I am in quite a quandary. I have been looking at how we as authors can grow the base of readership for #Austenesque and #NorthandSouth variations.
The chart below asks persons which genres they read regularly. Female and male respondents tended to follow each other closely…or at least vary within expectations. Women do tend to be more even-handed in their reading preferences with the trend line remaining stable until the horror category is reached. Men, on the other side of the coin, seem to be all over the board in their preferences, although the numbers for Crime/Thriller, Adventure, and Science Fiction are either identical or within a few points of each other.
For my purposes here, though, I want to focus once again on the question of the gendered nature of the material produced for our reading pleasure.
My contention is that we are looking at a hangover in this data from 2015. Much as generals tend to prepare for the last war, so, too, do I believe that we are seeing reading habits that were shaped by forces from a half-century ago.
In previous blogs I have considered the Post-WWII pulp publishing industry which offered two different prescriptions for men and women. These were not accidental but were accurate reflections of social forces shaping the American marketplace. The men, mired in the corporate cogs of the era of the grey flannel suit, thirsted for autonomy. Women also sought freedom, although this was liberation from the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and squadrons of wet-nosed children.
Consider the context: WWII and Korean War vets had spent their time in khaki taking orders. Then the beneficiaries of the GI Bill once again became nameless and faceless in the gigantic post-war business machine (see Hudsucker Proxy). They had lost their agency and felt utterly powerless…a sentiment that could not be papered over by a second car or extra weeks of vacation.
Men wanted brass-knuckled heroes/antiheroes who strode through the world without a care. Their answer when facing down anti-social forces and incompetent authorities was a fist to the jaw or a slug from a .32. With these tools and their wits, Chandler and Garner’s protagonists restored balance to the universe. They also found satisfaction in escapades with stunning and dangerous women (whose conquest was not a foregone conclusion) not worn down by birthing children and life in a world of The Problem With No Name. The pornograph only began to play louder after the mid-1960s. Until then, allusions and inferences allowed men to fill in the gaps in an environment where local district attorneys found bedeviling booksellers on morals charges to be a painless way to burnish their tough-on-crime creds.
As I also noted, the Golden Age of Science Fiction basically was what Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to be: Bonanza in space with aliens. There was always a pretty woman, perhaps terribly unavailable, for Kirk to woo and win and lose. (Kirk’s amours had almost as short a lifespan as red shirts. She’s dead, Jim!) Men and boys ate up books, shows, and rudimentary movies.
Female-oriented lit had fewer places to go. But, with a somewhat heavy-on-the-trope lens, consider that there was a reason why Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exploded in the 1960s. T’was the late 1940s, when women were pushed once again from the factories and the marriage age, began plummeting into the mid-to-late teens (Lydia would have been considered an old maid!). Women craved an escape from their limited space governed by their husbands’ 9-to-5 workdays. They, in the 1950s, were much like the women of Gaskell’s Milton who tended their families before and after their own shifts at the mills in the 1850s.
Obviously, there was almost no precedent for a woman in politics (Margaret Chase Smith notwithstanding) or at the helm of a great business (Coco Chanel) to use as exemplars. Thus, women were offered that escape from the household to a space where large numbers of professional women could be found…hospitals. Pulp literature and American television were filled with adult medical dramas where the women—nurses—were the acolytes of incredibly dedicated and handsome men (also, rather autonomous lifesavers). Sparks would fly, although the angst meter was usually turned up just in time to have a lovelorn scenario as women were expected to leave the public sphere upon marriage. T’would not do to have the dashing young doctor go from love interest to Ozzie Nelson in one season.
This thinking is that hangover, that artifact, which I mentioned. I believe that we as authors have gone to school on our elders and have become trapped in models that were established by Barbara Cartland and other greats…but they were the greats of a half-century or more ago. While they are transcendent, we have to be skeptical of how well they reflect modern society and human nature.
Today, however, society is profoundly altered. A full panoply of career options is now available to women…particularly young women. There are women generals and admirals in the military. They float over our heads as astronauts and serve as police chiefs in our largest cities. They stand astride economic goliaths like Facebook. Even in tech engineering, long a bastion of the “lad” economy, women like the daughter of family friends design and maintain critical e-commerce websites like that of Alaska Airlines.
As for the 21st Century men: consider that their career paths are equally open. No longer are they handcuffed by the expectation that they must be the breadwinner, that they are solely responsible for their family’s security. While there are those (usually in my age bracket) who will scoff at a man who seeks to earn a degree in linguistics (his mother and I stared at one another and asked what will he do with that?), a few years later they will profess amazement when he rises to be one of the chief data scientists at a top-three national retailer.
My interest as a near-unicorn in the #Austenesque world—a male author—is to find a way to bring more male readers to the party. That will grow the overall reader base…if we erase the 30-point variance between male and female readers in the space where we have been pigeonholed.
