About the only time I come in close contact with a physical copy of our former paper of record is when I am up in Northwest Connecticut visiting friends. Since I tend to rise early, I long ago fell into the habit when visiting of fetching the morning papers and, broadminded chap that I am, I do not forbear to include The New York Times in the catch. If my visit includes a Sunday, I always take the opportunity to put on my pathologist’s hat and glance at that metaphysical prodigy, The New York Times Book Review. For as long as anyone can recall, it has been widely excoriated by observers across the political spectrum as having hit a new low and yet, mirabile dictu, it always seems to get a little worse: a little dumber, a little coarser, a little more ideologically compromised and intellectually oleaginous. How do they do it?
Today’s issue is no exception. The pièce de la résistance is undoubtedly the review of Payng for It, a sort of comic book memoir by a Canadian called Chester Brown about his life patronizing whores. You might wonder why The New York Times Book Review should choose to review such a volume, but if that seems curious to you you obviously haven’t been paying attention to what the Book Review under its current editor, Sam Tanenhaus, has become. Sam always has space for reviews of books like How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, or Surrender, a ballerina’s memoir about her adventures with anal sex. But when it comes to many serious books, including almost all serious books of a conservative persuasion, you can forget about finding them reviewed in The New York Times. (That indeed is one reason that, as the Publisher of Encounter Books, I sometime ago decided to stop sending our books to the NYTBR.)
Devoting full-page review to a comic book about paying for sex is just business as usual for the Book Review. What caught my eye was editor’s choice of reviewer. It’s Annie Sprinkle, the former prostitute, turned sex performance artist — “an artist, activist and ecosex educator,”in the words of her byline). How proud the Times was to snag her as a reviewer! In addition to giving her a full page to review this silly bit of pornographic ephemera, they devote their “UpFront” feature to introducing readers to this sad creature. “Sprinkle has cultivated one of the more audacious careers of anyone who has ever reviewed a book in our pages: porn star, prostitute, artist, academic, AIDS educator, author, filmmaker, political activist.” Savor the word “cultivated” here: it’s like “experimenting” as in “experimenting with drugs.” One draws up the delicate are of horticulture, the other physical science, for decidedly more demotic activities.
And in case you are wondering what an “ecosex educator is,” you need only consult this little valentine:
“Elizabeth [Miss Sprinkle’s partner] and I coined the word ‘sexecology’ to describe a new field of research where sexology and ecology intersect in our culture,” Sprinkle explained. “We are ‘ecosexual sexecologists,’ switching the metaphor from ‘Earth as mother’ to ‘Earth as lover,’ to make the environmental movement a little more sexy, fun and diverse, and to entice other people to join us in helping to care for nature.”
Right out of central casting, isn’t it? “Research,” forsooth. Annie Sprinkle’s “research” consists of exploiting gullible academics and arts types — and now editors of major newspapers — into believing that her pathetic mixture of titillation and new-age is anything more than cynical con job.
She’s at it again here in her review of Paying for It, praising the author for his “honesty, integrity, and pride,” not to mention his “relatively nonjudgmental” attitude. The book has, Sprinkle promises, a “transgressive surprise ending” that she coyly refrains from spoiling. This, she concludes, is “a welcome book to prostitutes everywhere, especially those who have been raped, robbed or busted in places where laws and stigmas against the business make such experiences all the more traumatizing. It is also a valuable resource for academics.” Who would doubt it?