What does it mean to "like" something? I'm asking this open-ended question because this week that begins today is a very exciting one for me: my second novel is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in the Bisexual Fiction category. Although I don't expect to win, I do expect to enjoy these last few days of being "liked," of having my book considered worthy of an award with "literary" as part of the name, and I'm looking forward to attending the ceremony as, in some small way, a participant.
My "like" question arises in part from the fact that, far more than my first book, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, my second, Pride/Prejudice, is not very "likable." Of course, some people like it, notably gay and bisexual men who enjoy reading about a fully-realized sexual relationship between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. And some readers of all sexes appreciate the book's treatment of the relative merits of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships in a time when wealth and property, or their lack, so often ruined or distorted romances between men and women.
But for many readers, P/P is a challenge. Where Phyllida was sweet and warm in tone, treating all its characters with affection, P/P is harsh. The Darcy-Bingley relationship, however sexy, isn't very "nice" through most of the story. "Fitz" (Fitzwilliam) Darcy treats Charles Bingley abominably, only beginning to see the error of his ways at the end, after Elizabeth Bennet "humbles" him. Writing this story, for me, felt like teasing apart the closely-woven threads of Jane Austen's magnificent comic tapestry to reveal the hidden story beneath—and this is what I saw. When Mr. Darcy speaks so contemptuously to Mr. Bingley in the early chapters of Austen's story, I don't see the ideal husband of so many readers' imaginings; I see, instead, a domineering, arrogant and powerful man who has spent most of his life aware of his superiority to other people, men and women both, and is in danger of becoming a seriously alienated misanthrope.
As we know, Mr. Darcy is redeemed by falling in love and being rejected, and by the end of Austen's story we understand that his pride stems from very real talents and attributes. He is clever and educated and well-read. He appreciates a clever, well-read and spirited woman, which is far, far more than most men of his time and class could do. He is, as Elizabeth says of him near the end, "fundamentally what he ever was." And that is what I wanted to show in my retelling. I believe Fitz genuinely "cares for" Charles, as Elizabeth says sarcastically to Colonel Fitzwilliam, but his love has the possessiveness and controlling nature, so often displayed in hetero marriages, of the intellectual husband with a sweet but somewhat dim "little wife." The fact that Charles is not dim, but merely average in intelligence, makes Fitz's contempt that much more stark.
For many readers, the Mr. Darcy of the end of Austen's book is the "real" Mr. Darcy, and the unpleasant portrayal of Fitz in P/P was unrecognizable as the same person. I can't help thinking that my explicitly bisexual Fitz and Charles contribute to some of that sense of disorientation, but I also wonder if readers of love stories forever see their heroes (and heroines) in the rosy light of the happy ending. In the first half of Austen's book, Mr. Darcy's behavior isn't "nice" or likable, no matter how decent a person he is fundamentally. And his worst act, the deceit of Charles, separating him from the woman he truly loves, is harsh and cruel. His motives may be pure (although not, in my opinion, entirely so), but the highhanded way he goes about it is proof that this basically good man has some very real flaws. And through the vicissitudes of a great love almost lost and regained, he becomes a better person. Isn't that what stories, love stories in particular, are about?
Both of my books feature heroes who embody this archetype of the dominant male. I "like" them. I suspect some readers confuse this liking with approval, although I would hope readers of romance understand this distinction in a more nuanced way. We recognize the appeal of the "bad boys," while the "rape fantasy" is such a fraught topic I hesitate to mention it. But I just did, and for a reason: those "forced seduction" scenes in some romance novels of the 1980s sure have their appeal, unfashionable as they are now.
That's what fiction is about for me, exploring things we "like" but don't approve of, that turn us on even though we know they shouldn't, that fascinate us with their contradictions. In Phyllida, for example, the scene in which the dominant-male hero seems to "rape" his wife scared at least one reader enough that he stopped reading the book. Do I want to be raped? Of course not: nobody does. But for some of us, it's fun to read about a sexy, intelligent, attractive, powerful man who desires the heroine (us?) so much that he just won't take no for an answer. Does this mean I'm in favor of date rape, or any kind of rape? No and no and no. (When I say no I mean no.)
Fiction is the place where we get to have it both ways—or all ways. Any way we like it. I "like" my powerful, arrogant –and sexy—bisexual heroes who dominate their partners, male and female. I love this chance to write about their exploits, to turn myself on, and, I hope, some readers, with their domineering, overbearing sexcapades. I don't approve of their behavior, but I think there are, and have been, such bisexual men, in all cultures and times, and the idea of having such a man as my partner excites me. I may be "small and poor and plain," like Jane Eyre, but like her, I have a heart and a soul—and sexual desires. And like her creator, Charlotte Bronte, I write fiction, not merely to express these feelings, but to resolve them.
The best works of fiction, as I see it, are those that make us slightly uncomfortable. Not something that upsets us so much we stop reading or watching or listening, but not something so soothing and reinforcing of our beliefs that we never sit up and think, "Wait a minute—I don't agree with that! And I certainly don't approve of it!" There's nothing wrong with that familiar, well-read story that we turn to for comfort when we feel ground down by life and the world; but as a writer I need to challenge myself and my readers so that, just like Fitz (or Mr. Darcy), by the end of the book I have learned things; have become, if not a better person, at least a better writer.
Next month, when I have the privilege of presenting a paper at the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance's third conference, I'll be talking about an aspect of this idea: the domineering bisexual man as hero, and the correlation in my fiction of his sexuality with his status and property. But right now, in this moment, I am enjoying my last days as a very minor celebrity, all because of my "unlikable" book.