JOHN CLELAND was a luckless little hack who in 1748, destitute and desperate, scribbled Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure for a flat fee of 20 guineas. He went on to become an inept philologist, ducked creditors much of his life, and died aged and unsung. If the poor fellow were only alive today, he could be a Big Writer, for critics on both sides of the Atlantic have acclaimed his ability to describe repetitive fornication with elegance and grace. He could wear hand-sewn Italian loafers, sell his still unwritten books to the paperbacks and the movies for a cool million, and lecture at progressive colleges on "Erotic Realism in the Novel."
But he would have to work hard, very hard, to keep up with the competition. For just about anything is printable in the U.S. today. All the famed and once hard-to-get old volumes are on the paperback racks, from the Kama Sutra to the Marquis de Sade's Justine. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, once the last word in unprintable scatology, can often be picked up in remainder bins for 25¢. Miller has almost acquired a kind of dignity as the Grand Old Dirty Man of the trade, compared with some of the more current writers. Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis is out in two new editions, which for the first time render all those horrendous Latin passages in Englishand, surrounded by the author's quaint 19th century moralizing, they seem tame alongside Candy or Norman Mailer's An American Dream.
Maurice Girodias, the shy little Parisian who was the world's foremost publisher of English-language pornography until tightening French censorship put his Olympia Press out of business, often talks about setting up shop in the U.S., but it is difficult to see what he could peddle. Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press and in a sense the American Girodias, is way ahead of him. Says Rosset hopefully: "Who knows if the limits have been reached? Just because the scientists split the atom, did they sit back and say, 'Well, that's it'?" The pioneering publisher could always push the limits a little farther by trying the notorious Story of O. or The Debauched Hospodar. But one of these days even Rosset may run out of material.
The avowed professional pornographers face a related dilemma. The fact is that all kinds of respectable hardcover books now contain subject matter and language that would have brought police raids only a few years ago "is really killing us," says a West Coast practitioner. Far from giving up, the cheap paperback pornographers are diversifying by expanding their old preoccupation with lesbianism and sadomasochism, while searching for ever more bizarre combinations and settings. Still, it is tough trying to stay ahead of the avantgarde.
With everyone so afraid of appearing square, the avant-garde is obviously trying to determine just how far things can be pushed before anyone will actually admit to being shocked. New York now exports to various other centers of culture a mimeographed magazine whose title is somewhat stronger than Love You, A Magazine of the Arts; its pages are filled by some certified avant-garde writers, many homosexuals, who mostly write pissoir poetry.