How Good Is Chester Brown’s Book “Paying For It”? A Book Review
Before reading this book, I had these questions:
• How sexually explicit would Brown be about his experiences with prostitutes?
• Would Brown clearly advocate a position in favor or against prostitution?
• What might a visual medium add to this kind of discussion?
• Would the artwork be mentally or sexually arousing?
• Could Brown create a persuasive or sympathetic portrait of a john?
As I was reading the book, those questions were answered, and more traditional questions rose higher in priority. Chiefly, as with most stories, I wanted to discover if the protagonist would become more enlightened, fulfilled, content or _______ (fill in the bank for whatever the protagonist might be seeking) by the end of the book.
This book is a straightforward polemic. A polemic is a strong argument intended to establish the truth of a specific position and the falsity of a contrary position. The fact that the book is a polemic does not make it any less of a great book. I give the book 5 out of 5 stars.
It’s not important to agree with Chester Brown’s ideologies or his choices in order to admire this book. In reading the book, I found I disagreed with him often. Also, I’m not a very similar to him in many ways, such as:, according to Brown and his friends, he’s mild-mannered, he doesn’t believe in romantic love, and he doesn’t seek long-term romantic companionship. Yet, in other ways, he and I are very similar: We are both graphic in detailing our personal lives publicly. We both support the creation of detailed, introspective artworks discussing sexual mores. And we’re both non-conformists, regularly calling into question commonly followed beliefs.
It is very important that Brown, and other johns who support paying for sex, share their thought processes and personal experiences. This is an important memoir about an ordinary person’s drives and interests in pursuing paid-for sex, outside of traditionally-condoned romantic relationships. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Robert Crumb and other notable writers all similarly gave high praise to the book for various, excellent reasons.
Answering the questions I raised at the beginning of this review:
• Brown is explicitly graphic in recounting his sexual encounters and conversations with prostitutes.
• He strongly advocates in favor of allowing for paid-for-sex workers.
• He speaks through pictures, so the images add to the presentation, but the information would have had merit and worth in words alone. It’s hard for me to measure how much the visuals contribute to the artwork. But I doubt I personally would have read Brown’s story if it had not been presented in a graphic novel. Like for many people, I probably would not have read his story if it had not been presented visually. On a visual front, I don’t think Brown is as interested in speaking to the details, washes, incongruities, and grayscales of imagery like a graphic memoirist such as Alison Bechdel. I’m not saying one visual style is superior to the other – they’re just different.
• I didn’t find the artwork visually arousing, but it was mentally provocative – which is what I expected.
• Answering the last question is far more subjective than the others. Readers can probably easily understand Brown’s motivations and internal rationalizations. But that doesn’t mean they will agree with or gladly condone his actions. So, for most readers, I doubt he created what would be called a “sympathetic character.” I suspect most readers will better understand his thought processes, yet few will concur with him after reading his story and rationales.
Brown attempts to strip away the oft-held ideal that physical intimacy is either a) only acceptable, or b) only fully enjoyed, or c) only sustainable if it is coupled with either commitment or the prospect of an enduring passionate relationship.
Where most people’s romantic arcs might go from:
- flirtation to
– physical teasing to
– regular courting to
– consistent sexual intimacy to
– discussions of commitment to
– cohabitating together or in close proximity
Brown’s arc differs.
As Brown perceives his desires and needs, his arc is more direct, eliminating all of the following:
- the pursuit of flirtation,
- courting – open social maneuvering and persuasion within a social community,
– peacocking – making yourself attractive in a neutral, socially-competitive setting,
– extended periods of establishing a trust environment where physical intimacy can be exchanged,
– gradual “increasingly intimate” physical bonding,
– moving toward the potential of more commitment and interdependency
Instead, Brown knows he wants sexual arousal and intercourse – and he’d prefer if those things did not come with so many other “unnecessary” or “negative” prerequisites and entanglements – the conflicts, fights, & hurt feelings that often came out his interactions with previous girlfriends.
Brown and I are different creatures. For example, I enjoy watching “When Harry Met Sally” because it focuses on the conflicts, arguments, discussion of social etiquette and mores, courting, and human behaviors. I like “When Harry Met Sally” because it discusses the battle of the sexes and the genders’ common different interpretations and desires. Brown may appreciate those things on a literary level, but in real life, this book suggests he didn’t want those things controlling or taking up much of his time on a daily basis.
