Where to begin with Chris Offutt’s memoir My Father, the Pornographer? My simple advice: get the book and read it. You won’t be disappointed. I became a fan of Offutt’s work with his first book of short stories, Kentucky Straight, which I reviewed online leading to a short email correspondence and a failed attempt to get him to Alaska for a writer’s conference (our fault, not his)…so I expected the writing would be great. But the story is also fascinating: named his father’s executor, Chris inherits a ton (literally) of his papers and manuscripts and, as he goes through them, untangles the story of the mercurial, neurotic, talented and bitter man with whom he’d had such a difficult relationship while also learning more—maybe too much—about himself.
Chris’s father Andrew Offutt was a well-known science fiction writer, a fixture at sci-fi cons and president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He was also a pornography writing machine who published more than 400 porn novels under more than a dozen pen names. Offutt recalls a relatively happy childhood until his father decided to quit the insurance business and become a full-time writer. Some combination of personality and pressure transformed his father into a tyrannical presence with practically split personalities—Offutt recounts how his father’s personae as Cleve, the pornographer, became more real at times than his father’s own person—who became more and more disconnected from the human, familial world of his wife and children.
Offutt does a wonderful job telling many parallel stories: his father’s life as a writer—the sheer mechanics of which are fascinating, including a kind of paper database of phrases, descriptions, scenes and individual actions such as “tongue,” “kiss” and orgasm” that allowed him to, when pressed, write a book in three days, his and his family’s life in and around that vortex and finally his own life as a writer of stories, novels and television screenplays. Like all biographical stories, those of both of the Offutts are necessarily incomplete: his father’s story, in many ways, began with his death rather than ending there; Offutt’s own story is just getting started.