The problem remains essentially the same. It is merely a question of discounting more or less as irrelevant.
-- Colin Wilson, The Outsider
From Selfish, Little: The Annotated Lesley Ann Downey:
It has to be on paper and it has to be of a length that forces the words to move and explain each point. It can’t be a song or a stage play. It has to be specific. And it has to take place in an extended length of time. And that time has to be recorded and the artist held accountable.
It’s an open question what to call them, these unconscionable texts. These hypnotically paced psycho-sexual extrapolations, imbricated with grainy media-shifting true crime aesthetics and frenzied paraphilic digressions. These strange yet familiar pornographic documents, rooted in confession yet punctuated by vertiginous turns of style and wit and singular emotional intensity; by frissons of shattering recognition, and base revulsion. With Tool and Special, the overused metafiction marque seems almost apposite, if no less grating; there’s a structural discipline and a careful narrative flair in those experiments that seems to latch, however uneasily. But if Peter Sotos’ “early” books can be understood within some loosely guarded niche of whatever crude literary pretense or genre or boundary or excuse, the formalist reductions have blurred with each successive volume – until readers are resigned to grasping and invention. Or until they disdain to notice, which was always an option. Reading isn't so difficult, is it?
Another child porn sting churns through the news cycle. This one, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, is expected to net as many as twenty thousand arrests. A press release high estimate, to be sure. The drift and even the details are the same as before. The same as always. But our point of present focus falls to the CNN town hall hostess who expresses incredulity upon announcing that the men accused may be counted among “all walks of life.” Some, she will further and gravely intone, are even known to be “doctors and stock brokers.” There is something at once insipid and crass about this rehearsed display of special outrage, as though we should expect every last transgressor to be some triple-y troglodyte or lust-burned Catholic priest. Whatever the default script dictates. Yet they invariably dwell on about what unassuming menfolk the KP feeders turn out to be. It must merit mentioning, somehow. Much the way almost every account of the life and work of Peter Sotos can be trusted to emphasize how disarmingly soft-spoken and polite the infamous pervert cum scribe registers in person. It wouldn’t keep coming up were it not important, would it? Now, show the mug shots.
Is it Houellebecq they’re still
going on about? – The nihilist "it" boy of French letters whose declensionist anomie-saturated satires dance just close enough to supposed harsh
verities and xenophobia-chic to qualify as the latest strain of cheaply
imported Franco-misanthropy? It can’t be Dennis Cooper. Those pulp crime formulas sifted through trite
fag fashion aesthetics can’t be worth a longer glance, can they?
In his monograph, The Marquis de Sade and His Accomplice, critic Jean Paulhan argues that sadism may be understood as “the testing of a truth so difficult and so mysterious that once acknowledged as such [it becomes] instantly and miraculously transparent.” A determined and undeceived search for such frail knowledge lies at the core of Peter Sotos unique literary mission. There are revelatory twists and strains attending the excavation, but if you come seeking some transcendent truth or some jolt of moral clarity, then you have missed the not so subtly stated punch line. These men come from all walks of life.
In 1986, Sotos was arrested. He was charged with obscenity for publishing a magazine and was later convicted for possession of child pornography. He's still paying down his legal bills. He has a day job. And he keeps writing books about sex.
Leave the others to their marginal outlaw status-seeking games. Because Peter Sotos refuses to dissemble or apologize. He is a born writer, chosen by his subject. All too human. This is his distinction. This is his disqualification. Check back in a hundred years.
INSTINCT, DRIVE, AND REALITY:
AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER SOTOS
HOOVER HOG: You've devoted a great part of your adult life to expressing and
refining a sexual worldview that most people regard with reflexive
disapproval or even revulsion. What compels you to continue in a
project that is overwhelmingly received with predefined hostility and
PETER SOTOS: I follow a subject. It’s commonly predefined as simple, whereas I find it highly complex. Those that locate hostility or boredom aren’t insisting on the subject staying perpetual, as I am.
Your current book, Lordotics, is structured around mug-shots of sex offenders, and in your recent work there seems to be a growing emphasis on photographic imagery. (I'm thinking of the collage appendices to Comfort and Critique as well as the Waitress volumes supplementing limited editions of Predicate and Show Adult.) Is the use of visual material part of a broader aesthetic strategy?
There’s no strategy, really. And I don’t think you need to look at the appendices to see the emphasis on imagery. Every book since Selfish, Little has been about the greater personal importance of photographs and the attendant deprivation of experience. The substance and value of photographs; the way they are stingily delivered, badly explained, backgrounded by common language and cheap excuses or cheaper realities, is where so many of my books start. Whether it’s pictures of someone I know very well or a small pretty murder victim. I have the images and then the perpetually depleting information. Pornography is a much wider experience than just looking and responding to, or feeding into, aesthetic predispositions. Severely contingent realities are created and clouded.