Will people like, understand, or relate to Brown’s character? Some will. And even people who disagree with him or his conclusions will probably have a better understanding or respect him for his honest candor and presentation. The fact that Brown so plainly presents his contrarian view is part of what makes this book so valuable.
Chester Brown goes to some lengths to distinguish himself from someone like Dave Sim. Dave Sim, in his graphic novels and comic books, has clearly discriminated against women and mistreated women with his unfounded and skewed portrayals of them. Chester Brown admits he doesn’t love each prostitute he has slept with, but he treats them with courtesy and respect. He does not think any less of them because they are sex workers. And Brown doesn’t perceive women to be inferior to men. Brown respects each woman to the extent that he takes significant care to keep all of their identities anonymous.
Brown concludes his book with the most extensive series of appendices I’ve seen in a graphic novel, where he point by point, makes brief counter arguments to many commonly held criticisms of prostitution. “Doth he protest too much?” comes to mind.
In supporting his arguments, Brown regularly uses his personal experiences. That’s fine, but his behaviors, under his control, are not a representative sample of the dangerous behaviors sex workers regularly face from their johns or from their “employers.” I could easily provide counter arguments to most of his assertions, but that’s not the intent of my review. My counter arguments would not necessarily be more persuasive than Brown’s, but the book lacks a clear and compelling presentation of strong counter arguments. While the addition of a more balanced discussion in the appendices would not necessarily make this a better book or artwork, it would make it a better polemic.
It’s not possible to fully critique this kind of book without evaluating the book’s conclusions.
In a memoir that focuses on the sexual ethics and behaviors of the author, it’s worth noting that “in the end,” or at least at the time the book was published, Brown had settled into a pattern of having sex with only one woman, who he regularly paid for sexual interaction, and who he believed only had sexual relations with him. After 6 years of this kind of monogamous, yet paid for, relationship, he still did not live with her or socially recognize her as his “girlfriend.” Brown is against what he calls “possessive monogamy.” He states he does not want a girlfriend. He concludes his story with a panel that says “paying for sex isn’t an empty experience if you’re paying the right person.”
The ending raises these kinds of questions: Was Brown, whether he knew it or not, seeing prostitutes, in search of finding just one regular sex partner? Or did Brown find such a good sex partner that he no longer had sufficient desire to try to find different sex partners?
Interestingly, what is shown, but not spoken to by Brown, is that Brown had experiences with many different prostitutes (23 named in the book) before he found one he decided he preferred to be monogamous with. Evidently, even if you’re looking for a regular paid-for-sex partner – it may still take a long process of going through many sexual partners before a john can find “the right one.”
This raises another question. Given the long-term, exclusive, and regular nature of Brown paying this one woman for monogamous sex, would the activity any longer fit within a legal definition of “prostitution”?
When Brown asks “Denise,” his regular sexual partner for the last six years, if she wishes to be discussed in detail in this memoir, her reply is telling. She replies, “put me in it as little as possible.”
Question: On a basic level, how do I know Brown’s “Paying For It” is a complex book worth thorough evaluation?
Answer: I intended for this to be a short review, but this ended up being a longer than normal review. People interested in these topics should read the book for themselves because there are so many worthwhile things to discuss that cannot be addressed even in a lengthy review.
Does Brown in this story achieve a traditional plot conclusion, going from dissatisfaction and questions to some satisfaction and answers?
I think Brown believes he does. He believes his uncommon investigations led to the kinds of discoveries, conclusions, and outcomes he intended to pursue. And he beleives no significantly negative effects came to him or others through his activities and inquiries.
After I read the book and wrote the above review, I read these reviews of the book:
After reading those reviews, I don’t have anything to build on the other reviewers’ comments. If I were to recommend only one of the above reviews to read, I’d recommend Chris Randle’s review for the National Post, where he at least communicates a few concise criticisms against Brown’s assertions (something most reviewers did not do).
In conclusion, after reading this book, I don’t think people will necessarily be persuaded toward Brown’s ideologies. But I think it would be hard to read Brown’s internal dialogues and arguments and not at least further buffer your reasoning progressions or positions in opposition to Brown’s - and that’s a valuable thing to receive from any reading. Maybe one of the best things I can say about this book is that regardless of whether you agree with the ideas or characters, regardless of whether you enjoy the reading experience, it would be nearly impossible to read this book without it being a worthwhile learning experience.
For regular readers and writers: Thank you to for the new Facebook likes. Tomorrow’s post is on the joys of being in a clever and courteous relationship. Thereafter, a post on kindness.