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On Evan Wright, David Foster Wallace, and Their Reportage on Porn—Why Just Telling the Story Isn’t Enough

I’ve been experiencing a meta-literary moment this week. I’m reading Hella Nation by Evan Wright, author of bestseller Generation Kill, which chronicled his tour as an embedded reporter for Rolling Stone during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (The book was also made into an HBO miniseries that’s on my DVR but not yet watched.) Wright’s latest is a collection of his profiles from Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, LA Weekly, and other publications. Wright got his start as a journalist for Larry Flynt’s Hustler, and a couple of the pieces are set in the porn industry.

These dispatches from the American underground should represent what can be so compelling about magazine journalism—when a writer not only interviews but infiltrates his or her subjects, revealing something neither they nor the reader knew about themselves. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Wright’s work. Admittedly, some of the pieces are from very early in his career, before, perhaps, he had perfected the form. He gets great interviews, and he tells their tales well, but he stops short of, I don’t know, the analysis or insight that makes stories like these required reading.
(Perhaps these limitations in Wright’s writing is purposeful, as he rejects the “gonzo” label that has been applied by some critics to Generation Kill: “… ‘gonzo’ speaks of writing that is more about the reporter than the subject. With few exceptions, my intent has always been to focus on my subjects in all their imperfect glory.”)

Coincidentally, late last year I finally picked up some David Foster Wallace. (Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until his untimely death that I actually read any of his work.) I haven’t made it through his epic-length novel Infinite Jest, but I was pretty much blown away by his Consider the Lobster, another collection of essays featured in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and, again, Rolling Stone, among others.

I say “coincidentally” because, it turns out, Wallace and Wright had met. Wright, in fact, lost a story to Wallace when Premiere withdrew an assignment covering the 1998 Adult Video News Awards from Wright and gave it to Wallace instead. A veteran of the event, Wright showed Wallace around the gala and tradeshow and appeared in the resulting article under the nom de guerre Harold Hecuba.

So last night as I was reading “Scenes from my Life in Porn” from Hella Nation, one of the anecdotes sounded familiar. I dug out my copy of Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, and, sure enough, Wright and Wallace had written about the same incident.

Here’s Wright’s version:

A few months before I left LFP, a thief broke into my car and stole a half-dozen XXX videos. They had been shipped to the office in a box with my name on it. The police caught the hapless criminal walking down the street with the box, and I was called to testify about the crime in a Beverly Hills courtroom. I waited in the hall with the cop who was handling the case. He was a detective a few months shy of retirement who, with his New York accent, knowing blue eyes and rumpled brown suit, seemed more like a sympathetic TV character actor than a real cop. He talked about his 30-year marriage, his daughters, his involvement in a well-known case a decade earlier when he‘d killed a murder suspect during a foot chase and shootout. The detective brought up porn videos and confessed that he liked them. His tastes, he said, were specific. He liked the directors who focused on the women’s faces. “It‘s all bullshit,” he said. “But sometimes you’re looking at the girl in the video and she reveals herself. Maybe it’s just a moment in her eyes, but it’s human, it’s genuine.”

To me, what was real and unreal had ceased to be clear.

And here’s Wallace’s:

Mr. Harold Hecuba [aka Wright], whose magazine job entails reviewing dozens of adult releases every month, has an interesting vignette about a Los Angeles Police Dept. detective he met once when H.H.’s car got broken into and a whole box of Elegant Angel Inc. videotapes was stolen (a box with H.H.’s name and work address right on it) and subsequently recovered by the LAPD. A detective brought the box back to Hecuba personally, a gesture that H.H. remembered thinking was unusually thoughtful and conscientious until it emerged that the detective had really just used the box’s return as an excuse to meet Hecuba, whose critical work he appeared to know, and to discuss the ins and outs of the adult-video industry. It turned out that this detective—60, happily married, a grandpa, shy, polite, clearly a decent guy—was a hard-core fan. He and Hecuba ended up over coffee, and when H.H. finally cleared his throat and asked the cop why such an obviously decent fellow squarely on the side of the law and civic virtue was a porn fan, the detective confessed that what drew him to the films was “the faces,” i.e. the actresses’ faces, i.e. those rare moments in orgasm or accidental tenderness when the starlets dropped their stylized “fuck-me-I’m-a-nasty-girl” sneer and became, suddenly, real people. “Sometimes—and you never know when, is the thing—sometimes all of a sudden they’ll kind of reveal themselves” was the detective’s way of putting it. “Their what-do-you-call … humanness.” It turned out the LAPD detective found adult films moving, in fact far more so than most mainstream Hollywood movies, in which latter films actors—sometimes very gifted actors—go about feigning genuine humanity, i.e.: “In real movies, it’s all on purpose. I suppose what I like in porno is the accident of it.”

But, where Wright’s anecdote comes to end, Wallace continues:

Hecuba’s detective’s explanation is intriguing, at least to yr. corresps., because it helps explain part of the deep appeal of hard-core films, films that are supposed to be “naked” and “explicit” but in truth are some of the most aloof, unrevealing footage for sale anywhere. Much of the cold, dead, mechanical quality of adult films is attributable, really, to the performers’ faces. These are the faces that usually appear bored or blank or workmanlike but are in fact simply hidden, the self locked away someplace far behind the eyes. Surely this hiddenness is the way a human being who’s giving away the very most private parts of himself preserves some sense of dignity and autonomy—he denies us true expression. (You can see this very particular bored, hard, dead look in strippers, prostitutes, and porn performers of all locales and genders.)

But it’s also true that occasionally, in a hard-core scene, the hidden self appears. It’s sort of the opposite of acting. You can see the porn performer’s whole face change as self-consciousness (in most females) or crazed blankness (in most males) yields to some genuinely felt erotic joy in what’s going on; the sighs and moans change from automatic to expressive. It happens only once in a while, but the detective is right: The effect on the viewer is electric. And the adult performers who can do this a lot—allow themselves to feel and enjoy what’s taking place, cameras or no—become huge, legendary stars. The 1980s’ Ginger Lynn and Keisha could do this, and now sometimes Jill Kelly and Rocco Siffredi can. Jenna Jameson and T.T. Boy cannot. They remain just bodies.

Granted, Wright uses the story to lead into the conclusion of his essay and a riff on real versus unreal—he doesn’t completely buy the police officer’s interpretation like Wallace does. But Wallace, writing about somebody else’s anecdote, in a footnote, no less, not only gives a much more complete picture of the entire scenario by not glossing over the details—that the detective had sought Wright out, that they went out for coffee—but by digging deep and using this snapshot from Wright’s “Life in Porn” to expound on the entire adult-entertainment industry.

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