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From Phyllida's Desk

Seething Satire, Brilliant Language, Critique of Classism

I don't think Austen would have liked the modern word "classism." But I certainly agree with Newsweek journalist Sarah Ball that Austen's work is defined by these three concepts. So when I read this forthcoming article, yet another discussion of Austen rip-offs, that said my novel Pride/Prejudice doesn't "stink" because it's "porn" but because it lacks these elements, I admit to feeling a bit ... misunderstood.

I've just finished reading Edmund White's latest work, Hotel de Dream. In it, dying author Stephen Crane, hoping to leave his companion, Cora, something to live on, is trying, unsuccessfully, to work on an inferior but publishable piece of fiction. But what animates him, the one thing he can summon his failing energies to focus on, is a novel about a boy prostitute. White's book is one of those brilliant works based on scanty facts that must venture into that most dangerous swamp, imagination. Nothing of Crane's last novel survives, and White has recreated this lost manuscript for us, alternating scenes of Crane's last days and his memories with chapters from what White calls "The Painted Boy."

In White's novel, Crane's interest in a boy prostitute is embarrassing to his friends. None of them can understand his desire to write about such a person or the world he inhabits, the gay subculture of late nineteenth-century New York City. At first Crane disguises his research into the boy's world as journalism, although it's pointed out several times that no reputable newspaper or magazine would publish anything on such a scandalous topic.

As White says in the epilogue (Postface) Crane is still a mysterious author compared to his contemporaries. White leaves us with the questions that led him to write this book: "How would a heterosexual man who had wide human sympathies, an affection for prostitutes, a keen, compassionate curiosity about the poor and downtrodden ... have responded to male homosexuality if he was confronted with it? How would he have thought about it in an era when homosexuals themselves were groping for explanations of their proclivities?"

What, you may ask, does this have to do with me? I saw a similarity between Crane's situation and mine. We both were excited by subjects deemed "inappropriate" and "unwholesome." Crane's work as recreated by White is not in any way "pornographic" by our standards; its scandalous nature is in the subject itself. By contrast, my P/P, twice now described as "porn" (first in a somewhat more admiring way in a review in Instinct Magazine) has quite a lot of explicit sex, both man/man and man/woman--and, as several reviewers and bloggers have complained, only "fade to black" when it comes to woman/woman.

I don't want to spoil White's story, so I'll simply say that P/P has a much happier fate, published by HarperCollins, than Crane's "Boy." Yes, publishing is all about making a buck, or a million, as has been said many times. As more and more of these Austen rip-offs surface, the denunciations of cynical opportunism increase in frequency and stridency. The idea that any of them could contain literary merit is dismissed as self-congratulatory nonsense by successful scam-artist "authors" laughing all the way to the bank, and the publishers who enable them.

My own situation is a bit more complicated. I'm not, at least so far, likely to be seen laughing in the vicinity of any bank with my earnings from my Austen porn. A rare miscalculation on the part of the public-domain publishing vultures? Or is it, possibly, a vestige of the Crane phenomenon?

As most of you know, I'm interested in the bisexual husband, and I can't help seeing a perfect pair of bisexual husbands in Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. Being, as I describe myself, a "sophisticated" writer, but not a "subtle" one, when I wanted to bring out the homoerotic subtext in Austen's work, I had to make it explicit. After all, if you look literally "between the lines," there's only empty space. I'm not that great a writer that I can make an entire story out of what's left unsaid or what's implied but not seen. A Victorian-style work of "speaking glances" and "longings left unexpressed" isn't going to add anything to Austen, nor would it be interesting or challenging to write, or readable. So I wrote P/P instead as, to use Pamela Regis's perfect description: "a sexual comedy of manners."

But by adding in the sex that Austen left out, does this necessarily mean I've drained her work of everything else that makes it good? The reviled reviewer Harriet Klausner was the first to note that my earlier novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, satirized the hypocrisy of society. Whether or not Klausner only reviews books she likes, and whether she really reads and reviews five books a day, the fact is I did intend a satire of hypocrisy (among other things) with PBP. And in P/P, I felt that all of Austen's themes, especially her dislike of upper-class entitlement, could be incorporated in a study of the characters' sexual mores. Mr. Darcy is arrogant and overbearing at the beginning of the story, both in public and in the bedroom. There are theories that he may simply be shy, and I agree that, aware of his desirability as a potential husband, he's leery of leering at eligible females. But the point, or one of them, of Austen's story, is that Mr. Darcy must learn to treat all people with respect, not just members of his own sex and class, in order to be worthy of genuine love. In my version, I show Mr. Darcy's early (mis)behavior in a sexual form, with the improvement naturally shown also in sexual terms, which allows me to include Mr. Bingley along with Elizabeth as a lover deserving respect.

I invite readers and potential readers to consider the possibility that by having Fitzwilliam Darcy refer to himself in his thoughts as "Fitz" (in the third-person limited I use for much of the novel) and in not making the sexual activity between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas explicit, I might have intended something beyond annoying my readers. That I might actually have meant to write it this way, not just made an error of forms of address or felt a squeamishness about women's sexuality, and that these choices said something about that world and my approach to it.

We've come a long way in the hundred years or more since Stephen Crane and his lost, last story. Today, a novel about a boy prostitute sounds like a sure bet for any writer of Crane's reputation and ability. But the passions that we sometimes label as "bisexual" are still mysterious and distrusted. In White's fictional recreation, the middle-aged married man involved with the boy thinks at one point, "In a strange sense he was faithful to [his wife] and [the boy] both, utterly faithful." Sometimes it seems as if we're no closer to understanding this point of view now than would Crane's readers if he'd been able to publish his story. Or at least it's still an uncomfortable topic. "What woman would [allow her husband to continue his affair with a man after marriage]?" a comment from an Amazon customer review says of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley's ongoing relationship. PBP received a similar complaint, that "No virginal Regency maiden would enter a marriage like that [to a gay husband], unless forced."

This is why I'm writing. Because I'm a woman, if not a virginal Regency maiden, and I find the whole idea both personally appealing and worthy of my efforts as a writer. "No woman?" I want to ask. "Or do you simply mean you wouldn't?" What if we could look at it a different way, as a man being faithful to two partners. What if we could see male bisexuality, not as "confusion" or tragedy, not as anything-that-moves sexual athleticism or failed monogamy, but as something to be celebrated. Is it possible to see it as desirable, a way of sexual being that offers something of value to both partners? There was a time when nobody could see ordinary homosexuality as anything other than a crime or a disease. That attitude didn't change by determined refusal to think beyond those limited concepts. In many ways, works of fiction once labeled "porn" did much to change people's ideas. And so I write my own "porn."
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