By Daniel Genis

Daniel Genis and Umberto Eco, 1998  (All images via author)

Picking up the famed Italian writer from the airport and running into an anonymous porn reviewer both reveal the dynamic relationship between the author and the work.

As a younger man, I was once deputized to pick up Umberto Eco from JFK airport. By then I had read everything the man had ever written, including the dull stuff on semiotics and some novels more than once. I could open Foucault’s Pendulum at any point and just start reading, and there was its creator, waddling over to me all rumpled and smiles after a long flight from Rome. He charmed me utterly by brazenly smoking in an American airport, ashing his cigarette into an antique pocket-ashtray, silver and worn, which had a spring-loaded lip to pop out and cradle your Lucky Strike. Then he reminded me of his mere humanity by violently passing gas inside my Plymouth. Since that moment 20 years ago I have continued to read everything Eco writes, but in terms of impression, his masterful craft is equaled, in my humble memory, by that tremendous fart. Writers and their books are not the same, and there is a further distinction between the authorial persona and the author’s actual personality.

Having become an author myself, and an imprisoned one at that, I found this question to come to vivid life by the demands of maintaining a marriage through 10 years of incarceration. My wife and I have shared a lot of open, candid communication. The thousands of letters we exchanged replaced many other components of our relationship, so I had to be good; inside the joint, the way to put it was that “my pen-game was solid.” When my wife’s therapist suggested that our marriage was plagued with a problem in communication, she stopped going; I had written her approximately 2,460 letters over the decade, each at least two pages long. We also had frequent phone calls and visits. We talked a lot and about things that regular couples can elide through activities, vigorous and otherwise.

But as an enthusiast for a well-turned phrase or subtlety in quippage, I had to re-learn how to write in order for those letters to matter. The wall between my author’s character and myself was already reinforced by 30 feet of concrete, plus gun towers. My wife wanted an avenue to me, not to fine style. So I learnt to write honestly and plainly, to communicate as myself and not the author, who only existed in ink anyway. Meanwhile, she pushed the boundaries. My wife is a curious creature; for example, she wanted to know what I masturbated to.

The correct answer is, of course, “thoughts of you,” but by the time she asked too much money had been spent in postage for us to lie to each other. I explained, and she luckily found it endearing, funny and very characteristic.

Instead of staring at photographs of retouched flesh, I read porn reviews. In every dirty magazine that I bought secondhand or borrowed, I went right for the couple of pages towards the end where new videos were described and evaluated, usually with a still to illustrate. I preferred Fox magazine — which, in my opinion, exists entirely for the incarcerated market — because it had the best developed review section. I tried reading erotica in Penthouse letters and such, but found the crude style offensive enough to distract me from the true intentions of one-handed reading. The reviews in Fox were just right for me. The writer had a talent for making the reader feel like he was in the room. To this day, my memory contains his work:

The moment when the gang bang is over and the chick has all the sperm she didn't swallow on her face is usually a sensitive one. Not the best time to ask questions, but Bobbi Starr was game. Her attitude towards the porn game was tongue in cheek, sometimes ass cheek. And she didn't mind telling me her story as the man juice slid off her chin onto her luscious breasts.

Years later, I am now free and living with my wife, while those old issues of Fox are stacked beneath someone else’s bunk.

In July, I met Joe Diamond, who has worked between the worlds of flesh and ink, and birthed from this unholy union a chimera called Around the World in 80 Lays. Looking forward to a signed copy of his guide to sex tourism, I got together with him over pizza. He’s a small, intelligent Brooklynite with an odd past. One slice got me to the revelation that an alignment of the stars had occurred: Diamond was my former pornographer. During the years I was reading Fox reviews, he was writing them. Surprised to actually meet a reader of his unsigned work, he filled me in on the details not recorded in his critiques. Questions I nursed for years about porn star hygiene and Rocco Siffredi’s behavior, which I presumed would never be answered, were suddenly clarified.

Genis and Joe Diamond, 2014

I asked Diamond what it was like to meet one of his readers. He explained he had never expected to, but then again he had not always been a writer. As a younger man he worked as an activist for “victim’s rights,” which generally meant advocating against parole. Yoko Ono is best known for this, as she writes to the parole board every two years when Mark David Chapman comes up for a hearing regarding John Lennon’s murder and Ono asks that he not be released. The non-profit that Diamond founded helped victims’ families to do such things in an organized way. There were many intricacies and the outfit is long defunct, but in essence Diamond once worked to keep the readers of his porn reviews in prison. I asked him whether this was a coincidence, a craven plot to keep a captive audience or the work of a man who changed perspectives as he aged.

It’s a good thing that Diamond has a sense of humor, because he explained that the evolution of law-and-order Joe to Around the World in 80 Lays Joe was a personal process that left him a different man, one who now regrets some of his earlier work. He wanted to know if many incarcerated readers were fans of his writing. I didn’t think so, as few bothered to read the articles in Fox when the pictures were right at hand, but I did praise his reviews for allowing me to feel like I was there, on the shoots and in the trenches with him. It turned out that was exactly the effect he was going for.

Often the physical manifestation of an author whose work you respect does not satisfy the preconception, and sometimes it leads to utter disappointment. When my beloved Umberto Eco fouled my Plymouth, I couldn’t help feeling whatever the opposite of apotheosis is called. I loved his recent novel The Prague Cemetery, but did it erase the knowledge of his humanity? Unfortunately not.

And what of an afternoon spent with a man whose anonymous writing for a second-tier skin mag had once gotten me off? It was wonderful. It reinforced the explanation I formulated for my nosy wife all those years ago as to why I enjoyed reading reviews of pornography rather than looking at photos: The reviews were testimony to real things, to sexual acts that had occurred on a couch in California, and that excited me. The photos were manufactured fantasies that were so poorly composed they turned me off — endless pizza delivery men and cheerleaders and cops. Being locked far away from real women and real sex, I craved the sense of reality that Joe Diamond supplied by describing what it smelled like on a porn shoot or what the girls talked about while the cameraman changed lenses. He made it real for me then, and I think I was very fortunate to have met him and felt it get even more real. It was that rare moment when the wall between author and work is smashed to wonderful results.

Daniel Genis lives with his wife in Brooklyn and writes for places like the New York Daily News, The Paris Review, Newsweek, Vice and The Daily Beast while shopping around his novel and memoir. He can be reached at

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