I Wrote 150 Porno Novels in Five Years
In an excerpt from 'Sin-a-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties,' the legendary science fiction writer Robert Silverberg divulges how he and other authors learned to write smut.
The following is an excerpt from 'Sin-a-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties,' a new anthology about the smut-filled porno novels that sold by the millions throughout the decade. In the following essay, Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer Robert Silverberg divulges how he and other authors learned their sleaze craft. 'Sin-a-Rama' is out now through Feral House publishing.
This is how I might write it if I were writing it today:
"Come on," she said, her green eyes wild with hunger for it. "Are you ready to fuck or aren't you?"
Her clothes dropped away and instantly, at the sight of her full, hard-nippled breasts and the dense, dark thatch of hair at the base of her belly, his cock sprang up into aching rigidity. She grinned and came toward him and knelt before him, slipping one hand under his balls and grasping his stiff shaft with the other.
"Go on," Holman said hoarsely. "Suck it! Oh, Jesus, suck it, babe!"
She tickled the tip of his dick with her tongue and rubbed it voluptuously for a moment or two between the heavy mounds of her tits, and then her lips slid over him and she took him into her mouth. Deep. Amazingly deep. And moved slowly back and forth, back and forth, wringing moans from him, driving him wild with sensation. Her mouth was as soft and as sweet as a velvet cunt. She squeezed his balls lightly as she sucked. He could feel the jism starting to pulse within him, on the verge of leaping forth into her throat. But then she pulled back and spread herself for him, and an instant later, to his amazement and delight, his hard cock was plunging into the hot, throbbing depths of her moist pussy, and—
The year was 1959, though, and the American government's ideas of what was permissible to print and sell through normal commercial channels was very different, so this is what I actually wrote:
She undid the garter-belt herself, and rolled down the stockings, and then she was nude, and he stood up, dropping his trousers, and she reached out and caught his arm and pulled him down again, and they rolled off the couch together, down onto the carpeted floor.
For what might have been an hour they lay there, side by side, lips glued, hands roaming up and down bodies, breath coming shorter and shorter. Holman opened his eyes and saw her staring at him, her eyes moist and the pupils that peculiar shade of green again. He smiled into her eyes and brought his fingers lightly down the small of her back, pausing at the dimples just above her firm, swelling buttocks.
It was like pulling a trigger. She began to gasp excitedly, and she dragged him over on top of her, her eyes going tight shut, her lips drooping open, moist and passionate.
"Now, darling! Take me now!"
She shuddered convulsively as the moment of union came. Her thighs tightened around him, and she began to writhe and moan—an animal moan, low and deep in her throat, coming from the same place that those deep, sad blues came from.
Holman clenched his teeth and gripped her shoulders tight, and she cried out three times, a whimper of excitement following, and then they were thundering away together on a tornado of passion, and she dug her fingernails into the skin of his back and gasped out breathlessly, "Oh oh oh oh," and Holman felt the explosion in his loins, and then they were lying quietly all of a sudden, limp and sweat-soaked, and he could feel the pounding of her heart when he touched her breasts, and the fireworks stopped.
It was over.
Hot stuff, yes? Well, actually it is, in its quaint fashion. No tits or cocks or cunts are mentioned, or any other nasty Anglo-Saxon words, no clits, no moist pussies, no vivid descriptions whatsoever of genital organs, erect or otherwise—not even of pubic hair; and an orgasm isn't a fountain of hot jism or anything else anatomically specific, it's a metaphorical "explosion in the loins." People don't fuck or screw, they experience "union." The tone is very antiseptic, almost prim, you would say. Even so, all the basic ingredients of the good old beast with two backs are there, the moans and groans, whimpers of excitement, and, yes, the explosion in the loins—everything you would want in a scene describing passionate sex, if you were living in 1959.
This was, in fact, the opening erotic passage in Love Addict, published by Nightstand Books of Chicago in October of that year—the first of about 150 novels of what we now would regard as very innocent softcore porn that I would write over the next five years for Nightstand under the pseudonym of "Don Elliott."
