Tuesday, April 11, 2006

John Preston: My Life as a Pornographer

I don't often get excited when I read a non-fiction book, but I was certainly excited by John Preston's My Life as a Pornographer. And, in case you're wondering, I'm not talking about sexual excitement: I'm talking about the common-or-garden jump up and down variety of excitement. Actually, being English, and in my sixties, I didn't really jump up and down; but I rejoiced inwardly.

John Preston has been mentioned here before. He was American, a committedly gay man, and writer, and although he died in 1994 he is far from forgotten: he has a web site created by an enthusiast for his work. In fact it was Dusk Peterson, the creator of that web site, who recommended that I should read My Life as a Pornographer, which is a collection of Preston's essays. It was published by Richard Kasak/Masquerade Books in 1993, and is now out of print, but used copies are plentiful and cheap. (Dusk Peterson is also a writer, and has his own web site.)

The first essay in John Preston's collection, which gives the book its title, is actually the text of a speech that Preston gave at Harvard University. It was later published in the gay magazine Inches, and was, as Preston dryly remarks, the first Harvard lecture to be given that honour.

The first thing that has to be said about Preston is that he was completely honest with his readers/audience. He did not use euphemisms. He believed in frankness and a lack of ambiguity. And a writer with such an attitude is, more or less by definition, bound to cause offence in some quarters. I mention that because you may wish to stop reading right now.

Almost the first point that Preston makes is that, when he wrote fiction, he wrote pure, or impure, out-and-out pornography. It was intended, no other way to put it, to generate an erection in his gay readers. And to me, the wonderfully exciting thing about that is that Preston, better than anyone else I can (immediately) think of, knew exactly what he was trying to do. He knew what the medium could do, and he understood to whom he was trying to do it.

Preston, you see, had realised something that it took me a few decades to figure out. Namely that the thing that fiction does best is arouse emotion. True, it can convey information, but non-fiction does that better. True, it can make people think, but again non-fiction (such as his own essays) can accomplish so much more.

Preston knew too that strong emotions generate powerful physical responses. Comedy makes us laugh; tragedy makes us cry; and pornography gives men erections. Preston's stated intention was to give gay men an irresistible urge to masturbate.

And, finally, Preston had clearly identified the target audience for his pornography. He was not writing for fancypants literary critics, or even the readers of what is politely called 'erotica'. Preston was writing, as he himself puts it, for the boys in black leather jackets and the dirty old men in raincoats.

I've probably lost you already, but I can only say that such clarity of purpose is something that I find profoundly impressive. And, just for the record, let me say that I have never read any of Preston's pornography because it definitely isn't my thing. My thing, if you're interested, is Victorian heterosexual pornography, but if you're thinking of dipping into that yourself, be warned: there's a lot of fake stuff about. But that's a topic for another time.

Once Preston sorted out, in his own mind, what he was trying to do, he proved to be enormously effective at it. He wrote a short story called Mr Benson, which appeared in Drummer; and the editor asked him to extend it into a serial. This serial became something of a legend. Large numbers of denim- and leather-clad men (and women) would stand in line in San Francisco and other cities when a new issue appeared. Well, OK, J.K. Rowling had that effect too. But it doesn't often happen. What is more, there was a group of readers in New Orleans who acted out each chapter of Mr Benson as it appeared.

Another important point that Preston makes is that, from Mr Benson onwards, he listened very carefuly to the feedback from his target audience. And here are a few more of Preston's dictums:

  • The belief that pornographers make a great deal of money is one of the great lies of publishing.
  • Publishing is a crass business, much more so than we like to admit.
  • Whatever it is that you write, be like a pornographer and learn to write for an audience; take them seriously, listen to them seriously when they respond to you. Learn to entertain them, and don't be embarrassed to seduce them.
And all of that is just in the first 26 pages. At the end of that first piece in the book, my notes say that 'This may just be the best short piece about writing that I've ever read.'

There's a whole lot more, of course. And some of the most interesting sections contain Preston's thoughts about the need for a young man to find a helpful guide. Preston describes his own sexual initiation, at the age of fifteen. He simply went to the Boston bus station and waited for someone to pick him up. Fortunately the man who did pick him up proceeded to give him not only a full demonstration of all the various homosexual acts, requiring him to take both active and passive roles, but also gave him much good advice on how to avoid disease and various other dangers of the gay life. In later years, Preston also took on the role of mentor, in the sense that he involved himself heavily in sex education.

Preston's experience reminds me of a conversation I had with a gay man some forty years ago. He told me that he had a new boyfriend who was a little rough around the edges, so he was taking him to places and showing him how to behave: how to read a menu, which knife and fork to use, how to order wine. 'It was done for me,' he said, 'when I was a young man. And now I take pleasure in doing it for someone else.' It seems to me that all young people, boys and girls, should be so lucky as to find a sexual and social mentor (other than their parents, who often fill the role lamentably).

Another revealing essay is the one in which Preston interviews a dominatrix. This woman eventually makes the point that there are men today who are in many respects pillars of the community: they run a business, are involved in the church, look after their family, work for charities, and so forth. And yet some of these men simply cannot stand the pace: they have to find a situation in which they, for once, are absolutely not in charge. Now if that is not of any interest to you, then you're probably reading the wrong blog.

Some of the essays which are collected in My Life as a Pornographer are now out of date, in the sense that they describes circumstances which no longer apply. And many of the essays deal with material that many readers will consider not only distasteful but positively disgusting. I myself, for instance, chose to skim through the essay in which Preston enthuses about the various styles of men's underwear. But it would be a pity to overlook the book altogether, because Preston has much to say that is valuable, particularly about the nature of masculinity in modern society.

I can only urge the more broad-minded of you to take a look at this book for yourself.


Konrad West said...

"My thing, if you're interested, is Victorian heterosexual pornography..."

You know you'll have to do a post on that now. :)

hestiahomeschool said...

Well, now, I am off to find a copy of this book right now. :-)