The Waitress volumes and the xerox pages of Comfort and Critique
are only extras. The books stand alone, in my opinion. Predicate and Show Adult were formed by a grasping, desperate relationship to
specific photos that tightened around what I was living with, through,
for. It’s not important to me that these images are seen by a general
or unsophisticated audience. I needed to change the context of the
images, implicate them in a way, and not let them turn into proof for
Oprah levels. So much of Lordotics is then about this difficulty and
design. So much so in fact, that I insisted on having the words
directly under the new photos. The information that explained obsessive
grief and the care of children was a more essential application, more
specific and charged to me, to photos of adults. Men convicted of
sexual child abuse and pornography. The consistency of the selection
and the expanding numbers of men combined with a formalist hope that the words would have a more direct and
claustrophobic consequence than any traditional concept of secondhand
tragedy or sympathy. With the exception of Lordotics then, the
particular supplements you’re talking about were only for the people
who bought the books on pre-order, not knowing what the book would be
about but knowing the author. It had nothing to do with the book that
exists outside of the fact that I thought they could get a bit more for
their effort. This, actually, may have proven to be a mistake. The
intention was good though, I think. We even lied about what the first
release would contain.
The faces of sex offenders (most often men) are routinely displayed on civic-minded websites, ostensibly as a public service. But removed from this accepted context, the same shots have a very different effect. In a sense, you seem to be mining for pornographic potential. But the collection also suggests certain disquieting verities -- the banality of shame and compulsion, for example. Are you seeking such an effect, or are your intentions more personal?
My intentions are much more personal. I don’t think the shame and compulsion you locate is as easy to see as the words are to say. I see these men as anything but banal representations of a lapsed male precept. I’m not struggling to make a point so I don’t accept that the result is disquieting. First off, I think the photos are exciting. The extreme nature of where the photos were taken, under what circumstances, and who took them changes the single images into records that demand much more from me. I’m not trying to discuss those changes with the twats trolling for worry. You rarely get these photos and newsfilms without the narration discussing how regular the criminals appear and how dangerous that concept is. That’s how they’re sold to me but as if the advertising language that contorts the sale hasn’t been uttered. Photographs demand context. They are not proof of locatable guilt or dangerous intentions, the same way they are not clear or thoughtful examples of everyday threats. I think the generalized banality, as well as the canned shock that these website motherers repeat has more to do with a hysterical, obsessive corruption of thought than what the individual faces could hold for individual revelations contained in images. I’m not insisting on the loaded distinctions that should make these men individual, most likely sympathetic, stories rather than prima facia creeps either. I’m curating a collection of photos by carefully selecting men from addresses in the nearby neighborhoods of the ancient gay bars and sex joints that I still go to. I know some of these men. Not most by far. But I look for them, before I go, while I’m there, and after again when I get home. I want to know more. And I wanted them placed firmly inside the sexual situations where more fathers and brothers and the usual demographics go to have sex that isn’t reflective of the love, respect and compassion that is supposed to be naturally outside these men’s day-to-day experiences and expectations. It’s more a pathetic deconstruction of sex than an attempt to tear down the righteously flung arguments of justice and protection. And I’m not trying to make a gay argument for the elasticity of ill-conceived sexual predispositions or mine the delight faggots take in straight men. My interest lies more in the explosive desperation, dirge-like consistency and overwhelming need, or void, of experience over fantasy. In all of them like me.
The photographs of repeat offenders snare my attention. Was this an intentional point of editorial emphasis? It occurs to me that Chris Hanson plays a similar angle.
I don’t think Chris Hanson and I have much in common, frankly. We both may have thought long and hard about why we should use these men’s images, but I wouldn’t know for sure. You don’t think our excuses for doing that are the same though, do you? I don’t know that Chris Hanson sees himself as a pornographer or if he secretly believes that he’s doing something more than merely protecting all children everywhere. I know that the website team that he uses to support his paycheck doesn’t think of the work they do in terms of providing highly charged photos under the most immediate understanding of pornography, however. Nonetheless, if you pay attention to what Perverted Justice disseminates, you’ll find absolutely incredible photos of men masturbating. These images are remarkably similar to the film and photo work of a long, rich history of gay pornographers who chiefly chose youngish hustlers as their subjects. In fact, the stuff that PJ releases is even more demanding as the central subtext requires that these men want to talk to and fuck children. I’d rather see that than more sexy street hardship studies. The compassion quotient of the pornographer, at least, is a little more passionately uncontrollable in the sainted than in the trolls.
There’s a photo book Speeding by David Hurles that comes couched as
the recorded history of gay liberation, sexual freedom and closeted
access, even though the market from when I was buying the stuff way
back when was more the ragged degeneration of sexually available mites.
I see the websites of sexual offender mugshots and the j/o clips as
easily containing the same arguments. And, without sounding glib I
hope, the newer versions are certainly much more vicious in intention.