That's right. 150 full-length novels in five years. 30 a year, better than one every two weeks, month in and month out, between 1959 and 1964. Written on a manual typewriter, no less. (There were no computers then, not even IBM Selectric typewriters.) Other writers whose names would surprise you very much were turning the books out at almost the same sizzling pace. We were fast in those days. But of course we were very young.
I was 24 years old when I stumbled, much to my surprise, into a career of writing sex novels. I was then, as I am now, primarily known as a science-fiction writer. But in 1958, as a result of a behind-the-scenes convulsion in the magazine-distribution business, the whole s-f publishing world went belly up. A dozen or so magazines for which I had been writing regularly ceased publication overnight; and as for the tiny market for s-f novels (two paperback houses and one hardcover) it suddenly became so tight that unless you were one of the first-magnitude stars like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov you were out of luck.
'Spicy Meatball Swap' by H.C. Hawkes cover art by Robert Bonfils
I had been earning a very nice living writing s-f since my graduation from college a few years earlier. I had a posh five-room apartment on Manhattan's exclusive West End Avenue ($150 a month rent—a fortune then!), I had fallen into the habit of spending my summer vacations in places like London and Paris, I ate at the best restaurants, I was learning something about fine wines. And suddenly two thirds of the magazines I wrote for were out of business, with a slew of older and better established writers competing for the few remaining slots.
But I was fast on my feet, and I had some good friends. One of them was Harlan Ellison, a science-fiction writer of my own age, who—seeing the handwriting on the wall in the s-f world—had left New York to accept a job in Chicago as editor of Rogue, an early men's magazine that was trying with some success to compete with its crosstown neighbor, Playboy. The publisher of Rogue was William L. Hamling, a clean-cut young Chicago suburbanite whose first great love, like Harlan's and mine, had been science fiction. Bill Hamling had published an s-f magazine called Imagination, which bought one of my first stories in 1954. From 1956 on, he had paid me $500 a month to churn out epics of the spaceways for him on a contract basis. Now, though, Imagination was gone, and Hamling's only remaining publishing endeavor was his bi-monthly girlie magazine.
Harlan, soon after going to work for him, convinced Bill that the future lay in paperback erotic novels. Hamling thought about it for about six minutes and agreed. And then Harlan called me.
"I have a deal for you, if you're interested," he said. "One sex novel a month, 50,000 words. $600 per book. We need the first one by the end of July."
It was then the beginning of July. I didn't hesitate. $600 a month was big money in those days, especially when you were a young writer at your wits' end because all your regular markets had crashed and burned. One book would pay four months' rent. They were going to publish two paperbacks a month, and I was being offered a chance to write half the list myself. "You bet," I said. By the end of July, Harlan had Love Addict—a searing novel of hopeless hungers, demanding bodies, girls trapped in a torment of their own making, et cetera, et cetera. (I'm quoting from the jacket copy.)
Bill Hamling loved Love Addict. By return mail came my six hundred bucks and a request for more books. I turned in Gang Girl in September. I did The Love Goddess in October. Later that month I wrote Summertime Affair also. Two novels the same month? Why not? I was fast, I was hungry, I was good.
In October, also, the first two Nightstand Books went on sale—mine and something called Lust Club, by another young writer who also was making a quick adaptation to changes in his writing markets. His book, like mine, was really pretty tame stuff. What we were writing, basically, were straightforward novels of contemporary life, with very mild interludes of sexual activity every 20 or 30 pages. But the characters actually did go to bed with each other, and we did try to describe what they were doing and how they felt in as much detail as the government would allow.
At that time, fairly rigid censorship still prevailed in American publishing. It was illegal to publish or sell such classics of erotic literature as Tropic of Cancer or Lady Chatterley's Lover, and even the presence of words like "fuck" or "cunt" in a book could bring its publisher a call from the district attorney's office. To a reading public eager for vicarious sexual thrills, Bill Hamling's Nightstand Books, which were openly and widely distributed, offered a commodity that was in instant and enormous demand. Incredible quantities of the first two books were sold. It was impossible to reprint them fast enough. Hamling sent me a bonus of $200 for each book I had written thus far, and raised my price to $800 from then on. And he decided to publish four titles a month instead of two. "Can you possibly write two books a month for us?" he asked.
