|TOPMAN ¶ Online Writings by and about John Preston|
THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF JOHN PRESTON
In 1979, at the age of 33, John Preston surprised his fellow authors by abandoning New York City and returning to his childhood home of New England. Leaving behind the big cities he had lived in for a decade, he settled in Portland, Maine, donned an oxford-cloth shirt and loafers, and proceeded to integrate himself successfully with his conservative neighbors.
Many of his fans were aghast. This, they protested weakly, was not appropriate behavior for a well-known sadist and the author of the most famous leather novel of all times.
"I am adamantly a top, a sadist, a master," Preston once asserted flatly. He made his first splash as an author in early 1979 by writing about the world of sadomasochism between willing gay participants (leather). Yet it would seem, on the surface, that in late 1979 he had decided to set aside his past as a sexual rebel and as a recorder of radical sexual behavior by other gay men.
Preston had not begun his public career as a sexual rebel – or rather, he had begun it that way only because being gay before Stonewall necessarily meant being an outlaw. However, he had participated in many of the revolutionary activities of youth during the sixties and seventies: civil rights work, anti-war protests, Christian social progressivism, health consultations with sexual minorities, and plenty of participation in gay activism. During these years, Preston worked as much as possible within the system: he sent out press releases, applied successfully for federal funds, and did church work.
Eventually he became editor of a gay newspaper with national distribution, The Advocate. He promptly tried to give the paper a more respectable appearance by making plans to get rid of the raunchy personal ads, which he would transfer to another publication. (The plan couldn't be carried through. It turned out that the readers of the personal ads were the paper's most loyal subscribers.)
Then Preston's public life took an unexpected turn. After quitting The Advocate at the end of 1975, he found himself unemployed and began working as a gay prostitute. It was a job he was already familiar with; he had cruised for sex as a teenager and accepted any money he was offered. As an adult, he attracted clients by advertising himself as a leather topman. Immersed in the gay ghettos of San Francisco and New York City during the heights of the sexual revolution, Preston started editing, authoring, and photographing erotica, usually on leather themes – and he began letting these be published under his real name. The semi-respectable reputation he had established in the past was now being lost.
Speaking of his past leather writings, as well as those of a former lover, Preston wrote in 1987, "In those days, Jason and I foolishly thought that we could write well enough that we would eventually be accepted as 'real' writers." When Preston moved to Maine, he continued his quest. This time he succeeded.
For the next fifteen years, Preston turned out journalistic accounts of mainstream gay life in Maine, published several anthologies on gay men's thoughts about friends and family and other ordinary aspects of life, wrote a series of articles offering publishing advice to authors of gay literature, and was wined and dined by the publishing elite of America. He began to win literary awards, and his books were selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Yet all was not well. When his critically acclaimed anthology of writings
about AIDS was published by a big-name press, Preston went on a tour to
promote it, and there, he said, "I had a sense that something was wrong.
I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something about the audiences
that I just couldn't figure out."
It wasn't until after a major tour for Hometowns: Gay Men Write About Where They Belong that it all finally became clear. When I got home, I talked to my agent and said, "They weren't there."
"Who?" he asked – the logical question.
"The boys in the black leather jackets, the dirty old men in raincoats!"
He had abandoned his original readers, he concluded mournfully. In fact, he had never done so; Hometowns was published in 1991, only two years after his most recent leather porn novel. But Preston had striven for so long to receive acceptance from mainstream readers that, when the acceptance finally came, he was startled to realize that the price of it would be that he would need to compartmentalize himself, placing his erotic writings in a different sphere from his non-erotic writings.
He refused to do this. The following year he published the first in a series of anthologies, issued by a mainstream publisher, in which he took hardcore pornography and repackaged it as erotica. He began to talk more and more to his mainstream readers about his own erotic writings, and in 1993 he delivered a talk at Harvard University entitled, "My Life as a Pornographer." He was careful to mention to his audience that he had honored them by arranging to have the lecture reprinted in Inches magazine.
Just as Preston brought pornography to the literary world, he also fought over the years to bring literature to the world of pornography. In an era when the success of a porn story was often measured by how many sexual acts could be crammed into the tale, Preston insisted that his pornography have plot, character development, and theme. In one case ("Private Kirowsky"), he went so far as to write a 32-page leather erotica tale with virtually no sex or sadomasochism. His porn readers remained loyal to him, and other authors joined him in writing gay erotica that fell squarely within the realm of literature.
Preston wasn't universally admired as a writer. Some of his books, written for money, were judged by others as pure hackwork. His first and best-known leather novel, Mr. Benson, continues to arouse strongly divisive reactions from its readers, including readers who are sympathetic to the book's leather themes.
Yet when Preston died of AIDS complications in 1994, he left behind a remarkable legacy. He had authored or edited 49 books in the space of fifteen years, and these works were being bought both by mainstream readers and by "the boys in the black leather jackets, the dirty old men in raincoats." In some cases, both audiences were reading the same books by Preston. This in itself was quite an accomplishment for the topman from New England.
In a 1992 interview with Michael Rowe (edited slightly by Preston for
his Tales from the Dark Lord II), Preston summarized his life in
When you left the room just now, I looked at my mail. I have the Times Literary Supplement, Publishers Weekly, The New Yorker, Advocate Men, and Inches. This is somehow my life, and no part of it is separated.
HOW THIS SITE STARTED
The Preston Project began in August 2004 in an informal manner, through the efforts of a writer to track down what information had been published on Preston, leading to that writer's discovery that very little had been written about Preston in the ten years since his death. Topman opened the following month, on September 22, with one short page of links: every source of information on Preston (other than routine book listings) that was then available on the Web. So scarce was the information that linking to one-sentence references to Preston seemed necessary.
Within twenty-four hours, one of John Preston's friends offered his memoir of Preston for reprinting at Topman. Since then, the Preston Project has expanded to collect documents and remembrances about Preston and is working to see that all of Preston's books are translated into alternative formats for the blind. Topman is now focussed around a documentary biography of John Preston (Topman's Timeline), which will continue to grow as the Preston Project uncovers more information.
ABOUT THE WORD "TOPMAN"
"Topman" (usually abbreviated as "top" in recent decades) has a dual
meaning in the gay community: it can mean someone who takes the penetrative
role in sex, or it can mean someone who is the leader of a leather encounter.
The editor of this site asked a friend who does research on mid-century
popular culture about the origins of the term, and she offered the following:
"Top," "topper," "topping," and "top man," all terms indicating various sorts of guys in charge, go back centuries. The twentieth century evinces various usages in the U.S. and British underworld, show-business, and among tramps, all vocabulary sources known to trade slang back and forth with the gay community (as in "gonsel".) Assorted uses of "Top - (another word)" were definitely in use within the gay community to indicate some sort of dominant in the forties, as in "top-sergeant," the alpha butch-lesbian.
Preston may or may not have been aware of the word's many nonsexual meanings. In any case, he did take on the role of the "guy in charge" during various episodes of his life – sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. Hence this site's title.
ABOUT THE EDITOR AND RELATED SITES
Dusk Peterson is a fiction writer, history writer, and journalist. Peterson's personal domain features historical fantasy, contemporary gay fiction and erotica, and resources. Visitors to Topman may be particularly interested in two sets of sites at that domain: The Leather Research Reference Shelf and The Literature and History of Friendship, Romantic Friendship, Romance, and Sexuality. Both include GLBT resources.
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