Monday, February 9, 2015

Paging through the New Olympia Reader


I've also been making my way through a Quality Paperback Club version of The New Olympia Reader. Those of you who are bookish already know of Olympia Press as the small French publisher who first put out famously banned "dirty" novels such as Lolita and Naked Lunch. The first Olympia Reader collected excerpts from this famous time period; this sequel, from the more mediocre sixties.

I think that part of the problem is that the 1960s had less of a need for a pornographer to publish struggling talented writers. With the sexual revolution came much-needed challenges to various censorship laws, making it much easier to purchase Lady Chatterly's Lover, as well as cheap paperback smut. Where once Penguin was the only "legit" publishing house willing to go to court to defend their rights, bookstores in most major cities now had access to more challenging "adult" fare from a variety of imprints.

Which left Olympia Press as the place for already established writers to make a little money on the side writing middle-brow smut under various pen names. Which means that the books were fairly well-written, but written mainly to fill up pages of "Traveller's Companion"s with easy-selling sex. Some of these are also attempts to try the new post-Joyce or Burroughs style of modern writing, not always successfully. John Voigt's "Nether City," for instance manages to be sexy, funny and challenging in that stream-of-consciousness way, while Ronald Tavel's "Street of Stairs" is a fairly unreadable Burroughs pastiche.

So far, most of the excerpts have fallen somewhere in between, with Ed Martin's "Busy Bodies" being a welcome excursion into Topper-style comedy with a seance that turns into an orgy. The best piece by far is Diane di Prima's "Memoirs of a Beatnik," her wonderfully written re-enactment of those post-war Kerouac/Ginsberg years. Which means I'll have to search out the whole book. The other authors represented herein, not so much. It's a giant collection though, so perhaps more gems are yet to be found.

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