Thirty-five years after he arrived in town, and two years after municipal officials lifted the title of one of his essays for a marketing slogan — “Portland, Maine: Yes. Life’s good here.” — Maine’s largest city is still struggling to accept John Preston, the famous (or, to some, infamous) gay activist, journalist and pornographer.
That last description has always been a sticking point. As Al Diamon wrote in an essay about his old friend in this month’s issue of The Bollard, the Portland Press Herald couldn’t bring itself to acknowledge the nature of Preston’s most well-known books when it published his obituary in 1994. Calling Preston a “celebrated anthologist, novelist, short-story writer and journalist” was akin to summing up Hunter S. Thompson’s career by noting that he wrote “a few freelance pieces for Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone,” Diamon quipped.
Two decades later, the daily paper was still sticking to its Puritanical style book. Preston is described as an author of “erotic novels” in an article about the slogan in June 2013. Columnist Bill Nemitz gingerly noted at the time that Preston’s work “often delved into the erotic.”
One could say the same for the Marquis de Sade, and be nearly as guilty of gross understatement.
In 1992, Preston gave USA Today a very quotable line about the difference between erotica and porn. “[E]rotica is what rich people buy,” he said. “Pornography is what the rest of us get.”
Preston moved to Portland in 1979, shortly after the material that would become his first (now classic) novel, “Mr. Benson,” was serialized in the leather-fetish magazine Drummer. “Mr. Benson” sparked a craze in the gay community similar to the much larger one among the hetero set caused by “Fifty Shades of Grey” this decade.
Make no mistake: “Mr. Benson” and nearly all the fiction Preston wrote afterward, such as “I Once Had a Master” (which is also a classic), are works of hardcore pornography. More specifically, they deal with the BDSM (bondage-and-discipline sadomasochism) subculture that exists in both the gay and straight scenes. To soft-peddle the nature of this work is to do both readers and the author a disservice.
“Mr. Benson” is a difficult book to read — not due to the prose, which is quite good, but due to its disconcerting subject matter. That said, it’s a very important book, insofar as it describes (and even celebrates) an aspect of American life that rarely sees the light of day. And for the record, Preston was not making this stuff up whole-cloth. His fiction was informed by his real-world experiences, including stints as a “hustler” (a polite term for “male prostitute”) in Boston and San Francisco.
Our society’s response to torture, in all its forms, is a topic that demands more discussion. As Human Rights First has documented,scenes of torture on prime-time television have exponentially increased this century, ushered in by the popularity of the show “24.” The organization counted 42 scenes of prime-time torture in 2000; three years later, it tallied 228.
Since then, a slew of popular dramas (“Scandal,” “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” to name just a few) have taken this trope and run with it. (As has a horde of “reality” shows, from “Fear Factor” to “Survivor” to “Naked and Afraid.”) It’s worth pondering the fact that viewers’ willingness to watch scenes of torture and torment grew in parallel with our government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects. It’s as though the media-industrial complex has been priming the public to accept the war crimes of the military-industrial complex.
Sticking-it-to-the-bad-guy has been a theme of stories, plays and other forms of entertainment since antiquity, so audiences are more than ready to accept that premise. What Preston made us consider — the use of torture for pleasure — is a much stickier proposition that relatively few are willing to accept. But as Linda Hollander wrote in a second essay about Preston that I published this month, “[t]here’s clearly a lot of curiosity about the BDSM world — especially among middle-aged, straight women.”
Social conservatives can continue to tear their hair out over this trend, but the truth is there’s no going back. The genie’s out of the bottle, and gay culture in all its forms is not going back into the closet. This year’s Pride festivities in Portland will undoubtedly be the biggest and loudest to date. Preston would be especially proud.