The Moral Pornographer

Is Tamara Faith Berger’s work highbrow fiction or lowbrow smut? Does it matter?

Christmas, 2001 / No. 7
Photograph by Phillip Smith
Phillip Smith

Meeting Tamara Faith Berger for bubble tea at a College Street shop one Sunday afternoon, I am completely unprepared for the fact that this slight, smiling woman gives no outward indication—physical or otherwise—that she is the author of the pornographic debut novella Lie With Me. I had been expecting an entirely different person, having recently been bowled over by Berger’s on-line performance art, glimpsed her novel-in-progress (tentatively titled Whoredom), and read several of the sexual-health columns she wrote for Vice magazine—maybe an overtly-outspoken, sex-positive feminist with flaming red hair, wearing a bustier and P.V.C., proudly reciting passages written by Kathy Acker.

Instead, a humble Berger slides into the booth across from me. She doesn’t seem at all comfortable being interviewed, and squirms visibly when I break the ice by saying I feel Lie With Me is a remarkable book and that writing it was a courageous act. She speaks quietly, almost reluctantly, about the shame she feels after having written a controversial novel that has created a small stir within the Canadian literary establishment.

Lie With Me was launched amidst a flurry of sensationalist media attention, all of which focused on the controversial nature of the book. National Post arts writer Gord McLaughlin remarked that sex was the launch’s big draw, listed the so-called A-list people who were in attendance, and warned, “Take heed: This is the sort of book that will reveal a lot about you by the reaction it evokes.” In the Globe & Mail, Michael Posner noted “the Canada Council put roughly $5,000 into subsidizing its publication, begging the inevitable question of whether this is a judicious use of taxpayer funds.”

The inundation of press doesn’t seem to have unduly bolstered Berger’s ego. “I had so much shame about the book on a daily basis,” she says ruefully, “that the launch was like a big coming-out party. The subject matter of the book is shame also. For me, writing is the kind of thing you do in a locked room. I’ve never been so above-ground about sex, but there’s something about the exhibitionist’s shame that I find very interesting—the flasher who needs an explosion of courage to do it. I relate to that kind of exhibitionism, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m very introverted.”

For an introvert, this woman can write hardcore sex—and not the abstract, metaphorical kind found in artsy erotica. After reading the book, one is left asking whether Lie With Me is literature or pornography. Is it simply another plea for attention in a society with attention deficit disorder, or does the book actually have artistic merit?

To be frank, Lie With Me is nothing if not shocking. Its cover features chicken-scratch drawings of naked girls Berger says she drew as a child. By the bottom of the novella’s opening page, the narrative has already crossed the line between art and pornography, à la Georges Bataille or Story Of O, and never returns to safer territory. The unnamed, sex-crazed protagonist is given free rein to troll for men in bars and pickup joints, bring them back to her apartment, and submit to anal sex, submissive group sex, and various forms of humiliation. By the end of the novel, our heroine has been elevated to the point of sex goddess amidst numerous frenzied fucking scenarios and increasing narcissism.

Berger’s editor, Russell Smith, an author in his own right and a columnist for the Globe & Mail, argues that Lie With Me is both porn and art. While discussing the book’s curious narrative structure, Smith focuses on the second section, “a series of episodes related by various men who are having sexual encounters with her and the transformation she undergoes while having sex with them. It works as conventional, arousing pornography, but, in a way, Tamara is playing with conventions of porn written for men’s magazines. You could call it a post-modern book because of its fragmented style and lack of literary convention that requires a clear setting and characters, but also because it’s a cross-hybrid of low- and highbrow genres: the lowbrow pornography and the highbrow small-press fiction.”

I ask Smith whether he found the book shocking the first time he read it. “I’ll say it was shocking,” he exclaims without hesitation. “Downright horrifying at times. Luckily, policemen and Reform party members don’t read fiction.”

“It was shocking, I guess, but in an obvious kind of way—the animality of it,” says Berger, in response to the same question. “I’m always relating my work back to what I learned at school; asking myself what is the perspective of the audience and how are they responding to my art? Writing, which is a little bit more internal than videos, is like propaganda. It has a desired effect, and it’s doing everything possible to get the audience to respond. In a really different way, artists and filmmakers do the same thing—try to coerce a desired effect. I like the kind of manipulation you can achieve through porn.”

