This dates me. When I was a kid Peyton Place was considered a real risque book. Erskine Caldwell. But I had the luck of baby-sitting for John Ciardi, who lived a couple of doors away, and he had millions of books, including an untrimmed Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I went through all his library I could get my hands on, after I got his obstreperous three children locked into their beds.
I can remember kids clandestinely passing Peyton Place around in class (freshman year of high school, perhaps?) to show their friends the “dirty parts.” (Very mild by today’s standards.)
In my high school years, the risque samizdat was the opening chapters of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. It was like that old joke about prison inmates who knew jokes by the number assigned to them–we could crack up the class just by calling out the page numbers everyone knew by heart.
There was a page number for Peyton Place. I think the guy pulled down the top of the lady’s bathing suit or something. We have come so far. Maybe.
I used to borrow the high school students’ homework on the school bus on the way home, which never struck me as odd at the time.
That was how I read an excerpt from A Wizard of Earthsea, a chapter from Black Boy, and on one memorable occasion, all ofBreakfast of Champions when I was about 9–which a junior had checked out from the high school library only with special permission. I read the whole thing and parts of it went riiiight over my head, but I eyed them speculatively as they flew past.
Page 16 of The Godfather fell out of the book completely due to excessive reading in my cabin at summer camp.
The Carpetbaggers got read a lot for the same reasons–or at least some pages did. The page where he pours orange soda over his sister’s breasts and then has sex with her was a big favorite.
That’s the page!
Valley of the Dolls was also in hot circulation at the time. Some friends tried Philip Roth for the sex scenes but found the experience too peculiar. (Roth was sort of the risque fiction equivalent of a bad acid trip.)
I mentioned in an earlier post that my parents, who were fairly liberal and open-minded, began to get concerned that the fantasy and science fiction I was reading was giving me some unsavory ideas when I was teenager. Mind you, I was the only reader of fantasy and science fiction in my house, and you might expect that “outsiders” to that fiction–my parents and my brothers–might attribute such power to fiction they knew nothing about. Obviously, as our shared anecdotes are showing, there was much more risque fiction out there in the mainstream than in my science fiction books.
Still, I love the idea that a literature that once was considered the language of nerds and geeks speaking to nerds and geeks at some point earned the reputation of a literature of the seamy and steamy. I guess we have Dangerous Visions to thank for this.
Librarians, teachers, and parents were referring to science fiction as “mind-rotting junk” (almost always the same phrase!”) long beforeDangerous Visions came out. I think it’s because SF (and fantasy, which was almost impossible to find in book form) didn’t fit the agenda of unsmiling social realism that was current in those days, and didn’t teach kids “proper” attitudes and lessons about life and their place in it. The counter-argument used was that SF taught kids about science, but a lot of parents and librarians were unconvinced by that, as SF “wasn’t about real life.” A lot of them were suspicious about science too.
A lot of those people probably read fairy tales to their children and didn’t bat an eyelash–probably thinking “fairy tales are just make-believe.” They couldn’t make the logical leap that would allow them to see fantasy and science fiction as the same use of allegory and metaphor found in fairy tales, albeit at a different level.
Mind you, if you were a child and said “allegory” or “metaphor” to them, they’d likely have washed your mouth out with soap.
When I started out writing historical fiction (I was like 12) my kindly aunts and cousins always said, why don’t you write about something real?