Writing Sex into the Classics

This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously. 

I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.

Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.

She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Zzzzzzz. 

Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor. 

So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.

In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.

The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.

This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk. 

So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.

Definite spoilers ahead. 

In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel. 

In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.

Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy. 

This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.

Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.

I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.

And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.

While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.

So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something. 

It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.

But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

 I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided. 

The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.

Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self. 

Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily. 

But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.

On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.

It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?

The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

Well, that was completely adorable. I don’t even mean that in the bitchy way I often mean adorable either. 

The Duke of Ainsworth wakes up one morning after getting rolled by persons unknown with an embarrassing tattoo on his naughty bits. Maybe I don’t even need to write the rest of this review, because that set up is the most hilariously awesome thing to happen to the oft-boring, half-assedly historical genre of the Regency romance since…I don’t know what since. It is a great set up though, and it is not squandered, having set a tone of rank silliness cut with a winking genre sensibility that totally worked for me. 

The Larch:running gag since October 1969

I imagine that if you go in looking for some super historical jibber-jabber about Regency mores and the like, you will be disappointed. Really, though, very few are reading Regency romance for the articles, if you catch my drift, and Davis justifies the far-fetched stuff in a cromulent manner. Prudence, the young woman responsible for the rolling of our titular Duke, is a sensible, modern sort of girl, working as an apothecary in Bath after being shut out of polite society due to the Duke of Ainsworth and her dick of a brother. But, whoops, it was not this Duke of Ainsworth, but his brother. Sorry about the confusion, and about your colorful peen. 

I really enjoyed the interactions between the duke and Prudence, especially in the beginning when it was all grudge match and everyone not knowing that what everyone else knew. Davis manages a prose tone that cuts a middle distance between sounding too modern and sounding too mothballed, and, frankly, I’m jealous of her working vocabulary. I don’t think I’m a slouch on the vocab quiz, and she sent me to the dictionary a couple times. (And not in a shitty, I’m-using-a-thesaurus way either.) A lot of the situations were – how do I put this – pretty stock things that happen in ur Regency romance novel (like the sleeping in the same bed non-sexually trope, which is such an oddment to me) but I thought she pulled them off with grace. The subtle invocation of the duke’s PTSD – he was an infantryman in the Napoleonic wars – made the whole insomnia thing more sensible. 

The third act goes on way too damn long, in a way that made me want to give everyone a wedgie, but especially Prudence. That’s not really unusual though, and the third act avoids much of the descent into sentiment or treacle one finds in many (if not most) romantic comedies. I can’t say I’m surprised by it, given how often it happens, but the way raunch comedies often end in these just weltering affirmations of crushing domesticity still puzzle me (e.g. just about every movie by Adam Sandler, not including Punch-Drunk Love.) Not that The Duke’s Tattoo does this, except in the most expected of ways. I mean, a comedy, a romance, by definition ends with an HEA (or, at the very least, a HFN: happy for now) so I don’t even know what I’m complaining about, or if I’m even complaining.

Maybe it’s just this: like many romance novels, I can imagine profoundly different, and slightly to wholly tragic conclusions to the action – Prudence knocked up in Italy, raising her daughter as a “ward”, or worse; the worse is easy – which may be the point of the whole romance/comedy thing. The old saw goes that comedy happens to other people, while tragedy is personal. The romantic comedy cuts these two things together in a way that rarely works, but it mostly worked here. W00t. 

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud – the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. 🙁

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Shades of Milk and Honey: Diversions

I haven’t had a lot of luck with Austen retellings, not that I’ve given them much energy. I’ve given half-heart to some zombie stitching, with ok to terrible results; I have avoided smut recastings; I have thrown within pages various contemporary takes, but loved a couple too. So, when I say I enjoyed this slender Austen-riff, I am actually saying something. However – and you knew this however was coming – I can’t say Shades of Milk and Honeyby Mary Robinette Kowal is more than a diversion: amiable enough, but mostly pointless.

My husband and I went out to lunch today and got into a big argument about fanfiction. He was disparaging something for being fanfic, and I countered: how many thousands of Shakespeare retellings have I both consumed and enjoyed? How many Greek tragedies, folktales and the like? There are absolutely more stories in the world than the 12 or so we get told exist in some freshman writing class by some credulous idiot, but the resonant cultural motifs are a specific bunch, even if they keep changing and morphing. 

