ann_amalie (ann_amalie) wrote,

Conference presentation

Slashing the Slash: or (with apologies to Mary Balogh) Slightly Bisexual: The story behind Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander

{I thanked Eric Selinger and Bill Gleason for including me, a one-novel author (with another coming out in January), among all these scholars and bestselling multi-book authors; Michelle Buonfiglio of Romance B(u)y the Book, for supporting Phyllida from the beginning, giving me several guest-blog spots, and for turning Eric on to it. Without her I would not be here; Pamela Regis for giving me so much free publicity [she showed the cover in her presentation and has changed her definition of a romance novel because of Phyllida]; and the two Sarahs: Sarah Frantz of Teach Me Tonight and Dear Author; and Sarah Wendell (SB Sarah) of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog. Both Sarahs have supported and enjoyed Phyllida, and SB Sarah wrote a wonderfully witty and hilarious review when it was first self-published.}

{I have sometimes described Phyllida as an m/m/f or "bisexual" Regency romance and I wonder how this fits into the conference's theme of American culture. The Regency romance is the most "English" of historical romance forms. Americans have always written "English" forms of literature, and I am American, and that makes my book part of American culture.}

When I set out to write Phyllida, I was lucky in the way that only unpublished first-time authors can be. I had nothing to lose, nothing to prove, and only myself to please. And that's where Phyllida came from: it was the story I wanted to read, to please myself, because it seemed to me that no one had yet told my story. I mean that in the literal way—my book that I wrote—and also in the autobiographical sense. It's said that every novelist's first book is autobiographical, and Phyllida is no exception. I often call it my fantasy autobiography.

***Please don't take offense at my use of terms like escapism or fantasy. I think all good writing is escapist in the best sense: it takes us out of ourselves, our lives, our very consciousness. You don't have to be trying to escape anything bad to enjoy the transporting feeling of entering another universe created by a talented writer. Similarly, fantasy, as I see it, can simply be what a recent post on the RomanceScholar listserve called "epic." It's fiction squared or perhaps cubed, raised to a higher power. Done well, it creates an obviously "false" world that reveals underlying and deeper truths.

The specific story that became Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander was inspired both by my reading of historical romance and by the relatively recent development called “slash fiction.” And there's a third parent too–-you see, I just can't get away from these threesomes: comedy. My writing voice is inevitably humorous. The best I can hope for is to write good comedy. I chose the Regency romance because it is usually lighthearted and droll. It suits my voice, the way Gilda in Rigoletto is a better role for a coloratura soprano than Carmen.

The biggest misconception I've seen about Phyllida is that it's the product of "good intentions." That I deliberately set out to write a sympathetic portrayal of a neglected, poorly understood and despised group—bisexuals. Let me say clearly for the record: I never had good intentions. I had only the most selfish of motives: to write my ideal romance. The characters are not meant to be "typical" bisexuals—I don't believe there is such a thing—and any transgressive behavior on their part was not meant to be "typical" of bisexual men now or at any time in the past. Their only "typicality" was to be archetypal Regency romance characters.

Now, what is slash fiction? It began with the original “Star Trek” TV show. Written almost entirely by women and for a female readership, slash takes an existing work and writes new storylines for some of the characters featuring same-sex relationships, usually man-on-man. The first slash stories were passed around surreptitiously at “Star Trek” conventions, woman to woman, a literally underground or at least under the table feminist take on the hammy, macho space opera. These stories, therefore, were simply the logical outgrowth of all that homoerotic subtext in "Star Trek," providing women viewers with what we most wanted to see: an explicit sexual relationship, so clearly implied in the show, between Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock. The term “slash” does not refer to cutting, but to the typographical symbol, that character usually found on the lower right of the keyboard. The slash was used to indicate which characters had the same-sex relationship. Those first Kirk-Spock stories would be marked as K / S.

