sections.
I mean, westerns? Holy cow.
Buying instructional sex books is always fun. Do you make eye contact with the cashier? Do you look at what you’re buying? What do you say if they make conversation?
Or do you just be an adult about it and recognise its a transaction like any other?
I guess Amazon’s anonymity on this front helps people educated themselves, at least.
True, Simon. And yes, I know what you mean about Amazon. You know, I think it’s fun when the cashier acknowledges the book and chats about it. I had that when I first bought a Sarah Waters novel. (She’s well-known in Britain for historical lesbian drama including hot sex scenes). The cashier and I actually ended up having a great conversation about lesbian erotica in general. Much better than being glared at, right?!
i know those people who scoff and sneer at the thought of a “sex” section in the bookstore. they fall into one of two groups: those who don’t have it (idiots) and those who are ashamed of it (catholics).
both are a pretty sad lot.
ps – henry miller my be my #1 hero of all time.
You know pixy, you’ve inspired a dream: We should stand around the sex section at a local bookstore quoting Henry Miller at everyone who sneers. It will be part of their much-needed education…
Great! You choose the Henry Miller, I’ll choose the sex section. I think we should wear T-shirts. Something with a respectable Miller-esque swearword on…
I’ve never read Henry Miller, but I’ve wanted to (there’re too many books!) But I agree about the sex section, and if I have one nice thing to say about Borders it’s that I could easily locate theirs. I’m lucky to live in Portland, an extremely sex positive city, where we have Powell’s, a respectably sex-positive establishment. You make a good point though. Thanks for starting this conversation!
Oh, you live in Portland, Gloria? I’ve heard that’s an amazing place. Powell’s sounds fantastic. Long live the sex-positive bookstore! Thanks so much for commenting.
A brilliant piece – Borders around the country has been good for sex/erotica writing – 10+ years ago I hosted an erotic fiction discussion group at Borders/Santa Monica and had to move when our readings intruded on the shoppers’ sensibilities. Didn’t help that we were positioned next to the Children’s Lit section 🙂 I always make a point of asking bookstores where their erotica section (ghetto) is. Makes for some interesting conversations and is one of the reasons why the erotic fiction group now meets at Hustler Hollywood where we’re free to cry fuck in a crowded room. You summarized my experience and feelings up perfectly – thanks for the commentary! Long live the no-censorship Borders sentiment!
Thanks so much, Stan. What a kind and wise comment! And I’m happy to hear your erotica group is still meeting in spite of the empty-headed prejudice. (I can see how being placed near the Children’s Lit section does *not* help!). Long may you continue to cry fuck at Hustler Hollywood! Damn, I wish I was there to join you. I cry fuck with great gusto and I’m sure you do too. 🙂
Hey Lana – if ever you do find yourself in LA – let us know – we’d love to have a communal cry fuck or any other words you fancy. [email protected]… Cheers, Stan
Thank you, Stan. What a great offer. I’d love to have a communal cry fuck with you guys. And someday I hope to be in LA!