Monthly Archives: February 2016

Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

Chris Offutt’s memoir certainly has a catchy title: My Father, the Pornographer. It’s a very good book too. It’s a fairly typical memoir in a lot of ways, about an unhappy childhood and the writer’s vexed relationship with his father, and to a lesser extent with his mother. It’s about coming to terms with that childhood and, as he grew older, learning to see his father from an adult perspective and coming to understand how his father helped shape the person he is today. The book stands out because of its powerful writing; it’s simply and clearly written, catching in its straightforwardness and bluntness the force of his father’s personality and his own terror and anger in response.

His father was an obsessive writer; he produced hundreds of books, mostly pornographic novels, but also science fiction. Offutt’s parents became regulars at science fiction conventions, and his father collaborated with other well-known authors of his time. But he was a volatile man and ended up alienating most people he knew. He was verbally abusive to his family, and made his house a difficult place to be in once he quit his day job and began writing full time.

Much of the book is about Offutt’s efforts to clean out his father’s study, which contained a vast collection of pornographic writing, and to read and make sense of the work he produced. The story is as much about Offutt’s struggles through his task and his recovery afterwards as it is about his childhood — a childhood he spent roaming the woods of Kentucky to keep a safe distance away from his father.

I don’t think this book takes the memoir genre in a new direction, really, but to have produced a very good example of a story we are familiar with, at least in its rough outlines, is certainly an accomplishment. And Offutt’s father is a character who has lingered in my mind, a testament to Offutt’s skill with language.


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Reading Round-Up, 2/13/2016

The book I just finished last night and that is most on my mind is Ban En Banlieue, by Bhanu Kapil. I’m reading it now because it’s part of the Tournament of Books this year, but I had it on my mind to read even before that happened, I think because some writers I admire wrote about it glowingly. I … well, the book leaves me a little befuddled. It’s the kind of book that is impossible to categorize, hard to summarize, and tricky to describe. But I found myself absorbed in it. It’s sort of a novel, sort of not. More like notes towards a novel. It’s about the 1979 riots in London, and Ban is a fictional girl walking home when the riots begin. She lies down, knowing she is going to die. The book moves back and forth among various elements: Ban herself, as a girl and a metaphor for women’s experiences more broadly; the author trying to understand Ban by haunting the place she died, by taking Ban’s same position lying down on the road, and through performance art and writing; the author thinking about writing itself, what it can do and its relationship to the body; and stories of others who died or suffered violence because of political protests or simply because they were women. There are photographs throughout the book, and an extremely lengthy acknowledgments section that makes an implicit point about the value of communities of writers.

I was often uncertain of what I was reading, although there were moments that brought everything together. Mostly I admired it and liked the experience of working at figuring it out. It’s a hard book, but I think it rewards hard work. That said, I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of resistance to this book in the Tournament. It’s up against The Turner House, and my guess is that The Turner House will win. I’ve read both and liked both, and I don’t know which I’d vote for. They are just such very, very different books.

Other recent reading? I finished Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and I liked the experience of reading it. It was entertaining, interesting, an unusual way to tell a life story, and it did capture the author’s life well. I wanted something weightier, though, deeper, more moving. It was fine, just okay, a solid three-star book.

I also finished Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night on audio, and liked it very much — the story was moving, powerful, much more interesting than it has a right to be as a story about two older people finding companionship and dealing with small-town gossip. Haruf brought me into the life of his two characters so fully I came to care about their fates very much. It’s a story that can, if it reaches you in the right way, break your heart and make you love it. It’s also in the Tournament, up against The Whites, and although I haven’t read The Whites, I’m guessing the Haruf will win.

At the moment I’m in the middle of a memoir, Chris Offutt’s My Father: The Pornographer. It’s quite the title. More on that next time!


Filed under Books