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William E. Jones on Olympia Press

William E. Jones

Mon, Apr 08, 2019

The new book I'm Open to Anything is the first novel by artist and author William E. Jones. It's an unapologetically explicit coming-of-age tale that recalls the heyday of Olympia Press, the notorious mid-20th-century publisher that released its share of porn, but also the writings of controversial authors who are now considered among the era's best. Before he joins us for a reading and signing on Tuesday, April 16, Jones shares the story behind Olympia below.

French publisher Maurice Girodias (1919-1990) inherited Obelisk Press from his father, Jack Kahane (1887-1939). Kahane, an Englishman and a writer, had founded Obelisk to publish “dbs” (dirty books), his own and those by other authors. He took advantage of a loophole in French law that allowed English language books published in France to escape censorship. (They could, however, be confiscated by customs officials upon importation into the United States and United Kingdom.) As a teenager, Maurice made cover illustrations for Obelisk titles, and after his father died unexpectedly two days after the beginning of World War II, he became a publisher himself.

Maurice changed his surname from his Jewish father’s to his Catholic mother’s (Girodias) and refrained from publishing any “dbs” in Nazi-occupied France. After the Liberation, he revived Obelisk Press to sell books to American GIs. He lost Obelisk in a takeover by French publishing conglomerate Hachette, and in 1953 he launched a new company, Olympia Press, named after the famous painting of a female nude by Édouard Manet.

Before going any further, I should make a couple of things clear. In the early 20th century, obscenity law in the English speaking world applied not only to images but to the written word, and almost any book, even James Joyce’s Ulysses, could be considered pornography. Banned books did not enjoy any legal protection or proper copyright, because a book confiscated by authorities could not be deposited at the British Library or Library of Congress. The law made no distinction between works written solely as pornography and those with more serious literary intentions.

In contrast to English speaking countries, France has had a long tradition of artistic pornography beginning with such Enlightenment era texts as Denis Diderot’s first novel The Indiscreet Jewels (1748) and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Although these books were not always legal to publish in France at the time they were written, they later found an influential readership among French intellectuals.

Maurice Girodias saw himself as a part of this great French cultural legacy, publishing not only Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Story of O in English translations, but also Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as works by Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, and many others. Girodias was also a bit of a scoundrel, taking advantage of the ambiguous copyright status of some books to publish pirate editions at considerable profit. He often found himself in court, sometimes to defend himself on charges of obscenity, at other times to settle lawsuits brought by disgruntled authors seeking royalty payments.

A copy of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, published in the Olympia Press Traveller's Companion series

Olympia Press published the Traveller’s Companion series, a line of English language books with plain green covers looking more or less like respectable French publications. These “greenies,” as they were called, sold at select bookstores in Paris, especially those in or near train stations, where tourists from England could buy titles unavailable at home. Copies of Traveller’s Companion books were also smuggled into the UK by a runner named Patrick Kearney. He sold them in a plain brown wrapper for wads of cash to a character in dark glasses named Sammy, who saw to their clandestine circulation in London and beyond.

The Traveller’s Companion series runs the gamut from controversial books eventually championed as great literature, like Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, to pornographic titles written for the money (The Enormous Bed, The Libertine), and includes novels by Alexander Trocchi, Terry Southern, and Iris Owens that fall somewhere in between. Although most Traveller’s Companion titles were marketed to a readership presumed to be heterosexual, a number of gay works were published later in the series, for example, Jean Cocteau’s The White Book, Charles Henri Ford’s The Young and Evil, and two novels by Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers and The Thief’s Journal.

With the relaxation of censorship in the US (and after some financial difficulties in France), Girodias moved to New York in the late 1960s. There he restarted Olympia Press, which published the first edition of the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. Valerie, paid a flat fee for her book, became another one of Olympia’s disgruntled authors. (She intended but failed to shoot her publisher on the day she shot Andy Warhol.) Girodias died of a heart attack in Paris in 1990.

About 20 years ago, I found a copy of the Traveller’s Companion edition of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Now I have published I’m Open to Anything, in which the narrator meets Genet at the end of his life. I hope my novel, at once sexually explicit and intellectually ambitious, is a fitting tribute to Olympia Press and its authors.

Writer's note: Some of the information in this essay comes from Angus Carroll, “The Good, the Bad, and the Obscene,” Fine Books Magazine, July 2010.

Images: William E. Jones and the cover of the Traveller's Companion edition of Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, courtesy of the author