Anyway, so, we made up over the idea that it’s not so much the concept of fanfic that he had a problem with, but the fact that the fanfic that was he subject of the argument corrected none of the problems of the source material, and, in fact, introduced more than a couple more. Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much garbage, not because it’s Twilight fanfic, but because it’s garbage. I don’t love Twilight, while I respect its resonance, but I feel like a fanfic that misses all the inherent silliness of vegetarian vampire chastity porn is a freaking disaster. Twilight works because Bella gets to marry Jesus, not Mark Zuckerberg. 

And, quick aside: I’m not using the term fanfic with any rigor here, or as a knee-jerk indicator of poor quality. And, now that I think about it, the term seems to be used dismissively of women’s fiction more often than of stuff written by men, so it’s possible I’m wrong-footing this whole review by starting with a discussion of the term. Shades of Milk and Honeyis not fanfic in the strictest sense. Sure, the plot probably owes to Pride and Prejudicesome, but then so many plots do. It is set in Regency England, and Austen is probably the best known chronicler of that period, but it’s not like she invented Regency England. 

Jane and Melody Ellsworth are rivalrous sisters whose parents are roughly Mr & Mrs Bennet, but softer. Mrs Ellsworth still has the vapours, but Mr Ellsworth isn’t an entailed dick. Melody is pretty-but-dumb and Jane is talented-but-plain. While the world is decidedly Regency England, there is this tiny bit of magic in the mix – glamour – which is to be our shifting paranormal lens on the rigid gender divisions of that society. Glamour is understood to be a woman’s hobby – good for cosmetic reasons and not much else – but there’s a hot, grouchy male glamourist with whom Jane is secretly smitten. (Secret even from herself, but seriously dude.) 

The whole concept of glamour is a ripe metaphor that unfortunately goes nowhere. It solves some issues with the Regency novel – aha, performing glamour is why all the ladies are swooning – but it has close to zero impact on Regency England or any of the characters. Everyone dismisses the wartime applications – the Napoleonic wars are unfolding, the way they do – but glamour obviously has an impact on a confusingly written dueling sequence near the end. Glamour can record conversations for crying out loud! That absolutely could be a thing with spycraft, at the very least! 

I did appreciate the ways Jane and glamourist dude talked about the craft of art, and I even marked a passage in the now-lost book where glamourist dude growls at Jane for observing the ways he built a specific illusion. The ways Jane takes that to heart and tries simply to experience the illusion without a critical eye felt…felt like something about all this arguing I was doing about retellings with my husband. But, unfortunately, I admired the craft here much more than I enjoyed its heart. 

Shades of Milk and Honeydoes a very, very good job of aping the craft of a Regency novel – it is set beautifully, with attention to detail and character. But it is not actually a Regency novel, and it lacks the snap of Austen’s often cutting observations about the culture she lived in. As a reader, I can only access that snap in Austen’s works through historical research, which makes the cuts less immediate; a joke explained is less funny than a joke that punches known knowledge. Which might be the lack in Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal doesn’t cut anything about Regency England, which would be a weird thing to do anyway, but then she also doesn’t say anything about the here-and-now.

I don’t actually appreciate the dichotomy between smart-but-plain and pretty-but-dumb all that much, because I think it’s a boring and unrealistic binary, so I think the expression here of that tension is unrewarding. And unrewarding in a way that Austen never hits. Elizabeth is not as beautiful as her sister Jane, but that’s not really a thing, and, in general, Austen avoids all but the tersest of physical descriptions. Elizabeth is said to have fine eyes and dark hair and not much else. So I’m in a place where novels written 200 years ago felt more harshly critical of their societies than ones written in the last decade, which is the weirdest. 

The Nebula nominee I read just previous to this, Ironskin, also recasts the woman-penned 19th Century novel Jane Eyre as to be about looks and not much else, and I wonder what is up with this contemporary attention to the superficial to the exclusion of, well, anything else.  Shades of Milk and Honeyis nowhere near as bad as Ironskinin this, not even by half, but it is still strange that these novels are being lauded as genre stand-outs. Admitting, of course, that I haven’t actually read the sequel here, which is the one up against Ironskin. Still, it is an oddment that glamour is more ornament than architecture, more diversion than statement. I enjoyed being diverted, but I can’t say much else about it. 

Crossed fingers for Glamour in Glass, but…

Disappointments: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Most of the time, I prefer to think of the universe as cold, meaningless and without a greater consciousness that imbues our lives with meaning and guides us with an unseen hand. So you can bet your sweet butt that I sat up and took notice when the universe handed me two of my most favorite things, Jane Austen and zombies, together in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What? Have all my years of fruitless prayers been answered? There truly is a benign and smiling force who animates both undead flesh and my haphazard existence! 

