About twenty years ago, in a Tower Records in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, I picked up a marked-down copy of John Preston’s first essay collection, My Life as Pornographer. It had blurbs on the back from cult figures such as Pat Califia and Samuel R. Delaney, and in its pages I found, in addition to the Harvard University lecture that provided the title piece, a much less exalted series of profiles from an abandoned book on the sex industry. One of these included an interview with a male prostitute-cum-body artist, tattooist, and body piercing jeweller:
In the beginning, you think, This is going to make my dick hard! And that’s the greatest rush I’ve ever had, all drugs barred, finding something new and different to make my dick hard beats them all.
But I can’t leave it alone. I have to ask the next question: Can I eat doing this? Can I make a living at it? Because, if I can, then I’ll be in heaven. I’ll have made it to the place I want to be.
But it doesn’t work that way … It doesn’t work because, eventually, the second part of the equation takes over and, no matter what you’re doing, you’re doing it for the business end of it and the concerns about making a living are the same, no matter what the job is.
And lo, these twenty years on that remains the single most concise and resonant formulation of the dichotomy at the heart of the artist’s life I have yet to read. And I am still reading John Preston as a guide to the artist’s life.
Preston was born and raised in Medfield, Massachusetts, as a bright and notable son of a prominent working class family. When he went away to Lake Forest College in Illinois (the first in his family to do so), he was mocked for his accent. His identity was subsequently twisted not so much by the hostile climate to his sexuality as by class. He was made to feel that literature (that is, writing the real stuff) was not for the likes of him. In a tribute to Preston, Laurence Senelick summarized his attitude to class and literature as being eternally intertwined:
Preston both boasted of and was ashamed of his proletarian background, his failure to go to grad school, the spottiness of his general education. He considered himself a self-made gay icon. This is why he so idolized [former academic] Samuel Steward, tattoo artist, essayist and the creator of the Phil Andros stories. Preston regretted that he never had Steward’s elegance of expression or breadth of allusion.
Preston remarked that in college he would have been found trying to persuade whoever he talked to that a woolly Christian such as himself was entirely like everyone else, just his sexuality was different. He subsequently studied at United Theological Seminary in Dayton and Northwestern Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul. A career as a closeted pastor must have seemed entirely plausible, but instead he became a sex education editor in New York, then edited The Advocate in San Francisco in the late ’70s. In doing so, he continued a career of gay public service he’d first set out on in the early ’70s in Minneapolis, where he founded gay institutions like the Gay House community centre of Minneapolis and Gay Community Services of Minneapolis.
After a decade of chasing the light from one gay hotspot to another in what he called “the great gay tour,” he arrived in Portland, Maine, recognizing that he remained a New England working-class boy. He was more comfortable in a small New England town—even as one of the only visible gay men there—than as a cult figure in one of the fashionable gay ghettoes, however many leather bars it may have offered. He probably would have often be barred from entering such establishments, anyway, for favouring L.L.Bean catalogue chinos and sweaters.
Reading the many tributes in Laura Antoniou’s Looking for Mr. Preston you find nobody knew him all that well. Most of these people who wrote tributes knew him best through letters. He had one profoundly affecting first lover, Jay, and after that it appears to have been a series of lovers kept mostly at arm’s length—and a list of 30 books, and a host of literary correspondents to whom he confided as much of himself as he dared.
His first and still most famous pornographic novel, Mr. Benson, was written as a serial for Drummer in 1978. He thought of it as a comedy, and when asked to extend the story he willingly did so. The book was so successful that at one point you could not walk around New York without seeing the Looking for Mr. Benson T-shirt. Preston remarked that it was only when the husband of the woman he worked for as a secretary in his day job happened to see that T-shirt and remark upon it that he felt like a success. The money was never the main issue for Preston, but recognition helped. There were myriad subsequent porn novels, and the Alex Kane series of erotic adventure novels, followed by the Flesh and the Word anthologies he edited in the mid-’90s that paved the way for subsequent trade house anthologists when pornography went mainstream. Then there was his host of non-pornographic non-fiction anthologies, charting the contours of different aspects of gay life in his era: Hometowns, A Member of the Family, and Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS.
