On Books That Make You Dumb, and Reading Pornographically

My friend Peter sent me a rather interesting link a few days ago: Books That Make You Dumb. The methodology is rather simple: Go to Facebook, download the top ten most popular books by college, look up the average SAT/ACT score for the various colleges, and plot the data on a chart. (The creator of the chart acknowledges that correlation != causation.)

Some of the trends are rather interesting.

1. The Holy Bible scores about 150 points lower than regular-flavor Bible, and 180 points lower than the Book of Mormon. I have ideas on why colleges in which the top-ranked books include The Holy Bible would indicate a lower average SAT score than colleges that list The Bible, but The Book of Mormon? I have no theories on that. I’m just intrigued.

2. A Time to Kill scores about 60 points lower than John Grisham in general, which is very amusing.

3. Books classified as Science Fiction and Classics dominate as the average SAT score goes up. This didn’t surprise me—white nerds, who are more likely to apply to top-tier colleges, are more likely to be exposed to and to love SF/F and Old White Dude fiction. I’m not entirely sure why The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is classified as SF, though—I would’ve classified it as Terrible New Age Pap myself. (No, I’m not terribly fond of Coelho’s work—too squishy for my tastes.) However, many other classifications in this chart puzzle me—Life of Pi is Philosophy instead of Contemporary Fiction?

4. The presence of Dystopian Fiction as its own classification in this chart is fascinating to me.

5. “I Don’t Read” outranks some amazing and amazingly literary books (The Color Purple, Fahrenheit 451, Their Eyes Were Watching God), street lit and erotica. Overwhelmingly, the bottom 12 spots are occupied by books written by and for African Americans. This says something interesting about the state of institutional prejudice, I think.

6. Zane has the honor of occupying three of the bottom 10 spots—in fact, the only three erotica classifications on this list are due to Zane.

And Zane brings me to something I’ve been pondering for the past few days. Peter, while discussing the results with me, couldn’t believe that people actually listed erotica (especially what was, in his opinion, very poorly-written erotica) among their favorite books with no shame whatsoever. An argument about whether or not we should feel embarrassed about the books we love took a left turn, and we found ourselves talking about the different ways we read, and that was when I clarified for myself, for the first time ever, the process of reading pornographically.

I’m not talking about the way I read porn—or at least, not exclusively. See, I don’t have “favorite porn writers” so much as I do “favorite scenarios.” The relatively few times I seek out written porn, very little is bad enough to shock me out of its intended purpose. I’m reading for an orgasm, not literary quality. And then I realized that I don’t just utilize this method for reading porn; I do this for certain types of genre fiction, too, though for somewhat different types of pay-off.

And then last weekend, when I listened to the Seattle Symphony play video game music themes, I came to realize several different things that helped flesh out this basic premise.

A lot of the music we listened to was mediocre. Most of it blurred together, in fact, partly because the majority of the program drew from RPGs for 32-bit systems released in the last 7 years or so. (Look! another stirring theme involving harps, airy synths and pan flutes!) Some of the music, however, perked my interest—the bits of music from Sonic, for example made me grin, and I felt 14 years old all over again. By far the most popular pieces were the themes for Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda; people actually hooted and whistled for those.

That was when I realized that the key to the enjoyment of this symphony was largely associative. All things being equal, the extent to which I enjoyed any particular piece of music from that concert was directly proportional to how much I’d played the game myself, and since the vast majority of the program involved games I’d never played (when it comes to video games, I mostly want to play games in which I get to beat people up under the guise of a sumo wrestler whose superpower is Slapping the Shit Out Of You Really Really Fast—I’m of the Mashing Buttons Randomly While Spewing Profanities school of video game playing), I was able to focus on the music, and found most of it kind of schmaltzy. The pieces I enjoyed, however, had the weight of positive associations going for them—all the fun hours I spent bouncing an Italian plumber’s head against boxes with question marks on them, or rolling a tiny blue hedgehog at insanely fast speeds to collect gold coins. Essentially, I was bringing as much, if not more, into the music as it was providing to me.

And I realized that the same applied to reading pornographically. I’ve heard some authors talking about how, when it comes down to it, most people, when they read for entertainment, read for plot and not for writing style. However, I’d argue that much of the time, we’re not even reading for plot—lots of wildly popular books feature inconsistent, silly or downright confusing plots. We’re reading for scenarios. We’re reading for the pay-off, the money shot (the boy gets the girl, or the boy solves the mystery, or the boy saves the world, or the boy gets an orgasm); we need only the barest outline from the author, and we supply much of the rest. Which is essentially a restatement of sorts of reader response criticism, but we’ll pretend that I’m being all clever and (kind of) original here, eh?

