Sometimes I enjoy reading for research almost as much as I enjoy writing. More, in fact, when the writing isn’t going that well. And occasionally, not often, I can bring myself to read a book with the intention of reviewing it. For a while, when the Erotica Revealed review site was active, I reviewed a book every month, and didn’t have any choice as to which ones. It got so I kind of welcomed the challenge of assessing stories according to both the tastes of the intended readership (frequently not me) and the level of the writing (not always, shall we say, top notch.) My proudest achievement was asserting once, with absolute sincerity, that if your taste ran to porn treatments of The Land that Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs, this was the book for you.
Right now I happen to be bogged down on both the research and the reviewing fronts. The review was requested by the publisher, who happens to publish some of my work, as well, and is a good friend, so I do want to do it. The book hasn’t actually come out yet, and I haven’t finished reading it—I’m about three-quarters along—so I’m not going to share the title. It’s not something I would have chosen for myself, since alien-invasion/apocalyptic books are not my favorite genre, but it’s definitely very well-written and keeps me reading, and the grimness at the beginning is at this point being tempered by layer upon layer of unexpected complexities, so I have hopes that most of my so-far unanswered questions will be resolved by the end. I just have to stop reading well before bedtime or the tension will exacerbate my tendency toward insomnia.
The research area of my reading is, of course, by choice. I have no one to blame but myself for taking a probably misguided notion to attempt a story for a gay male erotica anthology. That in itself wouldn’t be a big deal—I’ve only written gay male erotica once before, but that one has been fairly successful. The problem is that this anthology’s theme requires research into the gay world of Victorian/Edwardian England, and my own concept for it also requires research into ancient Greece, particularly as revealed by the figures on ancient Greek pottery.
Both of these historical areas should be fun to research, and in fact I’ve already done quite a bit on the pottery element, when I was hoping to write a story for a different anthology but didn’t get around to it in time. Typical of me. Sooner or later I’m sure I’ll use it; maybe sooner. Maybe not. Anyway, I ferreted out a book in the local library that seems like just the thing to fill me in on gay male life in ancient Greece, about which I may have inaccurate preconceptions, and I’m trying to read it now. A little at a time, every night, until I fall asleep over it. A bit of an antidote to insomnia. Just the thing after I’ve been reading the alien invasion book mentioned above. The Greeks and Greek Love: a Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World by James Davidson consists of seven hundred and eighty-nine indexed, footnoted pages, within which, I’m convinced, can be found all the information I need to be sure no one can challenge whatever I turn out to say about the subject in the course of my short story (which is actually about Victorian England.) It’s really an excellent book, densely detailed, scholarly but not impenetrable, or at least it wouldn’t be if I didn’t try to read it just before bedtime. Nice illustrations, too, many of them involving pottery.
Obviously, research into gay male life in Victorian England would be more to the point. I thought it was a stroke of luck when a writer I respect, who is in fact the editor of the anthology I’m aiming for, posted a review on Facebook of a book published in 1883 titled The Sins of the Cities of the Plain; or, The Recollections of a Mary-Ann, with Short Essays on Sodomy and Tribadism. (Turns out to be precious little Tribadism, but that's neither here nor there.) The tone of his review was on the apologetic side; the book clearly fell into the category of guilty pleasures, with prose of a decidedly purple hue that he would ordinarily despise, but he could forgive all that because of such energy and enthusiasm! So of course I grabbed a Kindle version from Amazon, and read it at once. Well, remember what I said way upstream about the tastes of the intended readership? If I were reviewing this book and wanted to put a plausibly positive spin on my review, I’d say that if you’re looking for a gay alternative to Fanny Hill, this is it. I was very much younger and less world-weary when I read Fanny Hill, but even then the titillation factor wore thin through so much repetition even on a first reading. Possibly repetition works better for male readers of erotica than for females—I’m sure Fanny Hill was aimed at male readers, and pretty darned sure the author was male—but it’s also likely that I’ve become curmudgeonly in my old age, and have no business critiquing erotica or even calling anything I write or edit erotica. But I will if I want to.
So there you have it. I’m reading, but not exactly for pleasure, and wishing I were writing, but not exactly convinced that I’m aiming in the right direction just now. In this state of ambivalence, I’m incline to take the avoidance route, and just close with a short excerpt from my currently (and perhaps permanently) only gay male story, “The Bridge,” published in Best Fantastic Erotica from Circlet Press and soon to be reprinted in His Seed from Lethe Press. The story is set in England during WWI, and this is the part where my central character muses bitterly on the freedom warriors in ancient Greece had to be open about being lovers.
… In his darkest moments Bernard wondered why had he not been taken, along with all those other thousands. Along with Neal. Why, for him, the special hell of survival, while those he had been forced to lead into hopeless battle died around him?
Two years ago—an eternity—when they were young, Neal had sprawled before the fire in their rooms at Cambridge and read to him of how the ancient Greeks sent paired lovers into battle. Each would be spurred to heroism by the presence of the other, they believed, and would scorn to seem cowardly in the beloved's eyes. Bernard had returned a gruff remark—"So vanity made the world go round even then!" or some such studied cynicism—to hide the surge of tenderness quickening into passion that he felt as he watched the firelight play across Neal's slender face and form. Not that Neal didn't know, by then, every pulse of Bernard's body and mind, and how to rouse them.
The Greeks, Bernard thought grimly, had never dreamed what war would become. Mortar shells and poison gas take no notice of heroism. And, while a Spartan or Athenian might have been compelled to order his lover to advance into sure death, there would have been no dishonor in showing his love. No long months of denial, until, at the last, when Bernard had held Neal's broken body in his arms, the face his lips had touched so tenderly was cold and still.
Doesn’t sound much like erotica, I know, but a measure of healing does come through sex in the story, with the help of the Green Man figure from Celtic mythology. More to the point with regard to my current research, I’m pretty sure a student at Cambridge in the early 20th century might have read what is said here about the Greek paired lovers in battle, but I’m not at all sure that the information was accurate, and that’s something I hope to determine from reading The Greeks and Greek Love in all its extensively researched splendor. So I guess I’d better get back to it. After all, it’s nearly bedtime.