Of course, I’m not only connecting the way I’m sometimes used by these
websites and lower mentalities as something to campaign against but
also how what I’ve done and overworked is a sliding scale of
There is a current in your writing that's easily described as racist. Is there anything to clarify here? I find it curious that you explicitly chose to exclude black offenders from the running gallery in Lordotics.
In the book, I explained very clearly why I didn’t choose some men and why I did choose others. I also said that I didn’t care for a job where I had to make explanations for an audience who had no business there. This was an in effort to frame the work in a highly personal, formal or modernist sense rather than allowing for the misreading of the contemporania. My experience is key. And I’m not unaware of projection arguments. I’m not interested in either welcoming everyone in or exploding inclusion suppositions.
All the supplemental work I do is, if it’s dropped into a public
setting, called Waitress. This includes these films that I’ve been
putting together for years and only fairly recently started showing at
readings and whatnot. I decided that they were a better example of my
work than by drunkenly, nervously stuttering over the fucking pages in
front of a curious, supportive or defensive audience. I’ve been fucking
with edits and contradictions and one of the things I put together was
a brief collection of Bobby Garcia segments. Bobby is a very low level
pornographer that offers marines quick cash to jerk-off in front of his
camera. He then makes a move to suck them off. When the boys almost
always comply, he encourages them to insult him: Call me a cocksucking
faggot. Is this all I’m good for? These clips come in-between more
edits of little girls being asked what their fathers, stepfathers and
the occasional stranger did to them and what they might now understand was wanted of them whenever. Mostly being
interviewed and cajoled by doctors or newscasters. This information
does absolutely need me slobbing myself on top of it, not only so that
it won’t be misconstrued when I stupidly let it go. So the work becomes
books. In Comfort and Critique and Predicate especially, I let
voluminous newspaper quotes and a huge portion of The Cullen Report on
Hamilton relay the background information in a true crime format. But I
let that information talk back to me. The way it does. Generally, I
don’t bother imagining an audience. There’s a contempt for them that I
refuse to work through to let them in. There are narratives. I don’t
construct them for others. And I don’t get lost in them. I have done.
I’d prefer an audience read my work the way I read theirs.
It may trace to your involvement with Ian Brady's book, The Gate's of Janus, but it seems that your writing can no longer be said to exist in a self-contained universe. There's that line from Selfish, Little: "My art drips into the real world." Your focus on Masha Allen in Show Adult drew vocal indignation from Allen's lawyers, who sought to have your book removed from circulation. And the release of Predicate in the UK was met with a similar public campaign, spearheaded by relatives of Thomas Hamilton's victims. Are such public outcries merely incidental, or is there an element of intentional provocation in your writing? Are you baiting a reaction?
I think it’s very clear that I am not being provocative or trying to scare up a sensationalist reaction. The line you pick from Selfish, Little was what I told the judge in my trial well over twenty years ago. I was seriously, stupidly, surprised that there was a quantifiable reality to my work. And the incidents that you mention came well after I had said that. Who, in your opinion, would I be trying to provoke? Stupid fucking book distributors? The people who need to rethink the way they publicly protect families of victims? And, in your estimation, are there more examples of me seeking or avoiding publicity?
I knew that the afterword to the Brady book would be read by some of the victim’s family members. And Brady.
With Hamilton, I was interested in his posthumously released pictures of boys in gym shorts that, since they didn’t display sex or nudity, had to be classified child pornography through the intention readings of others. This idea was followed through to Masha Allen’s celebrity interviews in Show Adult as she had already been rescued when authorities released her masked child porn photos to the public. Next comes sex offender mugshots in Lordotics. At first flush, it may seem like I’m pulling on the old more liberal than thou trick. Or that I’m spreading my guilt around. Might seem a bit more desperate when you place it a sexual, or adult, or affectionate context.
If you read what’s said in these complaints, you’ll see it’s just my interest alone that changes the way the victims and care-providers see themselves. Whatever is actually in the books, and I’m not pretending it’s sympathetic, isn’t brought to the issue. It’s these sorts of political gestures that make censorship arguments so fucking tedious. It’s always two sides arguing ideas that don’t exist outside the frame of misunderstanding, vested or not. I’m not going to use the same words they do when I’ve already seen they don’t work.
What do you make of such reactions? At times you seem almost let
down, and certainly skeptical. Again, from Selfish, Little, you write:
"I think it's absolutely fair to ask, what happened to all that fucking
sympathy..." Do you allow that these surviving family members -- these
grieving parents -- may be sincerely traumatized when they discover
that a reputed pedophile has capitalized on their loss in terms that
are perhaps lazily defined as pornographic? Or are they following a
I don’t accept the cultural script. And Fuck you. Reputed pedophile? Am I supposed to act differently because they may misunderstand my interest or work? Or am I supposed to list every single possible misreading? Compare, mask or parody grief? And how have I capitalized on their loss? What do you mean by capitalized exactly? I don’t think my definition of pornographic is anywhere near as lazy as theirs, if that’s the argument. I know it’s not yours.
