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From Phyllida's Desk

The Pleasures and Perils of Prono

I got my first angry e-mail message the other day from a Jane Austen fanfic site:

“It is thoroughly disgusting to read of your use of the P&P characters to write prono [sic] to Jane Austen's works.
You should be ashamed but I am sure the money you are raking makes it all worth it to you.”

Where to start? Surely Austen fanfic writers are better spellers, although perhaps it's a clever device for getting the message past my e-mail program's spam filter. And does anyone really believe that writers like me are “raking” in money? Seriously? Or that we write for any other reason than that we need to, have to--that it's a labor of love? And what, exactly, do fanfic writers do, if not “use” another writer's characters? And why is using them in anything, from “prono” to alphabet books to Christian inspirational romance, reprehensible?

Back in the 18th century, when men accused of “attempted sodomy” were punished by being put in the pillory and left to the mercy of the mob, the most ferocious attacks came from female prostitutes. Unlike now, when gay men often use the lexicon of prostitution (“tricks,” “johns,” etc.), two hundred years ago there seems to have been no natural friendship between “sodomites” and sex workers. And yet in those heady days of the 20th-century gay liberation movement, many gay men took pride in identifying as “outlaws.” The term “straight,” used as the antonym of “gay,” comes from the world of the carny and the grifter, where the potential marks are “straight,” the prey of those “queer” folk on the margins of the respectable world.

So why the enmity in the past? Because back then, prostitutes saw gay men as competition, giving away what the women made their precarious livings by selling. Gay men did for free what the women did for pay. It's the old amateur-vs.-professional animosity, and let's not forget that the word “amateur” is derived from the Latin amator--”lover.”

How does this relate to porn? Probably many of you know that the etymology of the word “pornography” is from the Greek, and its literal meaning is “writing about prostitutes.” The modern meaning, of course, is any visual or written work depicting explicit sex, and intended to cause arousal in viewers or readers. Many great writers--James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and John Updike, among others--have been accused of writing pornography. From Lord Rochester to Anaïs Nin to Hustler, calling something “pornography” doesn't say much about the quality of the writing.

Over the course of my brief career as a published writer, I've discovered an additional, personal definition. When a writer deliberately sets out to write, not what pleases her or excites her, but only what she thinks her readers want -- that, to me, is pornographic writing, whether or not it contains explicit sex scenes. It's the writer as whore, doing what her customers demand, rather than the free expression of love or simple sexual desire. I sometimes call it “menu writing:” one from Column A and two from Column B, as opposed to storytelling. (As with all my opinions, I hope it's clear I don't think there's anything wrong with doing this, just as I don't think there's anything wrong with writing traditional porn.)

I've arrived at this definition because of the peculiar kinds of criticism my work attracts: Why did I write explicit sex scenes between men but not between women? Why did I write more m/f sex scenes than m/m scenes? One blog comment about Pride/Prejudice encapsulated this sentiment perfectly, complaining that the m/m and m/f scenes were explicit and the f/f ones ”fade to black,” and stating unequivocally: “You just can't do that.”

Well, yes, I just did.

Why? Because I'm not writing porn, by my definition. I'm not writing explicit sex scenes simply to turn readers on, hoping that by including as many permutations and combinations as possible I'll satisfy everybody, of all sexes and sexual orientations. I'm actually, believe it or not, using the sex scenes, or, in the case of the missing f/f scenes, lack of them, as a way to tell this particular story.

To take two examples: First, from my earlier novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. I wrote explicitly of the wedding night and subsequent sexual encounters between the “slightly bisexual” hero, Andrew Carrington, and his bride, Phyllida, because this was an important plot point. Could a man who, up until this moment, had thought of himself as exclusively gay, and a young lady who is a virgin, survive their wedding night and find sexual compatibility? I had set up a problem that the sex scenes themselves would have to resolve. But I wrote fewer sex scenes, or less explicit ones, between Andrew and his male partner, Matthew, because this love was natural for both men. Any problems that developed in their relationship were the result of the original problem, that Andrew had married a woman and, against all expectations, was not only sexually attracted to her but was also falling in love with her--all without diminishing any of his feelings for Matthew, his true love.

In the second example, from Pride/Prejudice, there are several reasons that I chose to write explicitly of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley's relationship, and later on, of the men and their wives, but preferred “fade to black” for Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas. The main reason, as I discuss in my note at then back of the book, is the way in which women's sexuality was distorted at this time, in this social class, by economic considerations. In today's world, most young women in our society are free to choose a partner based purely on affection. Many of us even feel free to choose a partner of our own sex. But Elizabeth and Charlotte had no such freedom. Their relationship, as I've portrayed it, must be hidden, not only from the world, but in some ways, to themselves, because it is their way of stealing something, getting away with something that their society doesn't allow: sexual fulfillment outside of marriage, and without a man. To expose it to readers as explicitly sexual would be the ultimate betrayal of the mental accommodation these brave young women have had to make.

By contrast, I felt that writing about the men explicitly was necessary in order to show them as genuinely bisexual. They love each other in all the ways that people love one another, emotionally and physically. Making it explicit allows readers to acknowledge that fact and, ideally, accept it, so that, in the later sections of the book, I can use the wedding night scenes to show that these men love their wives very much the same way they love each other. It's true love in both cases, as we understand it—and the problem of whether people can truly love a partner of each sex simultaneously is, if not resolved, at least illustrated as best I could.

Writing fiction is, for me as I think it is for all writers, about solving a problem. Fiction is about stories, and a story starts with a problem. “Once upon a time” there was Cinderella who must go to the ball, or a prince who has been turned into a frog. Or a young lady of limited means and a gentleman of large estate, who must overcame her prejudice and his pride to recognize in each other their true love. Or two young gentlemen of good fortune who go on loving each other even as they fall in love with and marry their wives.

A story ends when the problem has been solved. That's why, as even some of Austen's most devoted readers have complained, her endings are abrupt. Putting too much effort into the ending after the problem has been resolved would be a kind of porn, descriptive writing merely for its own sake, no other purpose. Like those prosecuted “sodomites” of two hundred years ago, who performed the same acts as the prostitutes who persecuted them, writers and pornographers may follow similar pursuits. But writers, like those gay and bisexual men, do it for love.
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