Since that time, slash has become so popular that it has merged in ways I don’t completely understand with “fanfiction:” online unpublished stories written by fans of TV shows, books, movies, etc. Slash- and fan- are almost identical forms of –fiction and the terms are almost interchangeable. There is, of course, f/f slash, the prototype being stories based on “Xena, Warrior Princess.” It's always same-sex, because who needs more hetero love stories? There are slashes of just about any well-known and beloved story you can think of, including Georgette Heyer’s, even some based on </i>These Old Shades</i>, with the Duke of Avon and his friend Hugh Davenant enjoying the same-sex relationship. There's even, inevitably, a slash title, "Regency Fuck." [A play on a well-known work of Heyer's, The Regency Buck.]

What is the appeal of slash for women? “Forbidden fruit.” There’s even an online slash magazine called “Forbidden Fruitzine.” It’s frequently pointed out that the bulk of the audience for “Queer as Folk” was women. There’s been a long history of denial of women’s interest in the male body and male sexuality apart from a particular woman’s (barely) acceptable interest in a particular man’s relationship with her. Until recently, women couldn’t go to gay bars the way we do now. But just as in the past, when "ladies" weren’t supposed to know anything about sex or men, that didn't mean they weren't interested, and aroused.

But as m/m romances and slash are being written by women for women, there's one aspect of them that doesn’t appeal to me: it’s all “look but don’t touch.” Here are women writing about men having sex with each other, for the delectation of women readers, but all the main characters are men and the women never get any of that action. Now, I love reading about two sexy men falling in love and making love. But I can't write such a story. I may not always “identify” with the heroine in a romance novel, but I do like having a female point of view. As someone from the RomanceScholar listserve put it a while ago: "Where am I? (in this story?) Where is she?"

In many ways my training for this writing was my reading. Two specific influences were Mary Renault and Marion Zimmer Bradley and her sword-and-sorcery world of Darkover. In Renault's work I encountered the gay or bisexual hero for the first time: the honorable, masculine warriors of The Last of the Wine, and the idealized Alexander the Great of Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy. Zimmer Bradley was one of the first fantasy authors to feature a bisexual male character. Not some sort of wishy-washy, "am I gay or straight" tormented soul, but a sexy, tall, dark, dangerous swordsman. He was openly attracted to young men, but admitted to having the occasional moment of “impulse”—attraction, even marriage, to a woman. Oh, be still my heart! Years later, when it finally occurred to me that I could write fiction after all, I had my subject: The bisexual husband.

We're told to write what we know, and apart from my reading I knew very little. In my college years and after I hung out with the gay crowd, and I learned that men are more like each other than they are like women. That gay men, bisexual men and straight men are all from Mars. I don’t mean men and women are different species or that we can’t communicate—that’s the whole fun of romance novels, learning how. It’s just that I see a fundamental difference between men’s experience of being “in love” and having a relationship, and women's experience.

So the one thing I knew for sure was that I was going to write a Regency romance with a bisexual hero. What I was doing here is not technically slash. Slash takes a particular story: "Star Trek" episodes, These Old Shades, and particular characters, Kirk and Spock, Avon and Hugh Davenant, and writes new storylines that involve a same-sex relationship. But in Phyllida I slashed a genre, not a specific story or set of characters. And then, I slashed the slash. I introduced the hero as gay from the beginning, and showed him in love with a man and attracted to men—that's the first slash. But then I slashed again, writing a heroine back into this all-male paradise.

There are many elements of the Regency romance that seem to work well with slash. For one thing, the Regency comic romance isn't exactly a realistic depiction of the past. Is any comedy totally realistic? In a way, it was almost a disappointment to discover what a well-documented gay subculture existed at the time, because it meant my epic fantasy comedy was going to have to come down to earth occasionally.

Another element of the Regency romance I particularly liked was that alpha male hero. I wanted to give my heroine (me) what all romance heroines deserve: The man who's out of her league—in fact, he's playing for the other team! A Mr. Darcy or a Mr. Rochester. He had to be confident, maybe a bit of a swaggerer, which is why the coming-out story has no appeal for me as a writer. This man has long-ago taken his sexuality in stride and moved on. And here, again, the upper-class society of the typical Regency romance--that "disordered" or "corrupt" society that Pamela Regis discusses--works equally well whether the hero is straight or gay. In this world of wealthy and idle young men, gambling, drinking and dissipation are the preferred occupations, the idea of falling in love with a woman is despised as unlikely and demeaning, and marriage is a burden to be avoided at all costs.