The quote you pull from Selfish, Little refers to Sara Payne
imploding on the tremendous amount of public sympathy she was receiving
at the worst possible private time.
Your work is sometimes interpreted as an oblique commentary on the media -- as a deconstruction of the hypocrisy and complicity that may be detected in coverage of sensational crimes involving children. But in recent books -- notably Show Adult -- you take pains to distance your intentions from such readings, at least in their more reductive iterations. And in Comfort and Critique, there's a rather sarcastic "fuck you" passage: "Call one more motherfucker a vulture and see if anyone trembles in light of the revelation." What do you think critics are missing? And if such readings are a false start, why do you think this approach is common? Do you suspect that readers are seeking for a moral "out" -- something to justify their taste for transgressive experiment?
There’s a documentary on Hubert Selby called It/ll Be Better Tomorrow that I like very much in spite of how it’s constructed. At the end of it, there’s a wretched parade of celebrities talking about what a nice guy Selby really was and how important this was in light of the intensity of what he wrote. What I find especially galling about this type of appreciation is that it essentially tosses the work out the window so that these dumb cunts can find friends. The current state of popular critical thought is in pointing out inequities to support egalitarian fantasies. If I have to consider these inequities, at least I hope to give them greater due than labeling them challenging or depressing or tragically imagined and fucking missed.
I’m not going to defend my work as of any great significance here.
But, fuck’s sake, would it be possible to act as if I had a legitimate
gripe with the media over ethics after all these years? The blogging
transgressives, like the kindergarten teachers that produced them,
would be writing about what a pervert I only really am.
Your obsession -- I think that's a fair characterization -- with Lesley Ann Downey's murder is interesting to me. This will sound perverse, but it almost reads like a narrative of first love. There seems to be an element of nostalgic idealization, especially as time bends forward. Does it ever concern you that a formative encounter may have locked you into a recursive bind?
I understand why you would ask. Selfish, Little was subtitled “The Annotated Lesley Ann Downey” for exactly this idealization. But it’s not something that exists in the text as a romantic or grayer tragic drive backwards. For me, it had more to do with seeing the ruminations of a hogging reality as mere, or even better, annotations to a brief life that could only be accessed through a few photographs and empty but widely considered details. I do think there’s a current that runs from the first time I saw child pornography to the last and that does involve Lesley. I am very conscious of the arid facts that relate her images and recordings to what I’m finding in other forms now, primarily with prostitutes or adult men I despise. But I’m not looking for proxies or recreations and never was. It’s not a bind I would argue, however recursive. The subtitle refers to Lesley’s mother, Ian Brady and myself involving ourselves in a history of Lesley and the violence of what continues to be said. I don’t know that Lesley wouldn’t have grown into Linsey Dawn Mckenzie as makes sense to me often enough. Especially when I watch Linsey Dawn Mckenzie badly sell a coy tease. I do know that when Lesley was asked her surname on the tape that Ian and Myra made, she replied “Weston.” Seems an ugly point to make and I’d say the same is true for telling you that my interest in child pornography as a subject comes from never having seen it as complete as those whose job it is to convey that viciousness, do. I learned sympathy was fuckable. But fucking was hardly a worthwhile way to enjoy the sympathy. That you doled out, of course.
There’s a romantic, nostalgic futility to sex that doesn’t exist in
pornography. The internal dialogue in masturbation can be more
ravaging. There’s not as much emphasis on keeping the dream alive in
spite of the more exciting evidence. The act can no longer support the
predicate, the aesthetic. The biology can’t explain the thoughts and
then shifts the act to a responsibility that can’t be excused by
People still talk about your arrest, and PURE. Does it even matter at this point? Are you given to reflect on how your life might have turned out differently?
I wouldn’t create fiction. The arrest, as I’ve said, matters to me far more than I thought it still would. I was arrested for obscenity but the charges changed when the police found something more concrete to deal with. It goes back to what you were just asking about romantic, or nostalgic, idealization and my art dripping into the real world. Before I ever imagined the possibilities, my art was controlling my life and thus separating the two – the theoretical and the actualized – became impossible.
Your books recast available material in a manner consonant with your tastes and suspicions for an effect that is by turns pornographic, confessional, and investigative. But it always feeds back in these proxy experiences, where lusted potential is sought and amplified -- significantly in porn shops where fathers and stepfathers troll for something once-removed from their illegal knowledge. You have described your writing as being motivated by a kind of interminable frustration, or lack. But is there a sense in which your seemingly restrained choices beg a moral question regarding limits? Or is it just not worth the trouble?
