I was intrigued by the title My Father, the Pornographer, not knowing what to expect, but surprised to find myself drawn into the tale of a dysfunctional family with an unconventional father the center of the strife. Andrew Offutt, a science fiction author who found fulfillment in writing situational pornography under numerous pseudonyms, was, what I would call, a genius with a way with words. Having myself worked with gifted children, from my experiences I oftentimes observed that the brightest among us have idiosyncrasies or quirks which many would consider antisocial. Andrew, while talented, focused his energies on describing sexual encounters (he even had a notebook with various descriptions and vocabulary to assist him in his goal of completing a book a month) many of them focusing on BDSM, including psychological and physical degradation. A connoisseur of his craft, Offutt used his well honed research techniques to create compelling, complex plots intermingled with smut. In the midst of this flurry of “erotica”, was the publication of some renowned literature in the SF genre.
Known as Andrew J. Offutt, he found his niche in the world of fanzine, attending Science Fiction conventions in the Midwest. Here is where our lives intersected. During my college years I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club at the University of Buffalo where I was introduced to the world of “Cons”. My first exposure was at the 1973 WorldCon in Toronto – Torcon. Here I got to meet my favorite SF authors (please note true science fiction fans never use the term sci-fi), discuss details of our favorite books with other fans, buy SF parphanalia, and watch various relevant films, both old and new. The hi-light of the event was the Hugo Awards voted on by the fans who attended at least one the WorldCons over the previous two years (vs the Nebula Award which is presented by the professional organization SFWA – Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). While WorldCons are held at locations throughout the United States and other countries, the 1974 WorldCon was held in Washington DC – DisCon. It was huge (centrally located so that both the Midwest and Northeast – including the NYC crowd – attended) and I was there. The handsome Andrew Offutt was the Toastmaster at the Hugo presentation. It was with the adulation of the science fiction crowd he felt a kinship.
While my viewpoint of the conventions, which I found exciting, and the author’s, who found them boring, did not merge, I still was brought back to my late teen years when I was immersed in the field of literature. Not only did I recognize the SF authors mentioned, I had also read and enjoyed some of Andrew Offutt’s works. My BA in English from UB and involvement in science fiction included a stint in organizing Anonycon I in Niagara Falls and Anonycon II in Buffalo. (Anonycon stood for Another New York Convention). My memory is fuzzy, but I remember Samuel R Delaney (Chip), a visiting professor at UB, was the guest of honor at the later event.
Needless to say, I disregarded the porn aspect of the story and focused on the SF tales. As far as the family dynamics, I believe Andrew truly loved his children, but that he had narcissistic tendencies along with a sort of OCD which made him an irascible, verbally abusive parent who demanded complete fidelity including an unrealistic stillness from his four young children while he worked in his Appalachian Kentucky home. His attraction to pornography only added to his unreasonable demands. My personal reflection is that what society considers the norm for sexuality, does not exist. The so-called variations and permentations, including homosexuality, transexuality, fetishes, BDSM, sadism, masichism, etc. are more common than admitted. Pornography has been around since biblical times and I agree with the elder Offutt that the fantasies serve a purpose, fulfilling a need and keeping the viewer/reader from acting on their impulses. I personally have no problem with porn, unless it involves any acts of pediphilia which I consider abhorrent. Luckily, Andrew Offutt kept his sexual encounters between adults. If you are picking up this book hoping for numerous erotic excerpts, you will be disappointed, although there are a few scenarios shared which I personally found disturbing.
At times this book reverted to a psychology session as the author tried to come to terms with his inability to connect with his dad. Even though Chris Offutt is also a published author talented with the written word (reflected in the easy, story-telling tone of this book), it was only through third party comments that he received evidence of his father’s approval. By taking on the archival task of cataloguing the entire 400+ collection of his father’s 1800 pounds of published and unpublished works (many of them written solely for private use), as well as a multitude of correspondence, Chris must also deal with his feelings towards the past, many of them negative. In the back of forth of his saga, he often gets up close and personal, sharing the good with the bad. Since the reader is asked to serve as therapist, my advice is to “let it go!”. At one point, an individual grows up and begins to take responsibility for their own actions, leaving parent/child relationships behind. The abuse, whether real or perceived, is in the past and with the death of a parent the past is moot – so move on and stop internalizing regrets.
So, My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir represents the reflections of Chris Offutt as he sorts through his father’s works, thinking back on his childhood and looking for positive experiences amongst the sad memories, ones which reflect his father’s love. Discussions with his widowed mother, who sold the family home and moved to be close to her son, fills in some of the blanks. The reader is brought along for the ride.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.