I’ve been waiting on the release of this book for some time with trepidation. The idea is flawless: who doesn’t want to see reanimated corpses intrude upon the landed gentry of Regency England? But the devil is in the details, and I couldn’t know if the execution would match the fevered imaginings of my idle mind. 

Austen has always attracted fan-fic, but it’s usually more along the lines of Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. (And when I say takes a wife, what I mean is takes a wife. Right now, I’m doing that fist-pump thing that the immature use to connote sex.) It makes sense. Despite all of her savage, manly wit, Jane Austen’s stories occur in the carefully delineated world of women. Men must want for a wife, not for combat training and the feel of zombie skulls crunching under the weight of a vorpal sword. The fan-fic takes this all to the logical, romance novel end. Women marry, and then sis-boom-bah, other, more entirely throbbing vorpal swords are sunk into flesh, while toes curl and the gardener rustles below the window. 

Zombies come with their own, ready-packed symbolisms and meanings: consumerism, a sort of post-Marxist fear of the the rising masses, along with a discomfort toward mass media. One zombie is funny, a lumbering inconsequential, quickly dispatched. But many zombies, and there are always many zombies, is a force of crowd-sourcing, a d.d.o.s. attack, the worm eating your email, the end of modern life as we know it. Like scientologists. 

So what happens when we add one symbol cluster to another? Some interesting things, unfortunately done in a less than interesting manner. Many, many people have already noted that while Pride and Prejudicetakes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and soldiers factor prominently in the tale, not one word is breathed about the blood, sucking gunshot wounds and gangrene that is war in the 19th century. (Personally, I’ve always thought this observation was specious. I mean, things are about what they are about, and not about other things. Do we bitch that we don’t know more about Mrs. Lear?) Adding zombies into the story of Lizzie and her Darcy reminds us that life was about more than bonnets and barouches, that people lived and died in service of the motives of the upper classes. Workers of the world unite, and feast on brains. 

However, despite my panegyrics in the the service of the idea of this novel, the execution is maybe less than satisfying. Large, large chunks are lifted verbatim from Austen’s story, which is fine and all, but when the text strays, you can feel the graft. For example, Charlotte is bitten by one of the “unmentionables” and slowly succumbs to zombification during the course of her marriage. It works well as metaphor of the slow smothering of an unfortunate match, but to what end? Other people, in equally crappy marriages, do not zombify and need to be beheaded. So, am I just making all that stuff up about badly matched people? Is the only Zombie on top of mountaintops that which I bring with me?

Braaaaaains. (I couldn’t resist.)

Under the Bleachers: Northanger Abbey and the Teen Film

There are many things wrong with the film adaption of Pride & Prejudice which stars Kira Knightly, the most obvious of which is tone. Though Austen is often mistaken for a high Romantic, thrown in with the Brontës with their wild passions and Gothic styles, rainstorms and moors are not Austen’s purview. Her plots and characters are based on social realism or caricature; her sensibility is of the satirist. Darcy does not stride out over the morning grass with his coat unbuttoned, and Elizabeth would never smirk her way through their engagement, finding it hard even to meet his eyes in the book. 

However, Joe Wright – the filmmaker – does get several things right in the adaption, my favorite being the hat-tip he makes to teen movies. There’s a scene where Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte are talking shit about Darcy after he’s snubbed Elizabeth within her earshot, and it reads like an under-the-bleachers scene in some Regency John Hughes film. Though Elizabeth and Charlotte are in their 20s, they are in a long adolescence: living at home, going to dances. When the scene has them making their cat talk and then clasping hands and laughing at how mean they are, how clever, it was a pretty perfect capture of the tone of that section of the book. 

The beginning of Northanger Abbeyis so very much a John Hughes film. Catherine is much younger than Charlotte or even Elizabeth, a tender farm-bred 17. She heads to the resort town of Bath, and it’s either a summer camp movie, or a new girl in school movie, or elements of both. Catherine has chaperons, but they are so mild and unobservant that Catherine may as well be one her own, a fact that troubles Catherine occasionally – why did you not tell me I was doing the wrong thing? Catherine is a good girl though, sweet and either dumb or innocent, because it’ s difficult to tell them apart sometimes. The narrator – and Mr. Henry Tilney, Love Interest – make great fun of Catherine’s wide-eyed inability to picky up on innuendo. There are whole pages of conversations where he is saying one thing, and she is understanding another, and only you and Henry are in on the fun. 