Others have made that journey before: charting new territory and changing the public’s reading habits.
Austen broke the mold by creating the romantic novel from the gothic one. At first, the novel and authors like Austen were relegated to the Regency version of “chick-lit.” Her pre-industrial musings quickly became quaint in the 1830s and 40s. Later though, her work was reassessed by mid-to-late Victorian gentlemen like Lord Brabourne. They found what we now understand to be Austen’s greatness–and it was not in her rusticated contexts or portrayals of the life of the gentry, already on life support. As Brabourne noted in his appreciation of Miss Austen, “… she describes men and women exactly as men and women really are, and tells her tale of ordinary, everyday life … with such purity of style and language, as have rarely been equaled, and perhaps never surpassed. …” (Letters of Jane Austen). Then, later, came geniuses like the Bröntes, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Woolf, Eliot, Maugham, Greene, and others whose popularity has waxed and waned with popular sentiment until they have been enshrined in the halls of great literature.
We, now, are faced with a similar situation. #Austenesque Variations can remain in the tribute band mentality. Or, we can look to find our own internal truth to demand more of our own work as writers. We must also, though, encourage our audiences to insist upon more than formulaic mind candy reiterations of the Lady. We need to create and grow the genre in new ways much as Robert Cruz Smith altered the police procedural with Gorky Park in 1981. If we remain perceived as the literary arm of a world that is dominated by Regency re-enactors, we may well encounter little success in expanding our appeal.
The potential lives of all persons—women and men—have changed significantly in the last 40 years. And, that does suggest…no, require, that our stories reflect those alterations.
However, our biggest challenge may be more immediate, more internalized: will authors in our genre be able to shed the distaff equivalent of The shadow of “I”[i]…its male version being the bane of Virginia Woolf’s publishing life? We must find ways to write without either the female OR male mind dominating the work. That will create a more accurate image of human behavior. For me, the effort to break the barrier between my male and female minds is a giant hurdle. I have been tasked by others who point out that they can see my maleness coming through. I cannot imagine that it will be any less for other authors in the #InspiredByAusten realm. Yet, if we do not, we will be drawing an implicit line between our genre and a more diverse audience.
OK, that was a clarion call. I have made my diagnosis. Here are some very unscientific, gut-level prescriptions for ways to move the field deeper into the 21st Century…and some examples of works that have successfully trodden the path. I hope that these are not seen as gendered. Consider that men cheered at Bree Larsen’s Captain Marvel and were equally terrified at Sigourney Weaver’s travails in Alien. And Arwen and Galadriel were essential in Lord of the Rings.
While I am not suggesting a mash-up of Jane Austen with Patrick O’Brien, might not stories with realistic Regency military scenarios (Melanie Rachel’s ‘Courage Rises’ amongst others) serve?
On that theme, even if writing a ‘period’ story about ODC, why not add some of the actual history that explains the drivers that move the characters through their worlds (Nicole Clarkston’s ‘Courtship of Edward Gardiner’)?
How about something more modern and altered with fantastic elements like time travel (C.P. Odom’s ‘Perilous Siege’ comes to mind)?
Modern themed adaptations that push beyond the ‘usual’ boundaries of rom-lit (Beth Auron’s ‘The Colonel’ or Leigh Dreyer’s ‘Flight Plan’ stories)?
While women with “pluck” are a constant theme, how about casting a woman as an action heroine? (Mrs. Bennet and Eileen Nearne in my “The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament)
Pure fantasy that takes ODC and others far beyond their usual haunts (Hah!) (See Maria Grace’s Dragon stories, works worthy to be on the shelf with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders books)
I serve up this general blog and these ideas as thought starters. I have tried to incorporate adventure, mystery, romance, history, and science fiction in a Bennet Wardrobe Series rooted in a classic while attempting a literary styling that is appealing.
Please enjoy this excerpt from my latest WIP: In Plain Sight.
This work is ©2019 by Donald P. Jacobson. Any reproduction without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited. Published in the United States of America.
Elizabeth schooled her features into impassivity as the wagon lurched its way toward Netherfield. She reminded herself that Papa had not taken her to task after she had tweaked his nose over his treatment of her sisters. Her penance was to forgo her pre-dinner ramble up the Mount.
But I will be most interested to see how Mary and this Reverend Benton react to one another. And, I have never encountered convicted prisoners. The closest I have come to one was when a magistrate’s wagon stopped at the coaching inn while the warders refreshed themselves. Even then, one of them always stood guard to shoo away neighborhood children.
