to Mark Simpson
by The Hanging Judge
Inches magazine, Feb 2003
In the past decade, British columnist Mark Simpson has made a name for himself as a smooth but thuggish homo provocateur. In an interview he once said that no true writer pens even a shopping list without first wondering if it will be preserved as literature. Magazine writing (especially today) is expected to endure only a little longer than your average shopping list. When you collect it between the far more permanent covers of a book, you raise it to the status of "literature". Do that to even the best of the stuff and it's bound to seem inflated. Harrington Park Press has recently followed up on its first volume of Simpson's collected columns, It's a Queer World, with a second, Sex Terror. These columns are from such British publications as The Guardian, The Face, Independent on Sunday and, most of all, Attitude, the groundbreaking Brit fag fashion rag for which Simpson was principal columnist for its first several years. Due largely to his columns for Attitude, Simpson became in the late 1990s the gay columnist best known for taking on the male stars of our time, from film, TV, pop music and sport, and the cultural institutions and media that prop them up, exposing how queer they all were (though not necessarily homosexual).
The good news is that Simpson's writing remains funny, sexy, sharp and provocative even when you take away the pictures and the glossy pages. Not only do Simpson's columns survive the transition from periodic lit to Literature, the author seems, well, deeper when you take him in a bigger dose at once. (Inches readers will appreciate that.) Reading lots of Simpson together, the reader has no trouble reconstructing the author's philosophy of the times and he does have one, clearly worked out. In column after column, this philosophy is the framework across which Simpson stretches his squirming subject usually something or someone from the world of pop culture and media, though the topics are sometimes as lofty as politics (or do we mean debased?) or as mundane as his own often less than glamorous sex life. Having a theoretic grounding gives substance even to Simpson's slightest columns, but the nitty gritty particulars of life and culture that he has to deal with in the space of a few pithy pages ensure that things never get either too airy or arid. Simpson never asks his theory to do the work that his (very observant) eyes should be doing.
Trawling Simpson's columns, the initiated will easily spot flotsam and jetsam from the French theorists that became so influential in the English speaking world some twenty years ago. And in the long preface to It's a Queer World Simpson invokes the two that were probably the most influential as writers. Roland Barthes had a ravenous eye, and his love of real world detail and texture kept his writing blessedly concrete; at his best, Simpson's gifts are similar. You could say that in his method Simpson is Barthesian, shuttling back and forth between sordid detail and soaring implication. But in his central preoccupation with the contemporary world as wrought by the universal media machine, Simpson betrays the influence of the dazzling and dazzled Jean Baudrillard, invoking that Frenchman's "ecstasy of communication," an expression of how the line between public and private has dissolved. Some of Simpson's own prose reads like Anglicized Baudrillard. Speaking of how a generation of young straight men imitated the signs of masculinity affected by a white Brit soul star who was later busted for showing too much to a cop in a Hollywood john, Simpson writes: "All copies of something for which it turns out no original existed (much like masculinity itself)."
This savvy application of a not totally original insight is central to Simpson's take on contemporary "mediatized" life. Just how and why is it a Queer World? Since the birth control pill and feminism, even straight men grow up strangers to traditional masculinity. The home remains a female realm but the workplace is no longer fully a masculine one. There's no place for a guy to be a guy anymore whatever that is. Gay guys, growing up with no fathers to teach them their roles, have always in a sense been male impersonators; today straight guys have to increasingly become male impersonators as well. This has made the male homosexual a central cultural figure right now. And besides, gay men have been correctly perceived to "live" better eat better, groom better, dress better than their straight brethren, and so of course in an age that is increasingly "aestheticized", the taste of the gay man has become central for every media driven mass market consumer. Perhaps most importantly, gay sex has always been superfluous, just for the pleasure of it, divorced from any reproductive purpose; it is sex in its “most carnal and indulgent form." But in a world of rampant birth control, heterosex becomes more and more the pursuit of pure pleasure and more and more like homosex; again, the fag is in the vanguard.
But the paradox is that all this sexual liberation has not freed people, least of all the male homosexual. It's simply initiated 'The Sex Terror." Before the pill and the consequent loosening of the reproductive imperative, people's lives were narrowly proscribed by the old Victorian "erotic prohibitions". Now, Simpson maintains, there's "a compulsory, puritanical transparency in people's erotic behavior;" people's "whole sense of themselves is controlled, defined and produced through the ritual of public confession." Life has become an unending talk show from which not even the President of the most powerful country in history can escape. Gay men, as avatars of the time, are particularly trapped. It's long been a staple of Queer Theory that the homosexual has to exist, otherwise heterosexuality would mean nothing. Simpson puts it more pungently. Many heterosexuals are "curious" about fags "merely because they expect the cold shiver that homosexuality produces in them when they gaze upon its ghastly features will confirm their own identities I'm definitely not that so I must be normal after all, in spite of my chaotic, unpredictable, confusing life." Simpson resents mightily the fixedness of the identity that a world divided into gay and straight imposes on us. And now that "gay" has been colonized for the mainstream, Simpson's interest has shifted to where the interesting action always is, on society's margins. For Simpson that's often to be found in non gay homosex. He writes: "...Its a Queer World is...obsessed with that no man's land between 'straight' and 'gay' (and 'bisexual'), a region beyond and before 'sexuality' in other words, the place where most people act ally live, albeit unconsciously." (It's a zone we're familiar with here at Inches; this month we have "straight" readers writing us in ‘Dear Inches’, the big fag fucking dick in ‘It Was So Big’ is straight and so is the married guy who bares all in ‘Reader's Meat’. And we won't begin to speculate on the sexual identification of our models this month.)
Simpson never lets the theory get in the way of the simple pleasures of reading him. The surfaces of his prose gleam, his style is crisp and the zingers come frequently. Then there's the "star" power of many of his columns. His critiques of well known media males are irreverent and acute. Where else would you find an analysis of that allegedly homophobic white rapper and his obsession with taking it up the butt from another guy? Or of the softer side of the image of the King of Rock and Roll (and its pale legacy)? Or of the lovingly all guy films of that Scottish director who's married now to the most gender bending rock star of them all? Yet, for all this sharp dissection of celebrity in these books, some of my favorite pieces come when Simpson turns his withering eye in the mirror and examines his own conduct, at a stag party, on a date with a modern day Norma Desmond, at the soccer stadium, with a hitchhiker, in a "straight' red light district, at a Parisian sex club, and, in an instantly classic essay, at a weil lubed party in Scotland. In Sex Terror there are also perceptive book reviews and interviews with journalists and film and rock stars. Porn fans will want to check out Simpson's at times contentious talk with porn legend and author Aiden Shaw. The encounter tells us lots about the hunky, spiky subject and about the hunky, spiky interviewer. Yet even in semicombat, Simpson is generous enough with his subject so the reader comes away with a real feeling of the star's magnetic attraction, his complexity and his ability to turn a phrase. Over the course of these two volumes, Mark Simpson turns more than his share of memorable phrases as well. Anyone with an interest in Anglo American culture of the past decade, or the pervasiveness of media and its consequences for our daily lives, or of how men who have-sex with men identify themselves and are identified will have lots of fun and gain a bit of insight from dipping into these volumes.