Letter 3: “Big Red Son” from Consider the Lobster


Disclaimer:  “Big Red Son” is DFW’s coverage for Premiere Magazine of the Annual Adult Video News Awards in 1998 in Las Vegas.  Although there are some intriguing observations and truths concerning human nature to be found in the essay, which will be discussed in this letter, the reader must wade through a lot of smut to find it.  Reader be warned if you decide to read the original piece.

Dear Mr. Wallace,

When I teach my students to write an essay, I always emphasize the importance of their hook, or attention grabber, in their introductory paragraphs.  I liken those first few sentences to the 30-second free preview of a song offered by iTunes.  The record producer – or whoever is in charge of selecting the half-minute bait – has only that short amount of time to convince the listener to spend 99¢ of their hard-earned money on a particular track.  Those thirty seconds can determine whether a song goes triple-platinum or recycled aluminum.

In the same way, I tell my students, the first couple of sentences can make or break an essay.  If you don’t grab your reader’s attention right from the start, you’ve wasted your time in writing the rest.  The reader will most likely be bored and not really care what you have to say.[1]

I can see that your English teachers passed along similar advice to you.  One of the classic attention grabbers is the “unusual or bizarre fact.”  I can’t think of a more unusual or bizarre fact than statistics from the American Academy of Emergency Medicine about the number of self-castrations that occur in the United States every year.[2]  Mission accomplished:  you got me hooked; I’m interested in what you have to say.

But it did leave me wondering, why start the essay with this fact?  Or more importantly, why start the book this way?  You have a number of great essays in this collection; why start with this one?  Was it your choice?  Your editor’s or publisher’s?  I realize sex sells, but really?  Self-castration?

You then move on to the actual topic of the essay: your coverage of the 1998 Adult Video News Awards for Premiere Magazine.  About halfway through the essay, I thought back to the opening paragraph and wondered, what the Sam Hill is the connection between that AAVNA’s and one to two dozen adult males castrating themselves every year?

At the end of your opening lines, you promise those tormented souls who are contemplating doing that to themselves an alternative.  That alternative is presented in footnote three, in which you calculate the amount of time it would take for a single person to watch of the 8000 adult videos released in 1997 in order to come up with nominations for the 106 awards to be given at that year’s awards ceremony.  As you say – and I can only imagine this would be correct – watching that much porn would take away every sexual desire and impulse a person could possibly have, and therefore take away the desire for self-castration.

But I don’t think that watching 1.4 years of non-stop porn as an alternative to self-castration is the main point of your essay.[3]  I wonder if you are perhaps trying to make some connection between the realities of the adult video industry and unattainable fantasies that lead to acts of self-mutilation.  Could the one be a contributing factor to the other?

In describing the starlets who saunter about the Las Vegas hotels and convention halls during the Awards weekend, you capture in microcosm the entirety of the adult film industry.  You describe (sometimes very vividly) how with four-inch stiletto heels and cleavage-revealing spandex bodysuits and perfectly made-up faces, these “actresses” are every man’s dream from a distance, but “on closer inspection [are] dry and dead” (13).  It seems, from your descriptions of the events of the Awards weekend, that the same could be said about just about everything in the industry.  It is, as I have heard other things described, “good from afar, but far from good.”

And perhaps that is the initial draw of pornography.  On the surface, and from a distance, it appears very appealing.  A person can watch any fetish or fantasy fulfilled with a quick trip to the video store or a few clicks of a mouse.  But, as you point out on page 24, it is all a “delusion.”  Any satisfaction rendered is purely temporary, leaving an even greater desire for more.  The desire becomes both all-consuming and yet insatiable, and the person caught up in all of this finds himself a prisoner of his own vices.  The only escape for some is to cut-off the source of those desires, thus leading us back to the opening statistics about the number of self-castration cases in America.[4]

Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, this connection you make here really isn’t a new idea at all.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to gouge out the eye or cut off the hand or foot that causes you to sin (Matthew 5:27-30).[5]  While JC’s commands are ones for pious living, I have a sense he had an understanding, and perhaps even empathy, for those caught in the webs of unhealthy sexual desire.  It would seem that the only real escape is one through drastic measures.[6]

As I close this letter, I am left wondering why, before you launch into the heart of the essay, you make mention of “commercialism and hypocrisy” (4) of the mainstream film industry and the Academy Awards ceremony.  It would seem at first notice that you are setting up a contrast between the “legitimate” industry and its “evil twin” (5).  But I wonder if these two actually have much more in common then surface appearances let on.  Both are exploitative and manipulative, offering little in exchange for all they take away from the consuming public.

If that is the case, if you are saying that both industries are full of delusions and enslave the unsuspecting through over-saturation and empty promises, then what options does one have for escaping the prison of the mainstream media?  What must one chop off in order to break free?


[1] And in the case of my students’ writing, they will probably earn a pretty low grade.  I hate reading and grading boring essays.

[2] According to your uncited source, one to two dozen cases per year.

[3] As previously stated, said alternative is presented in footnote three on page 5.  There are 45 pages to go still.  No one gets to their point that early in an essay.

[4] Although, to be quite honest, by the end of your essay I was rather surprised that only one to two dozen men resort to this form of escape.  Given the size and far-reaching influence of the adult film industry, this seems like a relatively small number.

[5] Given that these admonitions follow Jesus’ equating a lustful look with the physical act of adultery, there is certainly a sexual connotation to these statements.

[6] In This Is Water, you speak of the evil master which is the brain, and that those who cannot escape their slavery to its whims and passions will sometimes seek freedom through suicide.  And more often than not, the means of killing oneself is a gunshot to the head to silence the tyrant.

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