(Incidentally, this is part of the reason why written pornography works much more effectively for me—almost embarrassingly so, really—compared to movies or pictures. Written porn has to be pretty damn vile or poorly-written to shake me out of my fantasy, because my brain is supplying most of the necessary details, and I can selectively ignore the vast majority of any unappealing elements. I can’t ignore the details in a movie or a photo, however, because they’re right there—the unattractive actors, the atrocious acting, the non-existent production values.)

Interestingly enough, the genres in which I do most of this sort of reading are fantasy, romance and, well, porn. Pirate romances? Romances with cross-dressing protagonists? Fantasy novels featuring dragons? Books about a scrappy group of rag-tag misfits saving the world? HELL. FUCKING. YES. I almost never read pornographically when it comes to literary fiction, science fiction, mysteries or horror. I’m not sure what that says about me—or about the genre of fiction.


Random Musings

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  1. 1
    snarkhunter says:

    I have this whole comment about pornography, books, erotica, being embarrassed by erotica, etc., but I can’t seem to formulate it.

    So here’s the short version. Should they be embarrassed by reading Norman Mailer? His books contain pornographic sections—and not in the yayhappyfun orgasms way, IMHO. More in the “let’s get off on our mutual hatred of women by totally objectifying and degrading them” way. Why is that kind of “literary” (read: male) “erotic” writing not something to be embarrassed by?

    Why can’t I ever remember how to spell embarassed? One R? Two? How many degrees in English do I have?

  2. 2
    Candy says:

    In terms of labeling Norman Mailer erotica, here are two questions I have:

    1. Do the pornographic sections make up the majority of the scenes?

    2. Are the sex scenes explicitly meant to get us off?

    Sex scenes which are supposed to further character development by showing us how or why they get off are more socially acceptable than sex scenes which are supposed to allow the readers to get off. There’s still a great deal of cultural shame in masturbation, or admitting to experiencing sexual pleasure while reading a book/watching a movie. Head too stuffy to make any sort of intelligent analysis at the moment, but I’ll be interested to read what other people have to say.

  3. 3

    I think you have just provided the best argument why bad writing sells in any genre.  If you think of someone reading for a particular scenario, a lot of puzzling things start making sense. (How many Tolkien rip-offs can there be?  How come Cassie Edwards is a best-seller?)

  4. 4
    Gemma says:

    I can’t ignore the details in a movie or a photo, however, because they’re right there—the unattractive actors, the atrocious acting, the non-existent production values.

    This is how I feel about reading Message from Nam by Danielle Steel, versus watching the made-for-TV version.

    The quality of writing that I demand from a romance is a little higher than the quality I demand from erotica I’m reading to get a warm buzz, and a lot higher than the quality I can quite happily get off on when reading porn for orgasms.

    And yes, I do often search out things to read based on specific scenarios. I love the Special Title Listings at All About Romance, and have often searched out books on the pages about my favourite plot elements. And when surfing for porn, story codes are a must (e.g. if I want mf, I will avoid something marked f/mfff; also known as not buying a pig in a poke).

  5. 5
    RfP says:

    Candy: the key to the enjoyment of this symphony was largely associative….. I was bringing as much, if not more, into the music as it was providing to me…. I’d argue that much of the time… we need only the barest outline from the author, and we supply much of the rest.

    Candy, that’s interesting to hear from a video game/porn perspective.  I trod a similar path a few months ago, though I couched it as reading for nostalgia, and I was riffing on a story on comic book culture.  It’s all of a piece, isn’t it.

    I’ll quote myself:

    The comics collecting market was called the “nostalgia market” at first…. In mainstream comics, nostalgie de la boue manifests itself as stories whose main point is to trigger nostalgic responses in their older readers—forgotten Golden Age characters being trotted out—Douglas Wolk

    “Nostalgia” means, literally, a longing to return home. The word was originally a medical term for “physical and emotional upheaval… related to the workings of memory”. If nostalgia arises from a sense of longing, then in a sense, much of romance reading is nostalgic. We sometimes read to reexperience a specific feeling—not for a new experience or to learn someone else’s story….

    Character-driven genre fiction is the perfect medium for nostalgic reading: (1) it provides familiar structures or situations that we know will tug at our emotions in particular ways (see Sarah Frantz on reader expectations), and (2) it provides well-developed characters with whom we can identify, increasing our chances of an emotional response—if not by placeholding then by reader identification (see Laura Vivanco on reader response theory).

