You won't find Susannah Breslin's new book, You're a Bad Man, Aren't You?, at Barnes & Noble, nor is it likely to pass the censors at Wal-Mart. Her voyeuristic stories press your nose to the smudged windows of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley for a view of the pornographic film sets and fetishistic explorations within -- hardly family fare. However, you will find Breslin giving a reading at the second annual New Orleans Book Fair this Saturday, where more than 100 small publishers will gather for a celebration of personal visions and unique voices.
The Book Fair, held this year in the Contemporary Arts Center, offers a diverse buffet of literary morsels, including everything from self-published children's books to established distributors of political theory.
Breslin fits the underlying outsider theme that permeates the Book Fair; her interest in photographing and writing about the porn industry virtually guaranteed that no major publisher would take her seriously. Last spring she attended the Book Expo in Los Angeles, the biggest book convention in the world, to scope out the big publishing houses.
"It literally almost killed me," she says. "I became completely depressed." She realized that the business of book publishing, with its eternal search for the next bestseller, didn't leave room for provocative work. In working with Future Tense Books, the independent press that published her book, she says, "I'm encouraged to be as unconventional and unique and therefore as authentic as I actually am, as a person and as a writer."
When Breslin moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans a month ago she quickly happened upon the Book Fair's Web site and was delighted to read that "the Book Fair is everything the Book Expo isn't." Breslin smiles as she relaxes her 6-foot-2 frame in an armchair inside a cozy French Quarter bar. "To me, this is the salvation at the other end of the spectrum."
Breslin arrived in San Fernando Valley, also called Porn Valley, through a circuitous route, starting from a Web site she ran in the late 1990s called the Postfeminist Playground. Postfeminism is a notoriously tricky field to define, but it's often characterized by "sex positive" and pro-pornography ideas rejected by the staunch feminists of the 1970s. Breslin went to interview the busty blond porn star Jenna Jameson for the Web site. "I was intrigued by someone who was more of a caricature than a human being," Breslin remembers. A few weeks later Jameson's publicist called with an invitation to come see a porn set, and Breslin ended up watching seven people have an orgy on a fire truck.
She was hooked.
When asked where the fascination lies, Breslin replies, "I had always been interested in weird, extremist subcultures, and Porn Valley was a whole universe like that."
There's more to Breslin's short stories than the novelty of the subject matter. The characters discuss the porn industry in a rather blue-collar fashion, and the stories are decidedly free of panting, heaving and dripping. Breslin is more interested in what drives people to work in the industry and what effect it has on them. The stories about fetishes, such as sex with furniture in "F is for Forniphilia," humorously capture the odd quirks of human sexual cravings. "I think the humor, and the fact that I'm not actually -- I don't think -- writing sexually explicit material is a good counterweight to the fact that there are troubling people and extreme ideas or practices at work," Breslin says.
The narrator of the title story is one of those disturbing people, a dangerously jaded director of pornographic movies who muses on the connection between pornography and war: "Hadn't he dodged those flying shots, slid in the slime of other people's fluids, gotten close enough to the human body to see into the pink fleshiness of its gaping insides? Hadn't he carried a lucky charm for his own protection, hadn't he seen what most others couldn't, hadn't it changed forever and all that crap? 'I have Post Traumatic Porn Disorder,' he said inside his car, and then laughed. He thought, I want to go home."
Breslin also seems a bit shell-shocked by some of the things she saw. "Some of the girls were getting profoundly taken advantage of," she says. "And they're so young. You only have to be 18. Sometimes I wondered if standing there watching was an act of complicity on my part. "There's a way in which I moved here to get away from all of that."
She's still writing a novel based on her experiences in Porn Valley, a creative effort she describes as "Dante's Inferno meets Boogie Nights," but she hopes that the novel will get it out of her system. She even gave away her collection of 150 porn videotapes in an effort to leave that world behind, giving the last batch to the movers who were packing her belongings in Los Angeles.
"That was definitely a big skeleton in my closet that I was glad to get rid of," she says.
- Steve Goedde
"The fact that I'm not actually writing sexually explicit material is a good counterweight to the fact that there are troubling people and extreme ideas or practices at work," Susannah Breslin says of her short-story collection, Youre a Bad Man, Arent You?