It’s remarkable that so little attention has been given to the quality of writing in Lie With Me and its interesting three-part structure. The first section is a confession filled with pithy sentences that attempt to define the nature of this anonymous woman’s obsession with sex. The second brings us the unique perspectives of seven men who fuck her, each with a different narrative voice. The final section comes back to a man she’s in love with and ties the book together with equal doses of regret, manifesto, and emancipation.

Unfortunately, the book suffers slightly from a lack of attention to detail that often plagues under-staffed, under-financed small press publications (in this case, Toronto’s Gutter Press). Typos are smattered throughout, and some sentences lack the cohesion a more rigorous editing job would bring. Taking a critical look back at his own work, Smith comments, “When it first came in it was a little bit disjointed, not written in a literary arc. I pushed Tamara to make some changes that made it a little bit more unified.”

Berger’s literary “training” was a three-year stint as a writer for Full Deck Productions, where she paid her dues churning out stories for low-grade porn mags with names like Sticky Buns, Buttime Stories, and Bump & Grind on a daily basis. “They were kind of cool,” she admits, “comic-sized digests filled with confessional fiction—stories you might find in Hustler, but even more bottom-of-the-barrel. I did the more diaristic kind of writing for a long time. Before that, I went to art school at Concordia University from 1990 to 1995 to study painting and sculpture. This interest in porno was partly a pure interest in sex as a subject and the tackiness of it. Porn’s been around for so long in all its different forms, whether it’s erotica writing or photography. I never wanted to draw pictures of sex. The porn industry is really the only visual representation of sex as a subject that exists.”

Since then, Berger’s work has taken on a variety of forms. For four years (1997–2000), she wrote a “monthly look at what ails you” on disease and sexuality, under the pen name “Nursex” for Vice. Topics broached in the column included intestinal worms, Tourette’s syndrome, sex work, and even a guide to writing porn. Her work for Vice included the same psychosexual attention as Lie With Me and Whoredom. For example, in her piece on phantom-limb syndrome, she writes:

S. was born in 1972 with a full-blooded penis and half a scrotum. Interestingly enough, S. was also born with a vagina. It was soon discovered that S. was dual-gendered, an XXY, a classic hermaphrodite ripe for medico-sexual butchery…Much to my surprise, there has been little talk about the occurrence of PLS of the genitalia.

Whether intentional or not, Berger was making some very political statements. In an article titled the “Vice Guide to Rape” she wrote:

Basically, our prevalent social stereotypes assume that a male is sexually aggressive (he wants to get it in the hole) while a female is sexually passive-aggressive (she pretends that she doesn’t want to get it in the hole and she must be “taken” so that she can’t help but get it in the hole). This causes us to believe that a woman may not want to run from a sexually aggressive male, because she, like almost all females, harbors the secret desire to be raped.

Berger has also made four films on Super 8 and 16 mm: Mount the Man (1998), Porno Dream Loops (1998), Raise the Garments of Females and Apply with Heavy Blows (1998), and I Love It When a Girl’s Head Goes Down (1997), which were screened at various events, including Pleasuredome’s Toronto New Works Festival and the Carnival of Perversions.

She has also completed three web-based projects as Nursex. In the short digital film Surgery and the slide show Third-Eye Wound—both completed in 2000—Berger stars as a nurse who performs blood-letting and surgical manoeuvres on anonymous subjects (viewers can fill out a pre-surgery application to apply for the role of patient). There’s also the Nursex health questionnaire, “I Heal Bodies By Sensing Case Histories,” featuring a series of multiple choice questions about sex, marital status, and physical health, resulting in Nursex’s analysis of the respondent’s sexual and emotional well-being.

Berger is one of a new breed of sex writers—a moral pornographer who provokes intellectual thought while exciting your senses. After writing so much porn, she felt compelled to write a book that allowed a slut to speak her mind and do things according to inner motivations. In Lie With Me, the protagonist clearly explains the predicament:

I know there’s all these problems with a girl like me having sex so much. I think if a guy loves sex it comes from the pleasure he feels in his cock—which is why he’s never called a slut. But because it’s easier for a girl to get disconnected from all the feelings she has down there, she can get lost trying to know herself. Do you see what I’m saying? Being a slut kind of implies getting lost, going astray.

Smith explains why Berger’s work is so ground-breaking, when situated within the context of CanLit: “I have been thinking for a long time about why there is no Canadian erotica or pornography—I make no distinction between those two terms. I had actually first had the idea of trying to publish a magazine of Canadian literary erotica. I was going to do it first on the web, and I wanted well-known authors like Margaret Atwood and Barbara Gowdy and Ann-Marie MacDonald to send me the porn they must have been writing. It turns out, nobody was writing any. They weren’t interested.