'Mata Harlot' by Gregg Stevens, cover artist unknown 1969
A Nightstand Book, you understand, was a 212-page double-spaced manuscript. I was setting myself up for an unthinkable amount of typing—not to mention the problem of inventing plots, characters, setting, all that stuff. But I didn't hesitate to say yes. I could type quickly and I could think quickly. And I had arrived at a perfect formula for these books. They were stories about ordinary people who were in the grip of powerful sexual obsessions that got them into trouble.
What I did was take a sympathetic character (male or female, it made no difference) who has normal, healthy sexual desires that are somehow being frustrated—the hard-working husband who suddenly feels a powerful need to have an affair, the woman who unexpectedly discovers that drinking too much makes her want to let go of her sexual inhibitions, with all the risk that that involves. Remove the frustration. But the fulfillment of the desires leads to complications and then more complications, which create tensions that can best be satisfied by more sex, and so on and on, in and out of bed and in and out of trouble, until in the end everything is resolved and the protagonist's life shows signs of becoming calmer.
Any setting would do. I just had to pick my characters and set them in motion against a vivid background. I told tales of illicit goings on at plush Caribbean resorts, of high school kids learning what to do with their bodies, of suburban swap clubs. Where I could make use of my own experiences, such as they had been at the age of 25 or so, I did. The rest I spun out of whole cloth, or out of my own teeming, steamy fantasies. (I had grown up in the repressed 50s, and had plenty to fantasize about.)
I wrote Pawn of Lust and Nudist Camp in November, 1959. I wrote Warped Lusts and Suburban Wife in December. January produced only Sin on Wheels, but in February came Sin Ranch and Trap of Desire. And so on and so on, month after month. Each book took me exactly six days: one chapter of 16–18 pages before lunch, one of 16–18 pages after lunch, 12 chapters and 212 pages in all. No book came out short and none, of course, ran long: I became adept in moving my characters around in such a way that the climax of the plot always arrived on schedule in Chapter Twelve. The books sold well and more retroactive bonuses were paid me for the early titles. Now I was getting $1200 a book for the new ones. That was an income of better than a thousand dollars a week at a time when dinner for two at the finest restaurant in New York cost about $40, including a bottle of first-rate French wine. My new career in pornography was rapidly making me rich.
I felt absolutely unabashed about what I was doing. Writing was my job, and I was working hard and telling crisp, exciting stories. What difference did it make, really, that they were stories about people caught in tense sexual situations instead of people exploring the slime-pits of Aldebaran IX? I experienced the joy—and there is one, believe me—of working hard and steadily, long hours sitting at a typing table under the summer sun, creating scenes of erotic tension as fast as my fingers could move. Of course, what I was writing was not "respectable," not even slightly, and so when people asked me what I did for a living I told them I was a science-fiction writer. (I was still writing some of that, too, as a sideline.) I could hardly tell my neighbors in my elegant suburban community that I was a professional pornographer.
But was I really writing pornography?
Not if the use of "obscene" words or graphic physiological description is your definition of pornography. As the sample I quoted above should show, the stuff was really laughably demure. Everything was done by euphemism and metaphor. No explicit anatomical descriptions were allowed, no naughty words. About as far as you could go was a phrase like "they were lying together, and he felt the urgent thrust of her body against him, and his aroused maleness was penetrating her, and he felt the warm soft moist clasping and the tightening..."
'Mistress of Satan's Roost' by Jack Kahler, cover artist unknown 1967
Unmistakably these people are Doing It. But his "maleness" is what's penetrating her, not his cock or his prick or his dick, and something is clasping and tightening, presumably a vagina, but we aren't told that in so many syllables. Characters didn't "come" —they reached "the moment of ecstasy." Men had neither cocks nor balls; they had "loins." Foreplay was a matter of cupping breasts and letting a hand "slip lower on her body." Anal sex? No such concept. Dildos and other sex toys? Forget it. Oral sex was indicated by saying, "He kissed her here and he kissed her there, and then he kissed her there." And so forth. None of it was much spicier than Peter Rabbit.