What distinguishes Preston from a host of other pornographers who came and went (if you’ll pardon the expression) is that he was at the forefront of a movement for better writing in gay pornography and was a political activist. When his books were confiscated at the Canadian border, the Vancouver LGBT bookstore Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium was able to prevail in a case against Canada’s Customs in the Canadian Supreme Court in 2000, on the basis of testimony regarding the literary merit of Preston’s bestseller Once I Had a Master. It was a kind of state-sponsored posterity, as Preston had been dead for six years by then, succumbing to complications related to AIDS at a mere 48 years of age, in 1994. It was this combination of quality and productivity as well as his loudness and political effectiveness that won him the Lambda Literary Award in 1995.
But the book he cited as his first real novel was a series of dramatic monologues told in the voice of a drag queen called Franny. Preston said Franny, The Queen of Provincetown was a tribute to the drag queens who hooked around the Greyhound bus depot from which he first sneaked off to acquire a sentimental education. He credited those drag queens with looking out for him, and making sure he didn’t go with any man they didn’t like the look of. The book is written as a series of arias really, like this one—which smells to me like a description of the despair he saw in his lover, Jay Klein, who killed himself after they split up:
Hate has to be shoved away. I know that. Ya gotta fight hate off with anger. If there is a God, and he’s Jesus’s father, then he has a dumbassed son, that’s all I got to say about that turnin’ the other cheek shit. Maybe sometimes. But this life is too hard to do that more’n once or twice. There’s too much hate to ignore. And the only way to handle it is to scream and yell and fight dirty … That’s what happened to Franny’s boy child. He lost that fightin’ spirit we saw in Chicago and he let the hate get under his skin. You either send that hate back right back out there where it belongs—in crackers or dumbassed micks or stupid cops or whoever—or else it’s gonna get to you.
It’s gonna kill you.
After Jay’s death, Preston spent the rest of his life finding and writing and organising ways for himself and his peers to survive against the unremitting opprobrium of a gay man’s life at the time.
That aria in Franny made me think of Tom Joad’s speech in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:
… it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark—I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build—I’ll be there, too.
But when I asked one of Preston’s many writer friends if he was aware of a Steinbeck connection, he said Preston had never mentioned it. But Laurence Senelick tells a story in Looking For Mr. Preston about lending Preston a copy of the 1683 Whore’s Rhetorick, which became a model for Preston’s own Hustling: A Gentleman’s Guide to the Fine Art of Homosexual Prostitution. There I found the following autobiographical and philosophical aside:
Hustling Involves Social Work, A Hint of Psychiatric Nursing and A Lot of Priesthood
You are going to find yourself hearing confessions and detailed accounts of your clients’ past sins, all with the expectation of forgiveness. You may well be the only person in the world who knows a particular client’s most secret sexual fantasies…More often, my regular customers wanted a buddy more than they wanted a sexual partner. I was the one person to whom they could speak about any subject they chose. I was the one person in their lives who would accept them as they presented themselves… Underneath the contempt that some people hold about prostitution is a strong pattern of contempt for sex… I have been a secretary. I have been a hustler. Being a hustler is much better for your self-esteem.
If you compare this passage to a memoir by Heidi Fleiss or some other heterosexual sexual entrepreneur, let alone a pimp-turned-novelist like Iceberg Slim, there is no hint of this notion of hustling as social work. That is Preston’s injection of morality into the lowest rung of the capitalist food system.
But Preston wasn’t quite at ease in his role of moral humourist and provocateur on the gay literary scene. The reason was class. According to Senelick, part of the reason he left New York in 1979 was his “detestation of the incestuous literary scene there” and his sense that he had been rejected by the Violet Quill group, a collective of gay writers led by Edmund White who began meeting to critique each other’s work in the early 1980s. The Violet Quill had come together, according to member Felice Pelicano, because the heterosexual agents, editors, and publishers were not helpful as a sounding board for what they were writing about. While Preston belonged with the Violet Quill group in theory, he did not feel the same sense of class entitlement; he did not speak the right way. He wrote well, but he wrote porn. When describing himself and his appeal to trade publishing houses, it was by contrasting himself and his hordes of leather-clad fans to “Ed White and the New York Review of Books crowd.”