Mr. Bennet rode alongside astride his hunter, Pompey. As the afternoon was warm, Bennet had chosen to wear his long unbleached linen greatcoat and a broad-brimmed straw hat. He had borrowed the look from his college friend, Sir Thomas Bertram, an old Sugar Islands’ hand. As he bounced along in her peripheral vision, Lizzy accounted him a typical gentleman, conceited enough to affect some eccentricities to set him apart from his neighbors, but also mature enough to know a country squire’s sartorial limits. Her father’s petty vanities made Lizzy love him all-the-more…in spite of his failings.
James guided the wagon toward where the hedgerow that demarked the end of Longbourn and the beginning of Netherfield abutted Longbourn Lane. Over the centuries, wagons, horses, and people had worn a track on either side of the impenetrable hawthorn as they brought supplies and labor to the estates. While gates and stiles had been cut through and over the greenery, the well-defined ways offered the smoothest path from the main road onto the adjacent lands.
Longbourn’s plow horses made progress, albeit slowly, toward the junction.
Bennet, feeling Pompey’s impatience at his stablemates’ pace, rode ahead to allow the stallion to stretch his legs. By the time the wagon bearing James and the ladies had rounded the last bend before the cutoff, he had dismounted and stood talking with a man wearing a parson’s black shirtfront and topcoat. The young man’s pate was exposed to the heavens because he had eschewed a vicar’s headgear. Lizzy apprehended a well-featured young man with medium brown locks, trimmed neatly above his ear. At the sound of the jangling harnesses, he glanced their way.
Then she heard a sharp intake of breath from beneath the deep-brimmed bonnet to her right. Before Mary demurely dropped her chin breaking eye contact, Lizzy caught a delicate blush flooding up her neck and onto her cheeks. She also saw Mary’s hands nervously twisting her handkerchief.
Papa called on me to observe. He did not say for what I was to be looking.
Now I can hold my own when Papa pulls me into the bookroom. I am certain that he will find much diversion in hearing about Mary’s reaction to the sight of Mr. Benton.
Bennet waved James to a halt and brought his companion up to the wagon. As he introduced his daughters to Benton, he considered Mary’s reaction. What he saw, and what he would later discuss with Elizabeth, was a marked preference on her part. While he had been accused of ignoring Mary’s sentiments, he had been surrounded by women for two decades. He could recognize the signs.
Whether she knew it or not, Mary Bennet was in the first stages of love.
And, loving father that he was, Thomas Bennet would do nothing to stand in her way of either happiness or heartbreak. For one she would be well-situated throughout her life. If the other was to be the order-of-the-day, Mary would have her sisters to comfort her.
He had already decided that he would stop being an impediment to his daughters’ happiness. He always had felt rather ham-handed when dealing with his girl-children. Usually he delegated their management to their mama, but, today, he resolved to try to foster Mary’s prospects with a little matchmaking of his own.
Telling Mary to hand him the grey lambswool throw from beneath the bench seat, Bennet spread it in the wagon’s bed. Then he suggested, as they had a schedule to keep, that Reverend Benton clamber up and ride the rest of the way to the barnyard. Then he, himself, joined the young man. Pompey had to content himself with trailing the conveyance, his reins tied to the tailgate. The two men’s discussion, bits of which floated forward to Lizzy and Mary’s ears, seemed to revolve around a comparison between their respective universities and how both institutions seemed to struggle with preparing men to function in the modern world.
The young ladies understood that this was the type of conversation for which their father had clearly been thirsting: a meeting of minds upon the intellectual battlefield. Mary and Lizzy enjoyed the new-found animation that colored their father’s rejoinders to Benton’s sallies. The young vicar held his own as the wagon crested the last rise before it began to descend into the natural bowl which housed the barn and other outbuildings.
The men milled about the dusty expanse stretching away from the barn. They were hemmed in by several men bearing clubs, a few more stood atop wagon beds. These guards bore muskets and shotguns.
The noise level rose and fell as if it were a case clock tolling the hours: regular and frequent. Between crescendos, an animal-like moan rose to be heard by those in the approaching wagon. That groan was cut off by a whistling sound that ended in a meaty twack.
Bennet jumped to his feet and peered at the sight over his daughter’s shoulders.
“Stop the wagon. Now,” Bennet shouted. Mary and Lizzy jumped at the sound of their father’s urgency.
Lizzy squinted ahead, the sunlight in her eyes, and asked, “Papa, what is it? I expected them to be organized for services.”
Bennet replied, “I have no idea, but I do not want either of you two anywhere near whatever is happening. There are armed men. Whether there is some sort of riot or not, I cannot say.
“What I can say is that this is no place for my daughters. Do not move!”
At that moment, a figure in black flew past the wagon heading toward the barn.
