It is an honor to sit down this month with artist, professor, and writer William E. Jones. His most well known works are films in which he edits together sequences from vintage 1970s and 1980s gay porn to create a discursive arena in which to consider the desires implicit in sexual imagery. His short films are at once explorations of the complexities of homosexual identity and nostalgic recollections of an erstwhile gay culture drastically altered since the onset of AIDS. For the most part editing out hard-core scenes, Jones allows his pieces to focus on the language of body movement and even landscape as sites for subtler fantasy and romanticism.
In our conversation, we discuss William’s latest project which is a biography of writer Boyd McDonald, whose classic work “Straight to Hell.” From a tiny room in a New York SRO hotel, McDonald published Straight to Hell, a series of chapbooks collecting readers’ “true homosexual experiences.”
Following the example of Alfred Kinsey, McDonald obsessively pursued the truth about sex between men just as gay liberation began to tame America’s sexual outlaws for the sake of legal recognition. Admired by such figures as Gore Vidal and William S. Burroughs, Straight to Hell combined a vigorous contempt for authority with a keen literary style, and was the precursor of queer ‘zines decades later.
Robert Frashure: Thanks so much for joining us today, William! My first question is, how did you come to this project of writing about Boyd?
William E. Jones: Over a period of years during the last decade, I worked on Halsted Plays Himself, a biography of film director Fred Halsted, published by Semiotext(e) in 2011. I did research for the book at the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, and while I was there, I looked up Boyd McDonald’s film column in the gay literary magazine Christopher Street. Most of these essays had been collected in Cruising the Movies (1985), a book I had read in the 1980s and loved. I found more essays that had not been collected, and I copied these texts and filed them away.
After Halsted Plays Himself came out, I proposed to Semiotext(e) that they reissue Cruising the Movies. A couple of years later, when they prepared a new, augmented edition of the book, they asked me to write an introduction. As I worked on the essay (which in the end amounted to 8000 words), I couldn’t stop writing about Boyd’s life, which I found fascinating. He published 14 books, and only one was about film; the rest were his compilations of “true homosexual experiences”: texts submitted by the readers of his chapbook series, Straight to Hell. To give a clearer picture of Boyd’s activities, I thought it would be best to deal with Straight to Hell at much greater length, and that could only be done in a proper biography published as a separate book. We Heard You Like Books, a new press, is bringing out True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell this year.
Robert Frashure: Were there any things that you learned about Boyd that were especially surprising to you while researching and writing?
William E. Jones: The most pleasant surprise was that everyone I tracked down was eager to share what they knew about Boyd. During the writing of the Fred Halsted book, I encountered a lot of resistance, and many of my sources insisted on pseudonyms or refused to speak “on the record.” By contrast, Boyd’s friends were very happy that a biography was in the works. A further surprise was that I managed to contact members of Boyd’s family. I corresponded at length with Boyd’s niece, who adored her uncle but who knew little about the Boyd of Straight to Hell. Her contributions added an extra dimension to the book.
Robert Frashure: What are you hoping that people who read this book will walk away with when they are finished? Or, in other words, what do you think are the most significant legacies of Boyd you wish you impart?
William E. Jones: The image of gay life available to most people today is consumerist, and Boyd decisively refused that in the way he led his life. He concerned himself with the most fundamental aspects of homosexuality—sex and desire—and wrote about them in great, obsessive detail. Following his obsession excluded him from the comfortable, bourgeois existence we are conditioned by American society to want. Boyd set a counterexample, and almost everything he wrote had a political edge. He was an angry old man in the 1970s and 80s, yet the targets of his satire are still with us, in the alarming right-wing populism of electoral politics, and in pronouncements about gay rights that ignore broader issues of social justice. He saw the American Dream as a scam. This is a position that still has relevance today.
Robert Frashure: I have a questions about Boyd and his experiences at Harvard, as it is amazing to think of Skinner and Boyd having a conversation! It didn’t seem like Boyd appreciated Skinner that much, especially when he said that in his class “you couldn’t use any word (i.e. love) that couldn’t be located during an autopsy on a body.” That’s very funny. It seems as though F.O. Matthiessen was much more important to Boyd’s intellectual development at the time?
William E. Jones: I wonder if Boyd took more from B. F. Skinner than his poor grade in Psychology would suggest, but some connections might be apparent only in retrospect. The one thing missing from Straight to Hell is introspection, exactly what Skinner rejected in his behaviorist theories. When he sought treatment for his depression and anxiety disorder later in life, Boyd saw not only a psychiatrist but also a behavioral psychologist.