***The traditional Regency hero often has a preference for a certain type of woman. Over the course of the story, he is surprised to find himself falling in love with a very different sort of woman. Again, gay or straight didn’t matter that much in this setting. I imagined my hero having a taste for big blondes. The fact that, in Phyllida, these were hunky blond men didn’t really change anything. There was still the fun of showing my hero discovering his growing love for his petite, "undistinguished brunette" of a wife. There was also the fun of contrasting the "love at first sight" story of the hero with his boyfriend—the sort of love that men tend to have—with the gradual, developing-over-time love with his wife that is the stuff of hetero romance.

It's when we get to the ending(s), the happily-ever-after(s), that the problems with my slashed Regency became apparent. Most romances end with the hero choosing a monogamous relationship. But here, whether my hero chose the man or the woman, neither option was going to work. If he chooses the woman, that's simply unbelievable and so politically incorrect. It's also unappealing to me as author and surrogate heroine. I like him gay, I wrote him gay, and I want him to go one having that exciting same-sex sex that turns me on just thinking about it.

But if he chooses the man over the woman: I think Lucy Ricardo on "I Love Lucy" said it best: "Waaaaaahhhhhhh." After I went to all this trouble writing the woman back into the slashed m/m story, he can't reject me! I mean, who's writing this story anyway? And this is the inspiration for my idea of the husband who gets to have it both ways, and the genesis of what Eric called a "fractal" novel that has it both ways in so many areas.

This also explains those various other "bisexual" marriages that populate the novel. In imagining what a double-slashed bisexual Regency romance would be, I had weighed a number of options, even started three or four novels left unfinished. They weren't "wrong," but they weren't "my" story in the autobiographical sense. So I didn't completely abandon them but used them in this novel as other examples of bisexual marriage. There's no "typical" bisexual, and there are many ways of making a ménage: this was a selection. I also admit to the opinion that every man—perhaps every woman as well—would have it both ways if he could, and to encouraging my characters to go for it as I wrote. I like to think of Ann Herendeen's fictional world as one in which all the women are handsome and all the men bisexual…

To quote from a New York Times article: [Sunday Styles section of March 15, 2009, "The Pleasure Principle," about One Taste, a San Francisco retreat that offers "orgasmic meditation" focusing on women's sexuality:]

" 'In our culture, women have been conditioned to have closed sexuality and open feelings, and men to have open sexuality and closed feelings. There's this whole area of resistance and shame.' "

This is a perfect encapsulation of the mission of the contemporary historical romance. We are writing love stories now, many of them sexual or erotic, about the past. But we bring a modern perspective on love and sex to what was so often "closed" and "shameful." Just as Georgette Heyer brought a 1920s or 30s sensibility to her depiction of the Regency, so I used the similarity between the 18th-century gay subculture and the 1970s of my youth to give a new perspective to the historical romance.

Especially in the area of women's sexuality, we can look at things in a more open way, acknowledging that, whether they were supposed to or not, whether they could show them or not, women have always had sexual desires. If I, a twenty-first century woman, find something arousing about a sexy man; if I enjoy the sight of him embracing another sexy man, chances are a woman in the past, even a lady, might have experienced such feelings too. If she could not admit it, I can. And my role as her spokeswoman, perhaps my duty, is to give her feelings voice, to practice the freedom for her that she could not enjoy then.

Finally, romance novels are congenial to the idea that people, men and women, can fall in love outside of their usual comfort zone or preferred type. In today's world, where men's sexuality is often defined purely at the biological level, where sexual orientation is said to be hard-wired, romance novels allow for the possibilities of love in all its messy, emotional and psychological ambiguity. We can, in fact, sometimes do, choose love with our hearts and our minds as well as with our lower body parts.

***Paragraphs marked were omitted in talk for time constraints

{Sections in curly brackets are last-minute additions to the prepared version in response to other presentations and/or because of my perception that they were now necessary.}

[Sections in straight brackets are explanations for readers now that I did not actually speak at the conference].

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