Edward Benton knew exactly what was going on. In the months after he had been ordained, he had served as a chaplain to a distant cousin, an admiral, aboard his flagship, the Bellerophon. While the ship’s captain was not known as a right tartar, the infrequently-administered floggings left an impression upon the young man’s consciousness. Whenever the Master at Arms let the cat out of the bag, hardened seamen shuddered in the knowledge that backs would be flensed and blood would flow.
The sounds of the cat o’ nine tails and the victim on the grate were unmistakable and unforgettable. And, Benton refused to allow this travesty to mar the Sabbath!
As he neared the mob, he sighted the crosstrees soaring above the massed heads and shoulders. A thin man, no, a boy, really, was bound arm and leg to the wooden members, themselves a mockery of Calvary’s splinter. A beefy man in a canvas apron, wielded the scourge. Nobody noticed Benton’s approach, so intent were they upon the blood sport playing out in front of them.
The centurion, Wadkins, hauled back his arm to deliver another stroke.
Benton roared his outrage and threw himself between the descending lashes and the boy’s back. The knotted leather caught the priest full across the face and laid his cheek open down to the bone. He crumbled into the dust.
Wadkins growled his displeasure at his work being interrupted, stepped forward, and fired a booted foot into Benton’s ribs, tossing the defenseless man a foot off the hardpan. He was setting himself for another blow when a massive left hook was delivered to his liver. Vision tunneled to a point and his legs jellied; Wadkins joined Benton in the dirt.
When the thug had pulled Wilson out of their Sunday make-and-mend circle, Smith knew that the boy was condemned to provide satisfaction to the sadists in charge of the work crew. As much as he hated what was to come, Smith also realized that the sentinels had both might in the form of muskets and shotguns and right as conferred by His Majesty’s courts on their side. No group of convicts could hope to defeat that combination. Rather, he would hope that Wadkins would realize that a slight fellow like Wilson could bear maybe only a half dozen strokes rather than the traditional dozen. Soames had no problem with his employees relieving their boredom by abusing the prisoners if the miscreants could return to work the following day. He also frowned upon killing any prisoner: a death which would have to be accounted to the local magistrate and outraged sensibilities soothed in the usual—and expensive—manner.
Smith had given Wilson a piece of an old belt to bite down upon as the blows landed. He also had quickly traded some tobacco for a pint of homebrew, half to pour down Wilson’s throat, the other half to sluice over his wounds once he had been freed from his torture. His advice to the terrified fellow was to transport his mind to a happier place than the barnyard.
The flogging followed the usual script with the unfortunate being dragged out of his shelter to the sounds of jeers from his mates, relieved that they were not the ones being blamed for the trench collapse. They could howl at another’s pain and forget their own for a while.
Smith then placed himself directly in Henry’s line of sight to give him strength in his coming ordeal.
Wilson fainted after the fourth stroke, sagging into his bindings. Usually the floggings halted when the victim could not appreciate his punishment.
Not this time.
The depravity of the fifth stroke, thus, stunned Smith, when Wadkins expertly parted the rope Wilson had been using to hold up his trousers. The blood from his shredded back trickled down to stain Wilson’s grimy and tattered smallclothes. Smith growled and charged Wadkins.
To be stymied when a man Smith recognized as the prisoner’s vicar diverted Wadkins’ attention.
Events blurred after Smith had flattened the guard.
A muslin-clad blur raced into the mews and threw herself atop the supine holy man and shrieked, “Edward, no!”
A musket-butt slammed into the back of Smith’s head, turning out his lights.
The sound of hooves rumbled up. A large equine shadow interposed itself between the crosstrees and the crowd as Mr. Bennet astride Pompey circled the figures laid low.
He roared, “Enough! My name is Thomas Bennet of Longbourn, and I am the magistrate in these parts.
“Send a man for Soames…now! Get those prisoners back into the barn.”
Looking above the milling men, he called out to James who had brought the wagon forward, “Cut that poor man down. Lay him in the wagon. Take him and the ladies back to Longbourn. Send for Jones to treat his injuries. I will wait here for Master Soames.”
By this point, Edward had stirred and had gently disengaged himself from Mary’s protective embrace. He clutched her handkerchief, bloodstained now, to his bruised and battered face. He whispered comfort to her as she wept. Then he looked up at Bennet, and loath to open his heart in front of strangers, then glanced down at the crown of Mary’s bonnet where it vibrated emotionally against his shoulder. When he again locked eyes with her father he pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows.
His features softening, Mr. Bennet gave Benton a firm nod which told of the need for a deeper conversation to confirm that which just had passed without words. Edward clambered to his feet and then helped Mary to rise. Arm-in-arm they followed James to the back of the wagon where they helped situate young Wilson.
Throughout all of this, Lizzy did not say a word, remaining perched atop the bench seat. She was transfixed, though, by the tall form stretched out in the dust.
[i] A Room of One’s Own (1929).