When Boyd was an undergraduate, he studied American literature, and Matthiessen’s work on Walt Whitman seems to have been especially important to him. I did not discover direct evidence that Boyd had any literary ambitions, and unfortunately, his sister threw away stacks of notes and drafts after his death, so it is unlikely any will ever be found. Boyd resists a psychological reading of his work: the main part of it is editing texts written by others; self-critical utterances were rare until just before his death; he shared very little of his personal anguish even with his closest friends. He had a curiously instrumental relationship to his mental illness—he made it work for him. Perhaps this is a useful definition of what an artist does.
Robert Frashure: As a former student at Harvard, I was fascinated to read about the history of homosexuality at Harvard from Boyd’s perspective! You describe how Boyd remembers a wild subculture of homosexuality at Harvard after all the men were returning from WWII. Even at this time, it seemed like the university was strict about not allowing homosexuality while, at the same time, turning a blind eye. What was it like researching the history of homosexuality at Harvard, was this a difficult part of the project? I have a sense that the university and its administrators have a long history of covering things up, much like the Catholic Church. Did you get that sense as you were researching Harvard’s history of homosexuality?
William E. Jones: Regarding men returning from war, I can only imagine that nearly dying at a young age helps put one’s priorities in order. Behaving like a proper little miss because the university administration says so must have struck the Harvard men of the late 1940s as a big joke.
The most difficult thing with which someone writing about modern homosexuality must contend is not institutional censorship—though this does still exist nearly everywhere—but self-censorship. I chose an anonymous text from Straight to Hell as the most reliable account of gay life at Harvard, in preference to the more official versions written by historians, literary figures, and their heirs. I didn’t bother to examine closely the gibberish produced by the institution itself.
Robert Frashure: I loved reading about the action in the fifth floor restroom of Lamont library at Harvard!. When I was there, there was a website called “Bored at Lamont,” where undergrads went online to find library quickies. I am glad the tradition has carried forward!
William E. Jones: Public sex has being going on for centuries, and it will go on forever, unless there is a drastic change in human behavior, e. g., we stop living in cities and having sexual desires. Only the locations for meetings change. A restroom in a remote part of a library is a traditional spot for “quickies.”
Robert Frashure: I personally did not enjoy Harvard at all, but it seems like Boyd had a good experience of Harvard? Even though he observes how homosexuality was not included in the curriculum even when it was relevant, such as when talking about Whitman and Proust and Gide, he felt like “Going to Harvard gives you the feeling you’re really educated because it’s such a prestigious university. It gives you confidence. You have to have confidence to do work that is not orthodox.”
William E. Jones: The context of that remark is important, because Boyd said this to a young Harvard alumnus who was interviewing him to get footage for a Harvard event. I think the students of Boyd’s generation considered themselves exceptional and therefore above a lot of social conventions, especially the stupid ones like prejudice against homosexuality. The social pressure on these young men to conform once they graduated must have been intense, though. It certainly wrecked Boyd’s life for a couple of decades, until he stopped drinking and reinvented himself as the editor of Straight to Hell.
Robert Frashure: Do you think Boyd would have been a different kind of writer if he had not gone to Harvard? In other words, did attending Harvard and becoming the “Ivy League Fuck-up” have a significant impact on the writer he would become?
William E. Jones: Boyd led a privileged life then renounced it. He saw the top and the bottom of the social scale, and not as a tourist, either. This range of experiences was absolutely crucial to his point of view as a writer and editor. In this day and age of intense social stratification—I recently read a report asserting that a failing student at a prestigious university has a better chance of career success than a straight-A student in a community college—it is exceedingly difficult for a poor kid to join a higher social class. The way to experience the world as Boyd did is not by rising, but by falling. Harvard trained him to be a writer, and he put those skills to use, first for corporate America, then later for his own work done at the margins of society.
Robert Frashure: Would you say that Boyd in his process of writing was almost like a sociologist, capturing the sexual lives of as many cross sections of society as possible? You write that he organized his stacks of leader from readers like a “social science researcher,” and that he was interested by the sex lives of all men—everyone from truck drivers to Robert Mapplethorpe! Yet he seemed adamant to not call himself a sociologist, and to call his work “art.”
William E. Jones: In a way, Boyd did the opposite of what a sociologist does. The result of sociological research is abstract and impersonal, general principles derived from sets of statistics. Boyd’s work was both concrete and personal. He gave his subjects exhaustive questionnaires asking for descriptions of every aspect of sex acts: smells, tastes, sounds, and visual details of the environment as well. A sociologist simply does not have the time or space to make use of this level of detail. Even when the research involves sexual fantasies, the subjects are not only anonymous but taken as representatives of their respective social groups. I suppose Boyd was closest to a sexologist. I mention Alfred Kinsey in the book, but perhaps he could also be compared to Masters and Johnson.