There’s an excellent series put out by Killergram in the UK titled On A Dogging Mission that builds on the On The Prowl series that Jamie Gillis did much better, frankly. But the idea of filming unpaid guys who show up at parking lots and wooded hideaways for their quick shots at sticking their dicks in prostitutes as an exponential series reveals more by repetition than any focus on the actual play between model and photographer. As soon as a mouth is opened, or a tit is exposed, these men, whose faces aren’t shown as promised, reach to pull and fill or grab. Sensation seems to be far more important than the sight or hint. Like insects. This idea that these countless men are more lonely, more ugly, less inclined to brag or see themselves as potential goodtimes for others works in anonymous numbers better than the advertising for naked previously inaccessible women. Backstage footage is a greater feature in most porn releases these days. It’s not a reality show contrivance; it’s that simple films of fucking aren’t what you’ve wanted to buy all these years. Proxies are no longer the market but the information you let in while you watch. The specifics of personal history, degenerate frame and mental consequence are taking up more film time now. Aesthetics comes from packaging. Another series like Crackwhore Confessions where interviews have to begrudgingly move to the tiresome blowjob suggests everything about where the product could be sold and then not allowed. As well as what these creeps looking for cheap want for cheap. Bali Boom Boom offers homemade footage of hotel hookers, who later died in the 2002 Bali bombings, sucking off tourists just like any other paid model. I don’t ever mistake what I write for what I want and can’t have. Art is an attempt, when it works, to pull all the threads that swing and slap around you together for something better than experience. The criticism of art, however, is rooted in personal experience as a potential voice for a universal audience. Or a newly actualized dream, roomy fantasy, wish for commonality. Here’s where moralism breaks down: I’m not miserable about what I see and engage. I’m not arguing for stoicism or an absence of moralism; the denial of desire. The writing does have a moralism to it. But it’s not ambivalent about the position that I’ve put, and continue to put, myself in. I don’t confuse the concern I register, the excitement and revulsion, with welfare and sympathy. In field humanitarians will tell you that morality is axiomatically political whereas, seems to me, that requires a flattening of contradictions into a language that, no matter how hard I try, won’t stop revealing itself. The insult, as well as the inadequacy and vanity, in giving genuine or specious pity is too exciting for me.
You seem to be deeply skeptical of humanistic appeals, and more specifically, of the precise relevance of empathy in human affairs, at least as the concept is commonly understood. At the same time, you emphasize that you mean to give others the benefit of the doubt. Is it possible that your incredulity may be wrongly informed by cynicism, or bad faith?
I think the problem with this question is that what is most commonly understood is the semblance of humanity. I don’t work towards finding contradictions that tear down emotions nor do I move to exact scientific proof from what is considered sympathy. Cynicism, like humanism, works best in a tabloid approach of short bursts and headlines. I can see why most readers would be bored with my work. I can’t see why they think that’s an adequate review. There’s lots of mistakes and regrets, more and more willful as the lists gets longer. I give my subjects much greater time, I hope. And I want to believe them.
Reading your books, I sometimes have the sense that you are grasping at something ineffable. I'm reminded of Paulhan's take on Sade -- that he was "testing a truth so difficult and mysterious" that it perpetually collapses into transparency. Do you feel constrained by language? Does the process of writing entail special frustration -- a disconnect between form and intention?
Writing isn’t frustrating for me. Form and intention might have a greater disconnect somewhere else, like sex or something more important and less attainable. I don’t have the same breathing, heaving space between asking “Is this fair?” and “Is this selfish?” that most authors have. There’s a greater frustration between vanity and excess, affection and obligation. But it’s essentially a monologue.
You wrote the afterword to the English translation of Catherine Breillat's novel, Pornocracy. How did you come to be involved in this project?
An editor at Semiotext(e) asked me if I’d be interested in writing something, simple as that. I had already read the book and he knew that I was very interested in Breillat’s work. I’m glad he asked.
In your afterword, you frame part of your
meta-commentary with a passage from Andrea Dworkin's novel, Mercy; it's
drawn from the "Not Andrea" prologue, if memory serves -- which in its
original context reads as a blistering pastiche of sex-positive
feminist palaver and pretense. It seems that this can be seen as a jab
at Breillat's theory-laden MO in the central text, or at least as a
kind of critique. Can you address this? And what are your
thoughts on Breillat's work, both as a filmmaker and a novelist?
