What is it about higher education that makes it such a fat and funny target for skewering? Is it the seemingly arbitrary power professors have over their students? The increasing definition of a specialty, so that to earn a PhD you have to know everything about nothing at all (“In/Signification and Dys/Lexicography: A (Mis)Reading of Nabokov’s Ada“)? The cloistered atmosphere, where according to Sayre’s Law, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”? I don’t know, but take all those elements, stir them into a small town Baptist college, throw in an identity crisis and pornography, and you’ve got The Man Who Wrote the Book.
Ezra Gordon is the hapless hero of the tale, a poet without the means to make his ends meet. He hasn’t written in years, much less published; he was charged in a sexual harassment action and had to answer to his girlfriend, the college’s attorney, who also happens to be the daughter of a college trustee who really doesn’t like Ezra. With most of the students, the department chair, his tenure committee, his landlady, maybe even his girlfriend – wherever Ezra goes, he’s the most unpopular guy in the room.
He does have one friend, Isaac Schwimmer, who lives in LA, so Ezra goes to stay with him for spring break. Isaac left the world of academia for the considerably lower-stress world of publishing, even breaking in with his own imprint. Ezra, of course, has no idea what Isaac publishes, and when he walks into Isaac’s high rise “lives of the rich and famous” condo, meets his beautiful, brainy, and willing neighbors, and crashes in a guest bedroom bigger than his apartment, he gets curious.
It turns out that there has to be someone who publishes pornographic novels, and Isaac happens to be one of the most successful in the crowd. That success has also given Isaac tons of self-confidence, which he generously tries to share with the beaten-down Ezra. He also makes Ezra a business proposition – write me a porn book and I’ll pay you $10,000. To his own surprise, Ezra accepts, and returns to campus with a little secret and a great big grin. (Did I mention the willing neighbor?)
The secret of writing a throwaway piece of smut fires Ezra’s imagination, and before he knows it the manuscript for Every Inch a Lady is in the mail, and the book is in print. To Ezra’s (and Isaac’s) surprise, it takes off in ways neither can imagine. Plus, finishing it gives Ezra the nerve to tell off his old girlfriend, show off his new one, tick off an FBI agent investigating cybercrime, help a student find his way, and finally, contemplate writing his own novel under his own name. Ezra’s journey becomes a comic take on the erotic journey of his heroine, picking up momentum along the way.
Tarloff also wrote for M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show, and still writes for Slate, The Atlantic, and The American Prospect. He’s married to economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, which is where I guess he got his exposure to academic politics. In The Man Who Wrote the Book, he scores with vicious and illuminating satire (is that a tautology?), and makes Ezra’s growth from immature schlub to confident adult fun. The lone downside of the book is its relationship to technology – does anyone even publish porn on paper anymore? Would many readers remember the days of computer access limited to dial-up campus networks? The upside is, well, everything else.
Check the WRL catalog for The Man Who Wrote the Book