  6. 6
    willaful says:

    The concept of “reading pornogrpahically” fits in nicely with a concept I’ve been working on about reading category romances in a different way than I read other romances.  It’s all about the orgasm – or category romance equivalent thereof.  (Though I actually still can’t read really poorly written category romances, but that’s besides the point. I can overlook or even appreciate any amount of ridiculous or even offensive nonsense.)

  7. 7
    J.C. Wilder says:

    Since I became a writer, I can’t read any badly written books. Poor grammar or bad transitions have me tossing books to the floor.

    As for Zane, I haven’t read any but I hear she is wildly popular. IMHO, standard readers of erotica (not erotic romance) have lower expectations – they’re only in it for the gratification.

    The same doesn’t apply to erotic romance readers. Most of them expect a well-crafted plot to go with their sex. :)

  8. 8
    fiveandfour says:

    I’ve been struggling with myself and this concept of enjoying things because they include *my* scenarios for some years now.  Bands I should think are ripping off others because of a particular sound I love – but I give them a pass because they’re making that sound in a different way than the original band.  Books I should think are awful because there are plot points that make no sense and the writing is mediocre – but I continue reading and maybe even keep them because the theme pushes my buttons.

    I think I first noticed the sounds and the themes (or whatever that applies to that type of art) when thinking about what I’d recommend to others.  Many times, when I attempt to step back and try to figure out how this friend or that acquaintance would think of it I’d realize they’d no doubt hate it.  And their hatred would be perfectly justified and it was only getting a pass from me because of that one thing it was doing.

    I think I’ve finally given in and decided to go with it.  These might be the things that are my ultimate guilty pleasures in that, objectively, I shouldn’t like them and should perhaps feel some guilt for furthering the career of someone who might not deserve it all that much (and I should probably never admit I even like them), but they give me pleasure so they get the green light from me.

    And finally, on the topic of erotica and porn, thanks to some recent research into why written erotica works for me far more than visual (by “research”, I mean haunting of sites like YouPorn for a few days), I came to the conclusion that I just find the visual stuff boring.  Some time ago there was an article in Playboy that touched on how the guys cutting porn scenes together into movies were completely unaffected sexually by what they were seeing.  The various things became no more exciting to them than watching a dentist clean someone’s mouth – it was just people doing stuff so far as they were concerned.  I found I took it pretty much the same way.  In part, I believe, because most of the things I came across were designed for male pleasure over female pleasure.  For example, in all of the stuff I saw, I’d say I came across roughly 3 men showing even the slightest appreciation or enthusiasm for the fact that they had a partner in what they were doing.  For the most part, the females invoked no more consideration in these guys than I imagine some random, inanimate mastubatory object would excite.  This is in no way exciting to me.  I think that element is included in written erotica that’s missing in visual porn: there’s some evidence that the people doing all of these intimate things with one another appreciate that they are intimate things and act accordingly.  In short, I suppose it’s a matter of written erotica allowing for the concept of emotion being included in the sexual act whereas visual porn doesn’t work on that level.

    I put it down to the differences in what works sexually for the average man vs. the average woman – which may be a cop out as far as reasoning goes, but it does appear to have some basis in fact given the markets that buy into these different art forms.

  9. 9
    fiveandfour says:

    Crap!  No preview button!  I intended to edit all that above; sorry ‘bout the rambling.

  10. 10
    snarkhunter says:

    Candy, you’re absolutely right about erotica and Mailer. I was being utterly unclear. His work is not erotica or even porn, though I maintain there are sections that are pornographic in the worst possible ways.

    I guess my point was more along the lines of “shouldn’t people be more ashamed of liking something that reads like a justification for spousal abuse than some kind of ‘mutual’ erotic fantasy that is there for their pleasure?” but it’s such a slippery slope to “don’t read [these books] b/c they’re obscene,” and…yeah, I just don’t want to go there.

    Mostly, I’m feeling anti-Norman Mailer today and wanted to take it out somewhere. :D (Been reading Kate Millett again, see…)

  11. 11
    SonomaLass says:

    Candy’s post rings absolutely true to me.  When I am reading for pleasure, the type of “pleasure” I’m seeking makes a big difference in what works for me.  Sometimes terrific writing is what I’m wanting, sometimes it’s nostalgia (I’m a sucker for re-reading favorites in several genres), sometimes I’m looking for upbeat happy endings, sometimes I need a strong female protagonist kicking arse—the list is long, and of course it includes those times when I’m reading pornographically, as Candy describes. Each time, what I’m seeking makes a difference in how I define “good.”

    Same is true in other areas of entertainment—‘tis why I watch TV almost exclusively by recording, so I can watch what I’m craving.

    I have a whole other set of thoughts about those college book lists.  I may have to survey my own students to see what I get!

  12. 12
    Alyc says:

    Mmmmmm… Romances with cross-dressing protagonists.  Where do I sign up?