In the afterword, and in the sections I put back in Lordotics, I was following a current of those that film bodies and those bodies that are filmed and the impossible conversations that are created between them and the audience. Lynndie England explaining the photographs of her at Abu Grahib and an older fat woman laughing at the idea that an audience would want to buy what her pimp was filming. I also connected Breillat’s work to Steve Touschin, who was a pornography producer charged with obscenity for his videos of sex-positives (before positive came to mean something entirely different). Breillat and Touschin were both responsible for selling me images of men eating tampons. Their reasons for producing those images were very different and I was trying to figure out how I came to see both, not as similar in intent, but as access and experience. The radical difference in their definitions of agency and obscenity, among others, was something that I wanted to draw together tighter and closer. Her filming and selling actors, rather than words, produces an argument that splits her Dworkinite theory into less passionate responsibilities that is seemingly at odds with the narrative. And her writing feeds off that exposure. Breillat is one of the few filmmakers who looks hard at what her films throw back at her. Her work is extremely self-referential but not blind to the salesmanship, collegiate dialectics or feminist lore she seeks to expand beyond Unica Zurn and Shirley Mills.
This goes back to your question about racism and explanation.
Popular porn stars, there are worse examples, like Annette Schwarz and
Belladonna. They frame their gapes and blowbangs as part of their
experimental or exploratory sexuality. I know their market better and
they know the laws. Annette moved from John Thompson to american cash
roles where she can stretch her eye lids open to get cumshots where the
others don’t yet. I adore the idea that an audience might be reacting
to sights she doesn’t consider to her benefit. The coarse, casual
psychology alone that might be degenerating or, if not, be improving to
a health where she’s merely owning her past with me watching.
What is it about the situation of the "child actor" that interests you?
There’s an awful lot. In Show Adult and Lordotics there’s quite a bit more. This idea of teaching them lines and getting them to act, to embody a character, seems an ethically bad fit when you consider the language that seeks to show the greater evils of child pornography. Specifically when you concentrate on prettified gender roles and crying jags and the erratic suggestion that they’re not going to be able to shake off what happened during a bad day filming. Combine this with the knowledge that a great many pedophiles aren’t necessarily looking to see children getting fucked but are nonetheless frustrated by the promise of Coming Of Age movies and pure innocence trawls. Child models taking posing instruction before they understand the effect, combined with child actors told to imitate emotions. Have them wait while you get the lights just right, to get the angel blush, give them the character background in bitesize pieces, convince them to cry.
Move her hair back away from her face.
Andrea Dworkin is a name that inevitably comes up in discussions of your writing, and there are recurrent references to her throughout your work. Why was she important?
I don’t think it’s hard to understand why I would be interested in Andrea’s work. People often act surprised because they’ve never read her work. They usually only know the popular fat jokes and the stupid Paglia quote about food or her appearance before the Meese Commission. Andrea’s writing is very vivid and extremely lived-in. She forces her writing back over her to beat herself up to a certain visceral, and then conscious, extent. Her politics, which causes the greatest rancor among sex positives, is terribly similar to David Wojnarowicz. They were obsessing on their sexual, emblematic histories with all inherent damage and mining a voice for greater understanding for what they’ve suffered. Dworkin demanded a great deal from the writers whose words she took very seriously. She expected the same from herself and it’s not a surprise to me that she would equate her words with action. Same as Wojnarowicz. Not to keep harping on him in particular; it’s that I like both of their work very much. There are significant differences in their work, most especially in regards to what they think should be left behind, but the institutionalized blame and the schizoid sexual mania of their writing draws them together for me. This is a much bigger subject, obviously and I’m only questioning why it’s surprising that people don’t understand my appreciation of Dworkin. I see these writers as much more than conduits for pornographic release or news. And, once you’ve read her work, it doesn’t seem as much of a jump to me why I would think she’s important. We write about the same things as well. John Stoltenberg said that Andrea was planning on writing a book on Lynndie England before she died.
Start off with highlighting the violence, cruelty, selfishness in
these sexual situations. Now try to pretend you’re not forcing it back
on top. Our conclusions may or may not be different when it stops.
Dennis Cooper remains conspicuous as one of the few American writers to have publicly expressed admiration for your writing. Do you have any thoughts on why your books have received so little critical attention in the anglosphere? And why the situation is different in France?
I can’t answer this without sounding like an asshole. I’m sure that I sell fewer books than you may think in France.
I get stuck on a passage from Predicate:
It's too much of a slap-in-the-face departure from style to explain as
a literary device. You are arguing, I think sincerely, that
empathy-based rehabilitation is, in precept and practice, flawed by a
rooted failure to grasp crucial distinctions. You continue, "Shame often ignites a defensive cognitive distortion that causes the
offender to spiral away from empathy into even more hostile
appreciations of their victim."
Perhaps I'm obtuse to some nuance, but the theory adds up plausibly; it
invites empirical investigation, and seems to tie in with your
interest in Harry Harlow's classic experiments, which troubled me when
I was a child. And it seems relevant that your writing is so often
described as "empathic." I'm curious about all of it, but I might attempt to open the question
by asking about your thoughts on the confluence of science and art.
This is merely one area, after all, where your writing seems to
blur guarded distinctions.
