The Sins of the City on the Plains

The Sins of the City on the Plains
Anonymous
Difficulty: Medium
Project Gutenberg

The Sins of the City on the Plains was published in 1881, and is one of the first primarily homosexual works of pornography published in English. And it is porn, hardly different than the erotica we have available to us today. That’s what makes it such an interesting read. We usually imagine the Victorians as being socially rigid and highly moral, and while that’s true on the surface, the reality is that many Victorians adhered to those principles as little as we do today, and that fact is made abundantly clear in this text. The Sins of the City on the Plains is supposedly the memoirs of a male prostitute known pseudonymously as Jack Saul (a reference to the real-life prostitute John Saul, who was involved in multiple sex scandals at the time), though as the book was published anonymously, there is no way to know how ‘true’ it is. But whether or not the events of the book actually happened, it still offers us a window into Victorian-era homosexuality. Jack Saul recounts a variety of sexual experiences ranging from titillating to outright scandalous, featuring acts including but not limited to: rimming, sixty-nining, cross-dressing, mild-to-intense S&M, gangbangs, orgies, candlestick dildoes, and intercourse with a cow udder.

I don’t really know what I expected when I started reading this book, but it certainly wasn’t all of that. But why shouldn’t it be? Sexuality isn’t new, and there’s no reason to think that we’re particularly special in our own sexual practices. Though we fancy ourselves sexually liberated from the oppressive cultural regimes of the past, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence suggesting that isn’t true. Prior to the 1860’s, when intellectuals began categorizing sexualities, homosexual behavior wasn’t regarded as any more serious a sin than any other. Sodomites were looked down upon, but were viewed only as men incapable of controlling their impulses, not as a special class fundamentally flawed sinners. Foucault writes extensively about this in Volume One of his History of Sexuality, arguing that ‘homosexual’ did not exist before this impulse to categorize emerged, and it was the creation of this new category of people which formed the social framework that allowed them to be oppressed. Put another way, sodomy used to be something men did, not something men were. With that perspective in mind, it’s less surprising that the Victorians may have gotten up to such elaborate sexual hijinx.

The Sins of the City on the Plains was a fun, sometimes goofy, sometimes arousing read, but for anyone interested in checking it out themselves, I highly recommend reading the Project Gutenberg edition. The e-book version I originally acquired from Amazon features numerous revisions and additions that alter the tone and content of the book, and I’m very grateful to the Amazon reviewer who pointed this out. Some sexual descriptions are embellished to the point of comedy, and several of Jack’s heterosexual encounters are rewritten to feature men instead of women. Normally I wouldn’t complain about a book being made more gay, but since a significant part of its appeal stems from its historical authenticity, those changes make a difference.

The Last of the Wine

The Last of the Wine
Mary Renault
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Blurb from the Amazon page:
“Alexias is a young aristocrat living during the end of Athens’s Golden Age. Prized for his beauty and athletic prowess, Alexias studies under Sokrates with his closest friend, Lysis. Together, the young men come of age in an Athens on the verge of great upheaval. They attend the Olympics, partake in symposia, fight on the battlefields of the Peloponnesian War, and fall in love.

The first of Mary Renault’s celebrated historical novels of ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine follows Alexias and Lysis into adulthood, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, the Thirty Tyrants take hold of the city, and the lives of both men are changed forever. Through their friendship, Renault opens a vista onto ancient Greek life, uncovering its vibrancy, culture, and political strife, and offers an unforgettable story of love, honor, loyalty, and the remarkable bond between two men.”

I feel a bit under-qualified to speak about Mary Renault’s historical fiction. I’m not a classicist, and pretty much all of my knowledge of that period is drawn from popular works like The Odyssey or Symposium, so I really have no idea how historically accurate her work is. After thinking about it a bit, I decided it doesn’t really matter whether it’s accurate or not. The Last of the Wine’s value comes from its rich representation of an alternative culture, not from some intrinsic truthfulness. Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel expresses this in much more eloquent terms:

“[Mary Renault] does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”

To say that Renault’s Grecians are not like us might seem obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate just how alien they can seem at times. It’s not like a fantasy novel, where a fictional civilization still operates on modern western principles, Alexias and Lysis truly live by laws and values that today seem incredibly foreign to us (and even morally dubious). Sometimes this manifests itself in unexpected ways, such as Alexias’ father advising him on choosing an older male lover when he’s 16, or the practice of exposing infants when the child is undesirable, either because it is female or because the family is too poor. We know these things to be historical facts, but it’s unusual to see them performed without any of the usual reflexive commentary by our own culture.

I found it to be both a humbling and comforting experience to read. Humbling, because, more than sci-fi or fantasy, it caused me to reflect on my own culture and to remember that the way we are is not the way we have always been, and is not the way we always need to be. Comforting, for about the same reason. It was an exciting experience to watch Alexias, at 16, trotting around like a Victorian debutante, attracting the gaze of half the men in the city. I’m not saying that Greek pederasty is a key component of an ideal society, but it was something different. A different way of thinking about intimacy, sexuality, and society that helped expand my views of my own culture.

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.

Luck in the Shadows

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Luck in the Shadows
by Lynn Flewelling
Difficulty: Medium
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Around the age of 14 or 15 I was chewing through the entire Fantasy section at Barnes and Nobles, shelf-by-shelf, when Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows made its way into my pile. It is, to the best of my memory, the first book I ever read containing openly gay or bisexual characters, and as protagonists at that! Of course it took me a while to figure that out, as it’s rather subtle until the second book, and I was very stupid. And very closeted: when I finally figured it out I hid it under my bed and didn’t look at it for a week. But I did go back eventually because, gay or otherwise, it’s an excellent book.

A swashbuckle-y adventure in classic fantasy style, Luck in the Shadows tells the story of Alec and Seregil, two men imprisoned by a local tyrant on false pretenses (false for one of them, at least). Together they escape, and Alec, young and recently orphaned, agrees to accompany Seregil as his apprentice in the art of nightrunning which, as the name suggests, involves burglary, lock picking, spying, and other roguish shenanigans. The two soon find themselves ensnared in a sinister political plot endangering not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.

Luck in the Shadows was published in 1996 and bears many hallmarks of the fantasy genre from that era, so expect lots of world-building and a patient plot. Characters like Alec and Seregil have since become a little cliché, but they are still well-developed and fully realized. Though this is the first in the Nightrunner series, it is a complete story and does not end on a cliffhanger. As previously mentioned the protagonists’ sexuality is not very prominent until the sequel, but a variety of sexualities do exist in the world. To produce a successful fantasy with LGBT characters in the 90’s was no mean feat, and Luck in the Shadows is still worth reading today.