“Then one day, [Gutter’s publisher] called me and said, ‘I know you’re interested in pornography. I’ve got a manuscript and wondered what you’d think of it.’ Immediately, I liked it for two reasons. It was extremely hardcore. When I had had friends submit pornography to me, I was frustrated by how incredibly tame they were, and non-explicit. They were just stories with an erotic undertone. I had wanted stuff that had the specific effect of arousal, not literary merit. If they had literary merit, that was great, but I was interested in titillation. So I was excited to find something that was no holds barred. Secondly, I was very excited to find that the style was very unusual and poetic—it had literary merit.”

In 1998, Berger presented an essay titled “The Aural Language of Pornographic Stories, or The Moral Pornographer” at the World Pornography Conference, held jointly by California State University and the Free Speech Coalition in Universal City, California. The piece, later published in Fireweed magazine, shows Berger has obviously given serious thought to the effect her writing elicits:

In my practices as a writer of pornographic fiction, I’ve discovered that porn is a literary genre wherein the reader and the writer have a skewered kind of intimacy. In porn fiction, the reader projects desire into the text, as opposed to the conventional narrative form of most fiction where only the writer/narrator articulates desire.

Angela Carter wrote that the pornographer is like a terrorist of the imagination who has the power to overturn society’s most basic notions of sex relations. As a terrorist, I have my counter-alliances. I am not only working for one side, that is, I am not only working for the gratification of a male audience. I think that pornographic fiction, with its possibility for multiple points of view on sex experience is incredibly fertile ground for the thrills of gender vengeance. The pornographer can detonate her bombs in more than one site, with more than one intensity and for more than one ideal—which is why I wish more women read and made pornography.

While it seems Berger certainly has an understanding of the porn industry, she maintains, “I wasn’t ever really into porn culture. It’s a real culture. I was so immersed in it for so long…that the book really came out of it. I was never interested in becoming an L.A. porn director. I wanted to do something like that, but with my own sensibilities. I think that’s a real power of art: to incite your mind. I’m not necessarily gifted at one particular aesthetic. I don’t know whether I’m actually trying to fit into any particular aesthetic. It’s more about the feeling. I think the best of the porn world is someone like [performer and musician] Peaches. She’s so sexy. Before, she was just doing performance art. Now she’s so sexual and that’s a good thing—to incite sexual feelings in other people.”

With songs such as “Lovertits,” “Fuck the Pain Away,” and “Suck and Let Go,” the potty-mouthed Peaches exudes a sense of being completely in control while she stirs sexual feelings. While performing a couple years ago at Exclaim! magazine’s anniversary party, two males in the audience got so worked up they pulled their pants off in the middle of the crowd and started pretending to fuck each other up the ass. For a couple minutes, it seemed they might actually do it, right there in the middle of a crowd of hip, pushy guys who were getting more and more worked up (bizarrely, very few women were in attendance that night).

“The porn writing I was doing was all about extremes of sexuality and male-female relations,” Berger comments. “I was going a bit crazy writing all that porn for four or five hours a day. I got paid well—up to $5,000 American per week—for doing it, but I got paid by the word, so I wanted to write a certain amount every day.”

Having made the switch to novelist, Berger is currently adapting Lie With Me into a screenplay. Whoredom is still sitting untouched on her desk. Berger hasn’t shown it to anyone yet, and seems almost embarrassed to discuss its content, but notes, “I’ve already finished it. It’s about an ordinary girl’s first relationship with a man. Then she becomes a stripper and falls in love with one of the guys at the club. It’s about the conflict between family and that kind of work.”

So, how does this shy writer reconcile herself to life in the public eye? “I was really ashamed, and still am, of the book,” she says. “I think it will take me another five years to come to terms with it. As it was all building up to the night of the launch, I felt like that night sort of broke everything open. My parents did come—both of them at separate times. Obviously, I recommended that they not read it, but they’re adults. They can do what they want….I’m still ashamed, but it’s become a little bit more acceptable in my own eyes. I read from it for the first time at the Canzine festival. It’s my responsibility to stand behind the work. I have to.”

Emily Pohl-Weary lives in Vancouver. She currently is finishing a YA novel set in her old Toronto neighbourhood, which she started while living in Dawson. Her book about her grandmother, Better To Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, won the 2003 Hugo Award for non-fiction. She is the author of the poetry collection Iron-on Constellations and the novel A Girl Like Sugar. Last updated summer, 2020.