A lot of that writing comes directly from a contemporaneous journal on sex addiction and the application of specific theory in prison care, control, and rehabilitation. Both Genet and Dworkin have talked about how they essentially mask themselves through the words they use. That they clothe themselves in sentences and ideas, even though their lives and experiences are what drives every word. Not that I’m comparing my work to theirs as much as I’m comparing another preferred degenerate to Dworkin, but I’d say that my work, I should hope, comes from what others may derisively call an over sensitivity to the subject. I think that’s a necessary requirement, frankly. But I’m dealing with material and situations, fucking over and over again, that have an appeal they aren’t supposed to. I’m not guarding much. And words like cheap and respect and need, I hope, have less trivial definitions in my work.
Harlow -- maybe I’m wrong about what you’re asking -- is someone that
wasn’t sure what he was proving. His work stands as amazing art yet the
intensely vetted rigors of his experiments, because they were done in
the efforts of science, make it impossible to call it “experimental
art,” thank fuck. Still, the trajectories of his, say, sculptures are
too intractable to remain cold science. If you consider Gillian
Wearing’s art, you’ll see work that does much of what the behaviorists
were struggling with.
So much of your writing is informed by your experience with anonymous sex with men -- the backrooms and gloryholes that have probably always existed in some corners. But the pornographic content seems to be increasingly colored by something that might read as regret, or reflective ambivalence. In Tick, the narrator talks about "depletion" and "sinking" and there is the line about having "become what I've surrounded myself with." And in Predicate there is a recurrent emphasis on the deterioration of public and private boundaries that may provoke a more volatile desperation among the men who frequent this demimonde. Follow the trajectory to your current project, and it settles on the faces of these captured and exposed sex offenders, who presumably stalk the same rooms. I wouldn't use the word corruption, but do you think your long familiarity has shaped you? Does it provide clarity, or distortion? Does it constitute an argument?
I’ve said this explicitly. That I’ve been shaped by these joints, access and lower ideals. There’s no blame to be doled out. And I certainly don’t imagine that inside me somewhere was a core of humanity or nature that needed to be protected against all possible perversions. I’m an old man now. My decisions are mature and conscious but perpetually naïve, right? Bruce Benderson, in Sex and Isolation, uses terms that I like very much. He says he changed from a “courageous voyeur” to an “armchair voyeur” simply because the bars and joints have now been closed and deconstructs the suburban influence on sex where computers can badly replace night (and day) trawls. I can tell you that when I was young and going to these places, I thought it was purely about an access to cheap hatred. I depended on those creeps being wrong just enough. The price goes up when you realize, as you can’t fucking do otherwise, that you want to see even more. It doesn’t make sense that I wouldn’t have wanted what happened, frankly. The same way that it was bound to become easy and the positions would become fluid. On the other hand, the intense degeneration of the places that exist still have certainly come to reflect, if not embody, the hatred for sex that I originally responded to. They look like bomb sites now. Look at the cover of Lordotics. There’s a move towards clarity that only creates a distortion of experience that’s more interesting to me. For example, that sex becomes pornography rather than the opposite. That can sound as if there’s a failure to vault traditional moral or orthodox views of sex. Whereas I think it’s more to do with locating the lies commonly sold to transcend and replace. I’ve been there. You get more hugs than cock. That lonely, ugly, self-pity and search comes through the hole quicker than anything else. And I’m not thinking, after all these years, that it should still be somehow different. My definition of better is different. Inaslowas I think there’s more to be had from The Gift documentary on barebacking then in Birthday Fuck Party that both feature the same boy.
There are a handful of writers to whom you are sometimes compared -- Acker, Burroughs, Genet, Guyotat, etc. -- but the plain truth is, no one writes like you. Your work is instantly recognizable, yet it just doesn't comfortably fit within any literary style or tradition. Can you describe your approach to writing -- how it has evolved and developed? Are you attentive to the rigors of style and craft, or is it more a matter of form following function?
I’d prefer the books to be seen individually. It might sound a bit fake since I’m answering every question as if it’s all one book. I hope it doesn’t sound like I think the books are a process. Any experiments that are done are not done so that a book could be created. I can’t tell you how many people have told me their histories of abuse. Almost always as if I haven’t heard it just minutes before again. Is it possible that they would think that after all these years, writing what I do and hanging around where I do, that I don’t know anyone that had that happen? I keep being told as if it’s the first time I’ve been face to face with a real live one. Same is true with those who are currently embracing their inner sex pig as some yearning addiction psychology. I’m not complaining, happy to be there in whatever capacity. I just don’t understand the conceit that it wouldn’t have evolved after all these years. I’m not that difficult to nail. There’s an obvious slide, a degeneration, and alot more coarse, precipitative questions.
You may disagree, but it strikes me that closer comparisons might be found in the visual arts. Francis Bacon's thematic permutations come to mind. Gaspar Noe's films come to mind. And there's something about the interrogatory strategy of Errol Morris's recent documentaries -- the editorially punctuated unveiling -- that seems to bear some resemblance to your strategy, at least from a structural vantage. This will sound pretentious, but is there a sense in which your writing attempts to transcend the strictures of language?
