I should have seen this one coming. In June, at a BookExpo panel spotlighting the hottest titles for fall, the ReganBooks rep dropped one of his company’s autumn bombshells: Stop the presses! We’re publishing the autobiography of Jenna Jameson! Like me, however, most in the crowd looked decidedly underwhelmed. Who? It was the best confirmation I’ve ever had that book people aren’t just talking when they say theirs is the life of the mind.
By now, of course, we thoughtier types get the picture. Jameson, it turns out, is the queen of porn, a woman who has become rich and famous by doing on screen what most people reserve for the privacy of their bedrooms. She tells all in “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” the newly minted bestseller written with the help of former New York Times music critic Neil Strauss.
Was “How to Make Love” destined for bestseller ranks, regardless of the coverage it got? Probably, judging from Jameson’s renown. But the media, TV in particular, have certainly given it a boost, providing Jameson and her 592-page opus with the most uncritical coverage given any news event since Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
The porn star has been extensively interviewed on CNN, NBC, CNBC, and Fox News. But her pronouncements went unchallenged in a way that made me blush with shame for the profession — not her profession, but ours. Consider this exchange between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Jameson:
COOPER: But you had a really tough background, which you write about in the book a lot. I mean, you know, you were abused as a child, you lost your mom at an early age. Did that in any way play a part? Because there are those who say, look, you know, young people who experience abuse often gravitate to the porn industry.
JAMESON: Right. Absolutely. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot, and I can’t really say for sure if that is reasoning behind why I’ve gotten into the adult industry. All I know is that when I lay my head down at night, I feel comfortable and I’m happy, and I guess that’s all that really matters.
In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Jane and Michael Stern criticized the book for its garrulousness. But for me, that’s the least of its problems. What I question is such a sugar-coated, unreflective version of life in the “adult film industry.”
Sorry, I don’t share your moral outrage over this one. To say television emphasizes sex too much is, as the French say, knocking on doors that are already wide open. Yes, Jameson got a lot of coverage for her book — perhaps even too much — because of her line of work. Yes, her provocative title was calculated to sell books. And yes, the porn industry has a lot to answer for itself. But, isn’t the real question: Was Jameson’s book any good?
As book critics, I don’t think we should be in the business of judging an author’s morality. We should be judging their books. A Mafia hit man can write an interesting account of his profession, can’t he, even if he never admits to the immorality of his deeds?
At any rate, I don’t think Jameson glorified her choice of profession — her subtitle, which may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle, is, after all, “A Cautionary Tale.” Rather, in “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star,” she touts quite boldly her ability to best an industry that usually gets the best of women.
A lot of people — both male and female — are exploited in the process for financial gain, but I’m interested in finding out about that process, and Jameson’s book provided me with an insider’s look.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that a critic can’t give his or her opinion about the subject matter at hand. It just doesn’t seem to me to help to moralize about it. I think the New York Times Book Review section hit just the right balance. The review of Jameson’s book gave it its due (”How to Make Love Like a Porn Star’ doesn’t offer much useful information for those who prefer having sex in private; but for aspiring performers, it’s a gold mine”) while the Times’ choice of reviewers reflected not a moral choice (for that, they could have chosen Ralph Reed), but an aesthetic one: It was reviewed by Jane and Michael Stern, authors of “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. “
The “cautionary tale” part in the book’s title was, to me, a throwaway. But on to your larger point: Who should care about a book’s moral stance? I say: critics, readers — and sometimes our criminal justice system. Why do we have a Son of Sam law, if not to discourage people who do harmful things from writing profitably about their deeds? Jenna Jameson is not Son of Sam. But the work she does deserves more than neutrality or ambivalence.
Journalists do need a moral framework, I believe. They make certain assumptions when they challenge the oil industry for polluting our waters or hold the tobacco industry accountable for blackening peoples’ lungs, believing the physicians’ dictate: First, do no harm.
Let’s subject the porn business to the same tough scrutiny.
In “The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade,” author Victor Malarek goes global on sexploitation, dealing with the human trafficking that can bring $10,000 per girl who’s swept out of her Eastern European homeland and set up in a brothel, massage parlor, or whore house almost anywhere — England, South Korea, Israel.
As Victor Malarek writes in “The Natashas”:
In my 30 years as a journalist I’ve come face to face with scandals, corruption, greed and crime of all kinds. I’ve seen tragedy of monumental proportions … Yet never before have I been as struck by the senseless disregard for human dignity as I have been these last two years while researching this book.Bottom line: The sex industry is not ennobling. Part of the critics’ role is to put Jameson’s book — or any other titillating tome, be it from the Hollywood madam or anyone else now touting their line of work — in proper context.