So, people are complex. You just never know how they will respond. When I published Austenland in 2007, I was caught totally off guard by the first "you should be ashamed of this smut" email I received. I honestly didn't consider Austenland a trashy book. But many did. Here's my favorite of the angry emails:
I just read Austenland and was so disappointed. I loved your other books and had come to trust you to keep things clean. I bought Austenland on Amazon for my teenaged daughter for Christmas because she is a huge Pride & Prejudice fan. I'm glad I decided to read it first, because it would have totally traumatized her. I buried it [in] my kitchen trash can under a pile of wilted celery, where it should feel right at home.
I don't want to mock the writer of that email. Everyone has the right to their own reaction (though I do wonder sometimes what motivates the need to email the author your negative reaction). Still, I didn't see this coming.
The most surprising response I received for Austenland (and really any of my books) was:
"The way she mocks Austen fans is just insulting."
Not just one such response but many. I never anticipated that fellow Austen fans would think that I was insulting them. After all, I am one. It's one thing to love Austen's novels (which I do) but at the point I became obsessed with the DVDs of Pride & Prejudice, I thought, this is getting funny. Isn't it okay to laugh at this? At my weird obsession? And how I have the tendency to fall in love with fictional characters? Can we still be amused by a thing and love it at the same time?
Once the movie came out, that reaction only magnified. Many people thought we were mocking Jane Austen readers in an ugly and mean-spirited way. I felt like I'd had the wind knocked out of me.
Of course not everyone responded that way, and it was lovely and reassuring that many people (Austen fans and non-readers) let us know how much they loved what we did. I read one simply gorgeous review of the movie from a major online magazine, and was so relieved that at least someone got it! After the writer and I corresponded a bit. She wrote:
"I'm so grateful for writers who are doing work that's full of love and warmth and isn't cynical. I get enough of that."
Yay! Not everyone misunderstood! I forwarded the note on to the director, Jerusha Hess, and she responded, "Yes! It was full of love."
If we made it in love, full of warmth and fondness and well-intentioned humor, how did it come across to many as just the opposite?
I don't know, but I've observed some things about the Hesses' movies. Some people who saw Napoleon Dynamite thought that the movie was mocking a rural west culture, and yet I've never met anyone from Utah or Idaho that felt mocked by the movie. I read reviews of Nacho Libre (reviews written by white US guys) who thought the movie was mocking Mexicans, and yet the movie did great in Mexico and was largely received with love and laughter. I have no doubt that there was a loving and celebratory spirit in the Hesses making of these movies.
In those cases, it was outsiders who feared the mockery, while those supposedly being mocked got the humor and laughed with the movie. Yet with Austenland, many of the insiders--the Janeites--felt unkindly mocked. I don't know why this happened.
Christopher Guest movies also come to mind. I don't know if certain musicians felt mocked by Spinal Tap. I heard that some dog showers did by Best In Show, which surprised me, because as an outsider it seemed clear to me that the movie wasn't trying to make fun of all dog owners and dog shows, nor to definitively define what such people must all be like. I grew up doing community theater, and everyone I know in theater absolutely loves Waiting for Guffman. We didn't feel mocked by it. We felt lovingly tributed and enjoyed the inside jokes only we would get, laughing at the absurdities we saw in ourselves and in our theater world as well as laughing at the parts the movie exaggerated for humor. I came away from it not thinking, "Yeah, community theater is lame," but "That was hysterical! I love theater!"
And I guess that's how I assumed my fellow Jane Austen lovers would react too. If anyone might misunderstand and think we were mocking Janeites, it would be the outsiders, certainly not the insiders, certainly not those who loved Austen--her humor, her snark, her insight.
I do know we were walking that fine and wonderful line: to be the thing and make light of the thing at the same time. That's the only way to do a loving comedy. And there is a chance it can be misunderstood. I just didn't think it would, not by my own peeps.
Some people couldn't go there with us, and that's okay. Art is personal. But the accusations of mean-spiritedness or malicious intent are totally, completely wrong. Every actor, every producer and writer and all involved had a fondness for the characters and the story and wanted to make something that made us laugh, made us swoon, made us smile, in the very best spirit possible.
I don't know why it failed some people, but it is a potent reminder that nothing is more perilous than comedy.