It’s not the writing that tries to transcend language. The writing breaks apart any other option or possibility that it could be more than just writing. There’s no use in applauding any and all creative acts. You don’t get credit for effort alone. Comfort and Critique was shaped by working with a magazine of photos I thought needed a specific context. Show Adult and Lordotics came from the films I reedited and re-watched obsessively and the news I search for and collect into my whittled down life. These ideas for more wouldn’t work in any medium but writing for me. I want these books to exist more vividly and I make them. That sounds more pretentious. And as trite as it is, not doing it or taking it seriously, not recognizing the thoughts that demand and offer more than fantasies, sounds far worse. Simple as that. I released a CD called Buyer’s Market decades ago because I wanted to hear crying voice samples unfettered. I’ve since carefully released loops of favorite phrases. For very specific time lengths. The narrative for these things unveiling themselves to me doesn’t come without a suspicion of what’s there. And the finished book, or whatever, is not a record of a process or an open-ended experiment. Outside of the fact that the subject matter is genuinely overwhelming to me. They’re not memoirs.
The narration in your books is often characterized by a kind of interlocutory phrasing; you seem to be addressing someone. When you approach a project, do you imagine an interogatee or a dialectical composite? A foil?
I have done in the past. Particularly in Tool and Special. I tend to mix up interviews and let the excuses and stereotypes, startling truth and sneaky lies, crash and blur together. I realized before Index that it was completely impossible to lie in the work I do. There’s always a suspicion that I’m trying to impress or shock an audience, convince others of something I’m not or would really rather be, but that suspicion is absolutely the unlived requirements of those particular readers. I’m not working towards honesty or some mysteriously untapped verity gleaned from the interviews and reviews of others. The text is most often reconnecting the outside back into my experience, though I do the opposite as well. I didn’t use footnotes in Lordotics and mixed the interviews of Masha Allen and Lynndie England with a doctor that created questions for sex offenders and a sex offender who was, in essence, questioning himself.
I know from doing Tool and Parasite and Special that it was
impossible to imagine a source or voice that wasn’t going to hit me
back as myself. Even with Pure, now when I look back at it, the Sadian
pastiche I was badly employing had everything to do with me and very
little to do with the information I was trying to impart. I don’t care
for what Pure was. But the cops, as well as me, understood that I was
writing from a personal side that couldn’t be explained by craft. Or
explained as such in court.
When you look back over your body of writing, are there books that seem especially significant or perhaps transitional? And conversely, are there works that you are now inclined to disclaim -- failures or false starts?
In Lordotics, because a great deal of the book is concerned with old men regretting what they’ve come to see as less important than it once could have been, I put some old passages from books that I found to be particularly irksome memories. I could pretty up the context and say that my work is only ever a document of a particular time but it doesn’t work that way. I wouldn’t deny the precision it takes to rethink or relive it. I don’t have an excuse.
Readers wonder what came of your collaboration with Jamie Gillis. Are you at liberty to discuss?
It’s out of my hands. I never should have talked about it in the first place. I think what Jamie does is a better example of what you were asking me as regards empathy, actually. There’s a genuine concern for his subjects that’s often missed because of the extreme nature of the acts. But what that does, for me, is explode the idea of empathy into a greater, more significant, not necessarily unsympathetic, demand. There’s a focus to his work that looks for more from time and experience than what pornography or sex or therapy is most often seen as offering. He’s been in every book of mine since “Index”, I’m very pleased to say.
Can you divulge anything about current or future projects?
More of the same. I don’t worry about it.
Lordotics follow the analysand down the stairs. They wait in the hall, also choosing not to ascend to the bar where social immobility is more difficult, less lazy and evocative of just more idiot boredom. Mice raise their little hump backs and accept the rape read as desire. And the bent fucks are sometimes relegated to the walk down the halls still fourth or fifth place in an angrier line. Never enough time, never enough real appetite to stall their turn or accept that they'd rather sink than just watch.
So much of this sex should be rooted in the insult it creates in circulation. It is earnestly and desperately produced. Its public exposure should be steeped in aggression. Beyond its confessional desire to connect. Typical of impotent hatred. And more. These men are reasonable. They're not locked up in asylums or loaded on chemicals to keep them from masturbating and hissing in public. Controlled rape. This sex obsession is contained. It is simple. These are men that prove the fallacy of a normal loving sexual stereotype more than they prove the psychosis of their little itching acts. Husbands, boyfriends, niggers in the bathroom before they go to work. The banality that is David Westerfield masturbating constantly in the privacy of his own lush house is not insidious or dangerous. He was quietly capable of more quick fantasies than choices and possibilities. No matter what, Westerfield's sexualized worries still have not stopped.