    I don’t suppose anyone here has ever compiled a list?  I’m feeling the sudden urge to imagine young Tilda Swinton in regency breeches.

  13. 13
  14. 14
    Ehren says:

    mmm now that is an interesting trend. Most of the books I like are all listed in the middle to higher levels, but not the highest levels. haha…

    Given I don’t really get all that into porn, though I suppose one could call my stuff sort of trashy in that sense. (And yes, whenever I read one of these I start thinking about how I write for the future. I fully intend on publishing either novels or comics or both one day. In the mean time, I’ve got lots of fanfiction I have to get out of my head before I go crazy.) I can see why one would be embarrassed to be seen reading a porn novel, but since to me my porn novel is a good historical medieval romance novel or a fantasy romance novel, that probably doesn’t say much for what gets my attention. XD

  15. 15

    “Written porn has to be pretty damn vile or poorly-written to shake me out of my fantasy, because my brain is supplying most of the necessary details, and I can selectively ignore the vast majority of any unappealing elements.”

    For me, alas, the writing in erotica/smut/porn is extremely important, because after so many years of writing that sort of thing, I’m hyperaware of style.  It’s really hard for me to read porn, well, pornographically.  Only a very few authors can transcend my overly-critical brain.

  16. 16

    This is really interesting.  I’m taking a class right now on sexual tension in writing and the instructor brought out a very valid point in writing. 

    Biologically what we are designed to look for and want in a sexual partner to reproduce the species is different for men and women.

    Yes, we both want a physically appealing mate.  But women also look for someone who can be there to partner (provide, protect in biological sense of survivial of the species).  Whereas men are looking for a prime breeder (evidenced by smooth skin, nice breasts, absence of wrinkles and a firm body).

    What takes their act from a string of insert piece A into slot B is the emotional reaction and the physical reaction people have to one another.  Otherwise it is just like the porn movie where neither character is really interacting or interested in how they are imapcting the other person.  Description of the act isn’t the key. 

    In fact most of the 12 steps of intimacy people engage in to get to the sex 75% of it can be done in public.  The looks, the touches, the voice, and yes the imagination of what it might be like.  All of those excite a certain reaction.

    As readers we want and crave that emotional reaction.

  17. 17
    NHS says:

    I’d like to say that I completely agree with the majority preferring written erotica to visual with ONE exception – Jean Val Jean. No not from Le Mes but the French born porn star of the same name. http://i3.photobucket.com/albums/y70/Celtnhs/avi/Jean2.jpg
    But ONLY in vignettes produced by digital playground and directed by Celeste.  That man does it for me every time.*sigh*

  18. 18
    Harlequin says:

    While I don’t think I’ve every read erotica (the closest I’ve come *tee-hee* is probably Kushiel’s Dart?), I certainly wouldn’t be averse to reading well-written porn for masturbation or lovemaking or whatever. One of the big differences for me between visual porn and written porn is that at least I know the written characters haven’t been forced into it for whatever reason or aren’t being psychologically scarred by being a porn actress or actor. I can enjoy the buzz without thinking anyone suffered for my pleasure!

  19. 19
    papertiger says:

    Wow, Candy’s post puts a lot of the pieces together about why I love genre fiction/movies so much – I can read/watch SF or fantasy or romance till the cows come home but I have to be in a certain mood to handle “art” film or literature. Not that I don’t appreciate it but it’s so much work for so little “reward” (the “money shot” Candy was talking about).

    RfP also hit it right on with the comment about “nostalgia” – I definitely am attracted to stories with characters that I either identify with or would like to be. On the other hand, the quality of the writing/acting/directing whatever has to be good to great for me to really enjoy something, otherwise I’m like “meh, I have better things to spend my life on.”

    This also explains why one person’s “porn”, whether of the literal sexual variety or the me-I-want-to-be type, just doesn’t interest some people. It has to flip some subconscious switch for you to get turned on.

  20. 20
    NHS says:

    papertiger’s post brings to mind my favorite Jane Austen Quote “One Half of the World can not understand the pleasures of the other”

  21. 21
    MT says:

    This has nothing to do with anything, but…

    Mitch Albom = philosophy?!?!

    Kierkegaard farts in your general direction!

  22. 22
    Amy says:

    I actually have a very random idea that could be cool.

    you know the finger to lips shh motion?

    well, the primary image it could be a hand holding a compact and in the compact’s mirror the reflection is an interesting cropping of the finger to the lips…

    it could be done with either photography or illustration and be very cute!

  23. 23
    Amy says:

    Oops – I mean to post that comment to a different post – please disregard!

  24. 24

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