Boyd’s ideal was graffiti on the walls of a toilet stall—crude, direct sexual expression in a style that is no style at all. His appreciation for this language was aesthetic, and in this respect he has more in common with a writer than a social scientist. What interested Boyd could be called écriture masculine: rough men making gross errors in spelling and grammar yet cutting through the niceties to get to an authentic description of hardcore fucking.
Robert Frashure: I was intrigued to read the distinction that Boyd made between his work and the fantasies sold by commercial pornographers: his work was more exciting because it actually did happen, as opposed to the imaginative fantasies of a lone writer. I had never heard the distinction written like this before, but I agree with him! The stories in his work are much less generic and formulaic as a result, and perhaps more truthful and stimulating?
William E. Jones: I think Boyd is generally right, and many people agree. I know some men who still masturbate to stories they read in Boyd’s books, which were published a long time ago. Very little commercial pornography has proven as durable, but some of it has. I disagree with his argument if it comes close to a blanket assertion of non-fiction’s superiority over fiction; I believe each has its role to play in culture (and in an individual’s imagination). I read non-fiction mainly as research for my work, while I read fiction purely for pleasure.
Furthermore, pornography is far too complex to sum up in generalizations. I suspect Boyd would have been fascinated by amateur porn videos, which only came on the market at the end of his life. And what would Boyd have made of Larry Clark’s Impaled, his contribution to the art/porn omnibus Destricted? It is simultaneously a documentary and a porn film. This assertion applies to more films than Impaled. Unless a production is highly art directed and styled—a tiny minority of porn at this point—it ends up being something close to a documentary. What it documents best are lapses in a fictional mise en scène, moments that show people thinking, breathing, or merely being. Such moments were the stuff of Boyd’s sex writing and editorial work, and central to his appreciation of classic Hollywood films, too.
Robert Frashure: You write that Boyd’s “subversive wit graced every project on which he worked… and beneath his polite demeanor was a fiercely individualistic anarchist.” I totally agree, I find myself laughing much the time when reading his titles! Are you able to say any more about his sense humor: for example, what was his sense of humor about? Where did it come from and how was it directed? Was anyone spared from his enormous wit? His jokes about Reagan are hilarious!
William E. Jones: Here is one way of summing up his sense of humor and his politics as well: everyone is a secret pervert.
It’s a hard position to defend, an even harder one to disprove. Figures in the public eye are scrutinized incessantly, and every aspect of their lives can be satirized. When homosexual acts were illegal in the US, and it was possible for a celebrity to sue someone who implied that he was gay, mainstream publications avoided such speculation. It became the exclusive task of America’s homosexuals, who reveled in a dirty, campy talk that had to remain more or less clandestine. This is the tradition that formed Boyd’s sense of humor. Another important aspect was the wit of the failure or outcast. Boyd was groomed for success at Harvard, yet he lost his position of prestige and responsibility. He knew what his colleagues had to do to keep up appearances, and he mocked them with some bitterness. This is another aspect of camp humor: no one takes us seriously, so we refuse to take anyone else seriously.
The one public figure whom Boyd spared was Gore Vidal. The two of them were friends, how close I am unsure, but Gore talked to Boyd regularly on the phone. I would guess they mainly gossiped about politics and the kind of men they loved. Both had a taste for trade, straight or straight acting men. Boyd made no effort to hide his inclinations, because he had nothing to lose. Gore did quite a bit of evading the truth; as a popular author, television personality, and former politician who was proud of his patrician heritage, he had a lot to lose. He pushed the limits of acceptable discourse as much as he could, but he never took the risks that Boyd did. It’s a bit sad, because the record of this relationship is lost. Gore refused to acknowledge that he even knew Boyd. Perhaps he was annoyed that quotes from his early fan letters to Straight to Hell were used as book jacket blurbs and ad copy. Boyd was a “secret” friend of Gore’s destined to go unmentioned in every biography and autobiography that has appeared thus far, but if Boyd felt snubbed, he never mentioned it in print.
Robert Frashure: I love the title, “Raunch and Radicalism.” I also believe that pornography can be radical and politically subversive. Do you think Boyd would want his writings to be seen in this way?
William E. Jones: While Boyd would disagree with calling his work pornography—he preferred the word “smut”—he would agree completely that his editing and publishing of “true homosexual experiences” was a politically subversive act.