I limited myself to words that were in the dictionary because I had been warned at the outset that the publisher would not tolerate what he termed "vulgarisms" in the books. One reason for this was that he genuinely didn't like them—he was basically a very earnest and straight type of guy, who would much rather have been publishing science fiction—but also he knew that might very well go to jail if he started printing them. Jail, yes—no matter what the First Amendment might say. (And eventually he did, many years later—not for publishing sexy novels, but for violating the postal code by sending an advertisement for an illustrated history of erotic art and literature through the mails!)
The list of what was a "vulgarism," though, kept changing in line with various court actions and rulings affecting Nightstand's competitors in the rapidly expanding erotic-book business. All across the nation, bluenosed civic authorities were trying to stamp out this new plague of smut. Whenever a liberal-minded judge threw out a censor's case, the word came down to us that we could take a few more risks in what we wrote, although our prose remained exceedingly pure by later publishing standards. And whenever some unfortunate publisher was hit by a fine, the word was passed to the little crew of Nightstand regulars that we had to try to be more proper.
One day the word "it" became a vulgarism. "It" as in "'Do it,' she cried," I mean. By this time Harlan Ellison had moved along to Hollywood, and my Nightstand editor in Chicago was Algis Budrys, another top science-fiction writer who had found it necessary after the s-f crash to switch from freelance writing to editing. Budrys phoned me to say that I must restrict my use of "it" from now on. I took a look at a recently published book of mine and saw that they had indeed changed all my "it"s to "that"s, creating stuff like: "Do that,' she cried. 'I want that! I want that!'"
This sounded nuts to me, and I told Budrys I would refuse to abide by it. To prove it, I turned in a book in which "it" was just about every other word: "Give it to me! I want it! It! It! I must have it!" I was the star of the line, the first and most reliable and prolific writer they had, and I got my way. "It" was removed from the list of vulgarisms.
'Donnie and Clyde' by Sam Dodd, cover art by Darrel Millsap 1968
By this time—it was about 1962—I was turning out three Nightstand books a month. It was a fantastic amount of work to do, but I had no choice. Like many writers (Sir Walter Scott, for example, or Mark Twain) I had gone in for owning fancy real estate. I had bought myself an enormous mansion in the finest residential neighborhood of New York City, close to the Westchester County line, for the immense sum (then) of $80,000. The place had 20 rooms, all of which needed to be painted and furnished, and then too I had to think about the heating bill, property taxes, etc., etc. So I upped the output. The record for June, 1962, for example, shows Unnatural, Illicit Joys, and The Flesh is Willing—a typically productive month. That month the plumbing in the house broke down and I remember a team of five plumbers digging around in the back yard, simply trying to locate the water main, while I sat upstairs trying to turn out words fast enough to earn more than their combined hourly rate. And did.
One way I managed to keep up this amazing level of output was to assemble a sheaf of what I called "modules"—prefabricated sex scenes that I could simply plug into any book. Plots and characters had to change from book to book, of course, but under the highly restrictive rules we were forced to use there were only so many ways to describe what my people were up to in bed, and so I extracted relevant scenes from my books—a basic seduction scene, a copulation scene, a voyeurism scene, a rape scene, a lesbian scene, and so on—and recycled them into the new manuscripts in the appropriate places, as needed. Nobody ever objected. (If computers had existed then, I could have done it all with a single keystroke. Instead I had to type it all out, over and over.)
The Nightstand line now was running to eight or ten books a month, maybe more, and as the list grew, a lot of other clever young men joined the roster of writers. (Entry to the list was by invitation only—the publisher didn't want to deal with amateurs, only with crafty young pros.) In an insecure career like freelance writing, those guaranteed monthly checks were very tempting. You would probably be astonished at how many eventually-famous writers were among my colleagues at Nightstand. We were like a bunch of future major-leaguers getting a chance to sharpen our skills in Triple-A minor-league baseball.
