Then: A bit of a different re-read today, in case you can’t tell: My Biggest O, edited by Jack Hart. When I was fourteen we went on a family holiday to Hay-on-Wye, whereupon my dad set me loose with £200 for the week to root around the many bookshops of the town. Somewhere around mid-week I found myself in an enormous, warehouse-size warren of a bookshop, which contained – like a strange exotic kingdom I hadn’t thought could exist – a section of gay fiction.
To put a little context in place: at fourteen, I knew I was gay, and had probably even managed to frame it into something resembling a sentence and definition. I was at a relatively nice comprehensive school, but that relative was to Scunthorpe, so homophobia was rampant. There was one out gay, my friend since primary school, who came out more by accident than design. A year or so earlier, I had gotten hold of an issue of Gay Times and been surprised to discover that it talked to its audience as if gay was perfectly normal (the back page started with the sentence, ‘We all know what we are…’) but a full shelf of LGBT fiction was an unlikely extension of this oddity: brazen, unashamed gay. Right out in the open.
I don’t know why I selected this book, other than for the obvious titillating reasons, nor can I remember what the selection to choose from was like. Chances are I probably overlooked a whole bunch of classic gay fiction that might have changed my world in favour of a slim book of erotica. With it’s flagrant naked torso on the front, I didn’t have the nerve to buy it: instead I shoplifted it (but felt so guilty I bought at least another 20 books in the shop to make up for it).
It spent the rest of the holiday at the bottom of my bag, occasionally sneaked out to read. There are about twenty stories, each theoretically the tale of the author’s ‘best sex’, but I don’t actually remember reading many of them; instead, I picked out a few favourites and stuck to them like, uh, glue. They were mostly the coming-of-age, first-time stories that mirrored the vague fumblings of my own experience at the time. The book made it all the way home and then, petrified it might be discovered and unable to take the stress, I threw it in the dustbin.
Now: I was actually quite surprised that I could even find the book at all (and equally surprised that it’s name and author jumped straight to mind without any trouble). I think I’d assumed it was obscure ephemera, but it was successful enough to warrant a second printing (with a cover ten times as godawful as the already fairly rubbish torso cover). It was nowhere near as long and thick as I remembered (pun intended) and, more noticeably, was startlingly unerotic.
I’m not quite sure how, even as a sex-starved teenager, I managed to glean any frisson of eroticism from it, because the stories are singularly wooden and unimaginative. The sex is mechanical and the emotional content not much better, and, given the lack of author names and uniform prose style, I’m inclined to believe that the so-called ‘true stories’ were in fact fabricated solely by the author to provide a handily marketable range (a range which includes some *very* dodgy pairings too, btw…) This isn’t some sniffy indictment of erotica from the mouth of someone who’s been through a literature degree either; I’ve spent the last year cultivating quite an admiration for writers of good erotica. Unfortunately, Jack Hart and his mysterious contributors are not members of those ranks.
Still though, it’s surprisingly powerful to re-read the stories at fifteen years remove. The book is a minor stone in the topography of my adolescence, and despite its objective awfulness, it’s hard (unintended this time, sorry) not to find the re-reading spiced with the illicit thrill of covert pornography — you know, the kind you hide under your bed, sneak out to read late at night, and then later dispose of surreptitiously.