Edmund White III was born in Cincinnati, grew up in Chicago, attended prep school at Cranbrook School and then Michigan University where, presumably, he was not told he didn’t speak properly. Best known for his autobiographical trilogy A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, one can reasonably characterize him as someone who tended to write about himself and his preoccupations, artistic or sexual, as if they were important. He also offered a counterpoint to Preston insofar as he was briefly editor of The Saturday Review when it was based in San Francisco in the early ’70s, during the same time Preston was editing the rather less-toney Advocate.
Preston had never considered that he was important; he was addressing his audience, pursuing his audience, wooing and preaching to his audience desperately, ferociously, and without a shred of an assumption that he was entitled to their time. That’s why he wrote about what he believed was on their minds—sex—rather than literature. And for my money, Preston’s proletarian voice is part of what remains compelling about his work. It is what I find entirely absent from the more cultured and self-referential voices higher up the socio-economic ladder. There is something distinctly American about that: the role of class in his career could not possibly have been overlooked had he been a writer in England. The working class writers in England made class their central concern—how you spoke was everything. Only in America, where money supposedly buys everything, can the dirty secret of class be ignored. And there is no English equivalent to Preston: respectable pornographers such as Joan Collins or Jilly Cooper write about sex between heterosexuals in middle class if not upper-class environments. What’s entirely missing is Preston’s moral dimension.
I think, however, that the gay culture Preston chronicles may be irrelevant to me, just as the gay culture Ed White chronicles is irrelevant to me. Neither Franny nor The Farewell Symphony chronicle my experience. What Preston’s work does reveal to me is a desperate need to connect, a need seen perhaps most vividly in his devotion to the gay community—the one thing beyond writing that gave meaning to his life. Gay men needed a social code, and he spent his life formulating a moral and social code to allow the outlaws to keep their heads up. Money and privilege allowed White and the other members of the Violet Quill to live outside the law, but not fall foul of it; as historians note, the Stonewall Inn was a mafia-owned hang out for drag queens, trans people, and effeminate young men—the members of the gay community who could not easily assimilate. It was this community that Preston wrote about, and for which he tried to form an ethical code of conduct. Preston’s position as a working-class writer—without money to insulate himself from the brutal dangers of gay life in the middle of the twentieth century—makes him riveting.
But Preston’s drag-queen arias and Steinbeck’s Tom Joad share other similarities, especially when you consider how few major twentieth century American novelists concerned themselves with the lives of the working class. Faulkner wrote about the genteel poor and the white trash of the South, not the working class. Hemingway and Fitzgerald idolized the rich. Even good old Raymond Chandler in his chronicles of American crime described the decadence of Marlowe’s rich clientele: the criminals were the bit parts. Preston writes about the sex lives of working-class guys.
If we compare Preston not to White, but to more mainstream gay authors such as Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, or Truman Capote, it becomes even clearer that those writers became central American figures by downplaying gay themes, or camouflaging them in their work. Preston did not think anybody wanted to hear from him about the meaning of life, so he wrote about sex. He wrote about sex honestly because doing otherwise would have defeated the purpose, which was to seduce and inspire his readership. That’s why there is no heterosexual pornographer equivalent to Preston. Heterosexual pornographers did not need to formulate ethical codes for their readers (unless you view Hugh Hefner’s career as a moral crusade). Preston’s community needed an authoritative moral voice, and he provided it. Preston had to cope with surviving as a gay man as well as an artist, and his avoidance of obscuring his identity is perhaps what made him less self-destructive and a better guide to the artist’s life than, say, Tennessee Williams, or Truman Capote. I love Blanche Dubois, but she is finally a self-portrait of the artist as a doomed fantasist. What is relevant to me—and, I suspect, to anyone who picks up Preston’s books today—is that voice of a very touchy moralist who is trying to find the meaning of his own life as a means of spiritual and emotional survival.
