The Literary World’s Fascination With James Deen
If the internet itself hadn’t done the job already, last winter’s issue of GOOD magazine surely put porn star James Deen on the radar of every tote bag-laden liberal arts major this side (the south side, that is) of 14th Street. And while the profile gave fascinating light to the porn star’s cult following among teenage girls, it’s safe to say that between Wells Tower’s piece in this month’s GQ and the casting of Deen in Bret Easton Ellis’s new film The Canyons, the Jewish “boy next door” might have another prominent fan base: literary white males.
That’s not to say he is, or passes himself off as, particularly bright (Deen, on his ABC Nightline profile: “They could have made me look bad, between all my ramblings and the dumb shit that I say, and they didn’t.”). This affinity is mainly a cosmetic thing. The scrawny five-foot-eight fellow, who looks “like a guy a chick might actually meet in a bar,” is the closest proxy your average white boy has ever had in the porn world. And even if Deen himself never boasted any intellectual prowess, his real-life background sort of lines up: born Bryan Sevilla (he’s still Bryan Sevilla) in Pasadena, CA, both his parents worked at NASA. He claims to have pretty rationally decided, in kindergarten, that he wanted to do porn. Save for a brief stint with drug addiction, he slid into his profession the way any young “self-starter” might wind up in theirs. And again, just look at him. Better yet, Photoshop him into a picture with the editors of n+1—you wouldn’t think anything of it.
Wells Tower thus offers the perfect setup for this most recent profile: if you—reader, tweedy white male, evangelist for Everything Ravaged—could swap places with James Deen, would you?
That’s not to say Tower totally invented the premise. In many ways, it’s the bait used in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Boogie Nights, where the young Mark Wallberg, like Deen, is a handsome but unassuming Valley boy that just happens to pack an oversized member (okay, and freakishly strong abdominals). In a brilliant interview from 1998 on Hollywood Conversations, Anderson gave a thoughtful polemic against contemporary porn producers for denying the genre its place in the canon of mainstream cinematic art. Instead, he argued, they’ve churned out trash that’s distastefully removed from reality. “If you’re looking at it in a pure, hormonal boy way,” he said, “my hormones go to, ‘oh, she’s pretty.’ And no, she doesn’t have huge, enormous fake tits. Because it’s like watching science fiction—it’s a sci-fi movie at that point.” As opposed to, say, something from a John Updike story. “And the guys are not appealing in porno today,” he continued. “Looking at these people who are chiseled to perfection, there’s nothing to relate to.” Enter James Deen.
The other antecedent, you’d have to figure, is David Foster Wallace’s 1998 essay “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment” about the AVN awards, which also flirts with the question of, “Is this as fun as it looks?” (The answer is no). First off, they both lather on an SAT Verbal’s worth of euphemisms. Wallace: “Breasts are uniformly zeppelinesque and in various perilous stages of semiconfinement.” Tower: “Miss Jaymes is a ten-year vet whose huge blister-pack protrusions are somewhat at odds with her springbok svelteness.” For the lexically stimulated, that’s as masturbatory as it gets.
Moreover, it’s the tone of innocent-bookish-fellow-sent-to-“report”-on-porn that carries over from Wallace to Tower. At one point, in the middle of describing a “human centipede” scene between Deen, Proxy Paige, and Isis Love, Tower interjects, “Um, hey. You out there, do you seriously want me to keep describing this stuff? Really? Because it gets a lot worse from here.” It’s pretty considerate of him to throw that in there, much in the same way someone at your ice cream parlor asks if you’d like a mini spoon taste of the chocolate fudge brownie just so you can appear skeptical and discerning while everyone involved knows full well that you’d already planned to order four scoops of the stuff.
But the kicker is, if a quart of ice cream leaves you feeling queasy, what’s supposed to happen when you’ve watched this guy “in flagrant contravention of the USDA’s Safe Food Handling Fact Sheet, [plunge] his unwashed tuber straightaway into Proxy’s mouth”? What Tower lands on is what anyone lured in the by the idea of this boyish little ladykiller has to realize: what Deen does couldn’t be further removed from the reality of his persona’s true-life analogue. And nobody could be less equipped for that kind of emotionally detached sexual carnage than a young male who likes literature. Emotional sensitivity is our bread and butter, and whatever one’s “boy hormones” would have them believe, Deen’s lifestyle is not one to envy.
James Deen, sorry to say, is not the “boy next door.” He’s not a regular guy a chick might meet at a bar. He’s a star. He’s a big, bright, shining star. That’s right.