I won't name names, because it's not my place to do so. But I can tell you that two of today's most widely admired mystery novelists, now enormously popular and successful, were Nightstand regulars under the names of "Andrew Shaw" and "Alan Marshall." Their work for Nightstand usually had a broadly comic touch, which mine never did. (Sex was always Serious Stuff to me.) Another, who wrote under the name of "J.X. Williams," became a major best-selling author of historical novels, specializing in American history, and I mean major. The author of the "Don Bellmore" books went on to a career as a Hollywood writer. "Clyde Allison" was the pseudonym used by a brilliant young mainstream novelist who died of alcoholism while still in his thirties. And, though I have no proof of this, I was told on good authority long ago that one of the Nightstand writers was a man who was already a best-selling author even then, and who was knocking out Nightstands on the side for the fun of it, without his wife's knowledge (or his regular publisher's) and having the payments sent to the mistress he was keeping.
We were all working hard, and having fun, and making plenty of money. (So was the publisher, who left Chicago for a Palm Springs estate.) Of course, all sorts of governmental units right up to the Federal level were trying to put us out of business, and there were indictments all over the place, and a nasty censorship trial in Houston. Since we writers worked under pseudonyms, and got our checks from a dummy corporation, we weren't involved in that. But one day the FBI came to talk to me. It was all very silly. I received them in the paneled library of my imposing mansion.
We chatted about my writing—my science fiction writing. I showed them a few recent books on archaeology and science for young readers I had written—I was doing that too, in my spare time, and I just happened to have the books close at hand. The word "pornography" was never mentioned. They did ask me if I had ever done business with a company called Such-and-Such Enterprises. Evidently that was one of the dummy corporations that paid the writers for the Nightstand Lines; but it so happened that my checks came from This-and-That Enterprises instead, a different dummy corporation, and the nice FBI men had gotten things mixed up. "No," I said, absolutely truthfully. "I've never done business with Such-and-Such. I've never even heard of them." And that was that. The FBI men left, probably thinking there was some case of mistaken identity here, and no one ever bothered me again.
'No Virgins in Cham Ky' by John Dexter, cover art by Robert Bonfils 1967
But I did stop writing for Nightstand a year or so later—not because I was afraid of more government harassment, but because after 150 erotic novels in five years, I was getting pretty tired of marching my characters in and out of bedrooms. I wanted to get back to the intellectual challenge of science fiction, which was making a strong commercial recovery after its slump of the late 50s.
And my non-fiction books on archaeology and science were very successful too; I wanted time to do more of those. So in a final flurry—E for Eros, One Night Stand, Sin Kitten—I went out of the business of writing erotic novels.
But I have no regrets about those five years in the sex-book factory—none. I don't think any of us who wrote Nightstands do. It isn't just that I earned enough by writing them to pay for that big house and my trips to Europe. I developed and honed important professional skills, too, while I was pounding out all those books.
Working at fantastic speeds (I once did a complete novel in three and one-half days, just to see if I could) we mastered the knack of improvising plots from scratch and making everything work out neatly at the required 50,000-word length: a wonderful exercise in structural discipline that has stood me in good stead ever since. There was no time to make mistakes: we had to get it right on the first draft, and we did, telling good stories in crisp, no-nonsense prose. And because we worked under pen names, we were free to let all inhibitions drop away and push our characters to their limits, without worrying about what anyone else—friends, relatives, book reviewers— might say or think about our work. We had ourselves a ball, and got paid nicely while we were doing it.
And also we never forgot that we were doing the fundamental thing that writers are supposed to do: providing pleasure and entertainment for readers who genuinely loved our work. Huge numbers of the books were snapped up as fast as they came from the presses, which meant that they filled a need, that somebody appreciated them a whole lot. It meant something to me to know that my novels were brightening the lives of a vast host of people in those dim dark days of 30-plus years ago when puritanism was riding high and sex was in chains.
150 novels! Passion Patsy! Flesh Flames! Sin Hellion! The Orgy Boys! Writing those books was a terrific experience and I look back fondly on it without shame, without apologies.
'Sin-a-Rama' is out now through Feral House publishing. To order a copy or learn more about the anthology, visit their website here.