Edmund White now teaches at Princeton. That is not something John Preston ever would have dreamed of doing—and not just because he didn’t have the sense of entitlement to walk into such a job. White has spent his career chronicling gay life as a respectable artistic subject; it makes sense for him to teach at Princeton. Even Gore Vidal—no stranger to self-promotion or entitlement—spent his career threading a secret gay history into the broader story of the United States, or ancient Rome, or the apocalyptic future as he saw it. It’s not clear to me that Gore Vidal could have presented himself as a role model in the way that White does. But White’s is a curious triumph, and fame is capricious. In 2010, some years after Preston passed away, the New York Review of Books published a somewhat-hostile piece by Daniel Mendelsohn, who asked if White would ultimately take pleasure in being shelved in the Gay section of bookstores, rather than among the Great Novels: that is, Mendelsohn asked if even White had denied himself a seat at the big boys table by writing to a “minority” audience.
It is a very difficult line to walk. In the early twentieth century, for instance, Jewish writers wrote “American” books like Day of the Locust or The Naked and the Dead. In the 1960s, three novelists—Bellow, Malamud, and Roth—staked their claim on Jewish American life through universalist representations, and Bellow won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. I’m not sure I see the gay equivalent of Bellow in Preston’s generation. Is Tennessee Williams the gay Bellow? Williams is in the Library of America, which is probably as much of an indication of posterity as you can find. A lesbian author, Elizabeth Bishop, is also canonized there—but she kicked and fought against being considered a woman poet, let alone a lesbian poet, all her life, and there she is on Parnassus; but she is not, it is important to note, in the Gay book section. Which is to say: privileged or not, White has still found himself excluded for dealing openly with gay material, and for this reader, at least, the privilege has prevented him from presenting the rougher side of the artist’s life. There will always be somebody new to come along and write about being a flâneur in Paris, as White did in The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, but the underbelly of life in a particular time and place that Preston chronicled retains a particular claim on the imagination, especially when the political climate turns conservative again and watching one’s back becomes a more normative experience.
Much of Preston’s pornographic fiction is still in print, and more of White’s is, but White is also still living. What neither of them enjoys is the kind of biographical study devoted to Elizabeth Bishop. I do not presume to suggest that Preston merits inclusion in the Library of America, but his two collections of essays should be reprinted together, at least. And perhaps a book of his letters, collected and entertainingly annotated by someone who could follow the gossip as well as the sage counsel. I think it would bear up well to a comparison with a long list of moral works from Rome to the present days, letters to sons and other young men in need of moral guidance from an older and less-sentimental pastor.
Writing to his literary executor Michael Lowenthal about how he felt writing Franny, Preston confessed:
When I had first moved [to Portland], I brought with me a writer named Jason Klein who hated Portland, the cold, the provincialism, etc. We had about a year of being lovers, then I sent him back to San Francisco to live. We never really broke up, it was a great passion of my life … and we talked about getting back together again later … Anyway, he died almost immediately after he got back to SF … I was a wreck. Probably because I blamed myself for a short while. I had, after all, sent him back to California. And, always remember, this story about the inability to stop a suicide reverberates with Jay’s.
So Franny was not just the story of the beginning of Preston’s love life; it came shimmering back to look him face to face again at the end.
When he returned to Portland and picked up working men in bars, Preston would sometimes ask them just to talk to him so he could hear their accent. One of the first men who’d picked him up at the Greyhound, under the watchful eyes of the drag queens, had made him promise never to lose his accent. Now he closed that circle, listening again to the voices that had always stayed in his prose. He never learned to speak as anybody other than who he was. And that voice still speaks to me, very directly, very bluntly, when I try to think my way out of a box.
Preston once told Lowenthal that the world younger gay writers lived in had not existed when he was coming up—that it was a world that existed in large part due to his own activity: “I had something major to do with it. It makes me feel like Franny.” That, in the end, was Preston’s view of morality. Not the jungle of a nuclear family, but the chosen responsibility of looking out for somebody to whom you didn’t owe anything, someone who needed looking out for but couldn’t pay you back. He was trying to be one of those drag queens outside the Greyhound, finally, looking out for the young ones so they wouldn’t get hurt.
Atar Hadari’s plays have won awards from the BBC, Arts Council of England, National Foundation of Jewish Culture (New York), European Association of Jewish Culture (Brussels), and the Royal Shakespeare Company where he was Young Writer in Residence. His stories have been published in New York Stories, Witness, and Shooter, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “Opening Lines.” His monthly Bible translation columns appear in MOSAIC, which goes to over 10,000 subscribers daily, and his “Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin” won a PEN Translates award and is due out from Arc Publications in 2017.