Oh, speaking of the narrator! Once I noticed the narrator in Persuasion, I have been in love with Austen’s narrators. Lord, they are strong voices: often wry, occasionally sarcastic, always smoothly barbed. This is the first of Austen’s novels, likely never re-written by her and published posthumously, and it reads like a first novel. The narrator gets out of hand at points, clumsily commenting on the state of the novel, addressing the reader directly. This is (a bit) charming, because it makes you think about how Austen was writing these novels primarily to amuse her family. There’s a long section bitching about the sorts of people who can be found on a Sunday at a certain intersection in Bath, and it has the ring of the inside joke, which is totally freaking adorable. But like most inside jokes, it’s not especially amusing to those of us not in on it, and comes off as a well-written traffic report. 

And speaking of early novels, this one is bisected into two discreet sections that have only the shakiest of thematic overlap. The early part of the book has Catherine meeting two sets of siblings, the Tilneys and the Thorpes. She meets Isabella Thorpe first, who is a classic mean girl, the hot girl who knows it. But Catherine is too naïve and good natured to understand Isabella’s bitchiness. Isabella’s brother is even better: cussing all the time, crude, prone to wild exaggerations and criticisms of people and events, which can be altered to their opposite with just a little prodding. This is the best coach in the world! It is about to fall apart! etc. Then Catherine meets the Tilneys. The sister is a bit of a cypher, sort of Georgeanna Darcy-ish in her mildness, but Henry is a total babe. Not because he’s super hot, but because he takes the time to talk about muslin with Catherine’s chaperon and tease her mercilessly. Interest and attention go a long was towards affection. Naïve Catherine slowly learns how to navigate a tricky social terrain based mostly in frivolity; why, yes, high school, I remember you well. 

The second half is a funny take-down of the Gothic novel, Catherine gone to visit the Tilneys in their abbey. Being a somewhat silly girl who has read too many Gothic novels, she starts imagining all sorts of fell deeds, partially helped along by Henry’s gentle teasing. The most memorable sequence has Catherine approaching a spooky old piece of furniture within her room with trembling hands, looking through all the drawers until she finds a roll of papers! What horrors will this manuscript enumerate? What dire deeds of yore!? Omg!!1!! Then, it turns out the papers are laundry lists. The plot from the first half of the novel intrudes, but somewhat distantly – there is a scandal, but it is learned about in letters, and then discussed at the breakfast table. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s elopement, which learned about in letters as well, was much better played. The drama of Lydia’s scandal is acted out in the Bennet household breaking into activity – Mrs. Bennet screaming about duels, that great speech by Mr. Bennet about his culpability. Here it was just less interesting to watch.

The end? Well, the end is abrupt and unsatisfying, the plot resolved only in the most mechanical way. Catherine is turned out of the Tilney house by the father for no good reason anyone can discern. (We do learn the reason, and it doesn’t have any relationship to the earlier scandal or the first part of the book, so it feels like a lost opportunity.) The section of her going home – the cruelty of turning a 17 year old out onto the roads with no servant or pin money, forcing her to ride the Regency Greyhound back 70 miles to her house – this was a nice bit of writing. Seeing how beholden to the male head of a family everyone – but especially women – are, this was honestly freaky, and freakier than the Gothic spookings that had Catherine jumping at her shadow. It’s a pretty sly commentary on horror fictions – no, the father didn’t kill the wife, but he certainly has the very real power to make everyone miserable, put them into real danger, and destroy their lives. Watch the birdy, because the real horror is in the everyday. Nice. And just a stray thought – I loved the portrait of General Tilney – this twitchy, overbearing asshole who clearly has OCD; kind enough if you are in his good graces, and a monster if you are not. 

I’m not even going to put under spoiler that everything works out in the end, but this was mostly truncated and distant in its recounting. The narrator becomes obnoxious, relating everything and enacting speeches in a bald manner, ending with a Law & Order style dun dun – but at what cost?? I feel very affectionately towards this novel, but this is mostly because I love Austen enough to want to read this twice, just to see her grow and change as a writer. Also because when I first read it, I had much less experience with the Gothic novel. I said this before somewhere else, but for the writers we love, sometimes the failures are as interesting as the successes. (And this isn’t a full-on failure, just uneven.) Watching an author’s voice develop, from the first rough coughings to the later arias, this can be a joy to read for the beloved author. So, reader beware, this is not a smart book to start with if you’ve never read any Austen, or you don’t particularly like Austen’s more assigned readings. For me, it was an excellent October read. Spooooooky.