Authors of “controversial” fiction go through a steep learning curve. If we get good print and mainstream reviews for our first book, as I did with Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, we eagerly and obsessively check the blogs, the offbeat or specialized online reviews and our sales rankings on Amazon and B&N. And, wow—can that be a bucket of cold water, or, to use an analogy Henry Fielding might have employed, a chamber pot emptied over one’s head.
By the second novel, we’re cautious. Now that Pride/Prejudice, with its mixed or nonexistent mainstream reviews, has been out a year, I avoid online discussions like the plague, and I rarely check my sales listings. My blood pressure and resting heart rate, if nothing else, have benefited.
So it was only, I’m ashamed to say, almost four months after it was posted that I came across Beth (“enrage femme”) Massey’s wonderful review on Amazon.
Now, there’s no reason to assume that Ms. Massey or any other reviewer expects a thank-you note, much less a love letter. Leaving a comment on a review, in my own name (as I appear on Amazon) strikes me as supremely tacky. After all, other people have read my work over the years and written to me, and this has led to some real friendships: Meet-for-dinner, drink, and confess deep secrets friendships. Or, where distance is a problem, e-mail, drink and confess deep secrets friendships, while trashing our common enemies.
And from these friendships have come some terrific reviews. But the friendships came first. So before I continue, I want to say an enormous Thank You to: Tarra T. Thomas and Karyn R. Pierce; Jorge Castilla Casares (Duniath); and Pamela Regis from Phyllida; and to Marsha Mormon; David B. Bedick and Pam Rosenthal from P/P. And of course, to my staunch LJ commenters, donnalee_kiss, martianmooncrab and especially gaedhal, who has the best damn man-candy photo icon collection I’ve ever been treated to. And last but not least, “Friskbiskit” blogger Jessica Freely who gave me a superb showcase for launching P/P, and whose Monday man-candy feature is another ongoing visual treat.
But Ms. Massey’s review was so unexpected and spot-on I simply can’t let it pass without a discussion. So here goes: Ms. Massey, you “got” it. The review is much too long by online standards, but every part of it is necessary. Ms. Massey compares the text of Austen’s novel (the canon) to my variations, and she understands precisely what I was doing and why, beginning with her first paragraph: “It was quite funny and paid reverential homage to JA's clever style. … an excellent blend of just a soupçon of description mixed with wonderful naughty witticisms and humorous epigrams.”
Ms. Massey follows the two novels’ familiar plot, pointing out that Darcy and Bingley are the only example of close male friendship in Austen’s work, and quoting some of Austen’s dialogue that hints at the sexual nature of their intimacy. She also touches on social issues like the changing institution of marriage and women’s place in the middle-class gentry of Austen’s world, showing how I got from there to here, Austen’s novel to mine.
Ms. Massey appreciates the way I strengthened the characters of Jane and Bingley without changing them beyond recognition. My favorite quote from her review regarding Jane Bennet (who, as Austen tells us through her sister Elizabeth’s words, “You never see a fault in anybody … I never heard you speak ill of a human being in my life): “P/P's Jane truly was as she was originally depicted. Of course there is that one itsy bitsy teeny tiny grudge Herendeen's Miss Bennet is forced to overcome before the end of the story. I adored that twist.”
I was touched to see that Ms. Massey liked my portrayal of Georgiana Darcy, a sketchy character in the original, but one that I sympathized with and felt would benefit from my work of enlargement or expansion.
Now to the fantastic last paragraph. “Finally, I really would have enjoyed at least one scene where Fitz caught. He was obviously an accomplished ballplayer and hardly ungenerous with his skill … I guess it comes down to the fact that he was known in his league as an extraordinarily gifted pitcher.”
Ms. Massey, you are the only reviewer or commentator, among the many who have expressed unhappiness at the lack of explicit f/f sex and of scenes of Fitz “catching,” to make me seriously reconsider my decision to write P/P the way I did. OK, that’s over. I wrote it the way I did for reasons that matter to me, and I stand by them. But your appreciation really made me wish I could find a way to make us both happy.
One review of P/P I have never shared with anyone is the ferociously negative one in Library Journal, the same publication—and reviewer—that gave Phyllida its best review. Reviewer Cynthia Johnson’s last line is: “Although Austen fans might be intrigued by the novel’s clever premise, even the hardiest of them will be put off by the image of Darcy and Wickham shattering a window during a youthful game of baseball.”
As those of you have read the book know, there is no “scene” of Darcy and Wickham in their “youthful game of baseball,” just a mention of the shattered window and the reason for it. And surely there is nothing off-putting about a youthful game of baseball, for “hardy” Austen fans or any other readers. No, as seems clear from the subtext, this is a coded reference to a very different scene, one I often describe this way: Darcy is pitching and Wickham is catching—but they ain’t playing baseball.
So thank you, Ms. Massey, for understanding my portrayal of Fitz as “one of the most testosterone laden Darcys I have ever encountered,” and for being as big a fan of bisexual baseball as you are a hardy Jane Austen fan. And thank you for writing it where others can read it.
It’s typically unfair that another very fine review, by "raisa", posted a couple of weeks earlier, was overshadowed by Ms. Massey’s review. But here are some excerpts:
“Like few other books, Pride/Prejudice delves into some compelling ideas that lend a new -- and a credible -- dimension to the motives and characters of Bingley, Darcy, Elizabeth and Jane.”
“Herendeen looks honestly at the intimate puzzle of arranged marriage and love beyond the boundaries of sexual orientation. By breaking out of the most profound literary motive - the single-minded pursuit of marriage to the opposite sex - she's free to tell truly human stories about the complexity and conflict of passion.”
And what about "steamkitty"?
Her review came out almost two years ago, long before I had any thoughts of thanking reviewers or discussing their reviews in blogs. But when I saw Beth Massey’s and raisa’s reviews of P/P, and experienced the boost in morale they gave me, I was reminded of how steamkitty’s review of Phyllida had had a similar effect. Just as Ms. Massey understood exactly what I was trying to do in P/P, so steamkitty, as her review headline says, got what Phyllida was about: “Wow! An X-rated Georgette Heyer!”
“I am very sorry it took me so long to discover this book,” steamkitty ends her review.
I’m only sorry it took me so long to acknowledge these three reviewers. Thank you.