You can't libel the dead, but you can certainly annoy their fans.
When the sale of my novel "Jane Bites Back" was first announced there was a flurry of interest in it that resulted in mentions on a number of Austen-related blogs. The mentions increased dramatically six months later when Seth Grahame-Smith's "Pride & Prejudice and Zombies" became an overnight sensation. Suddenly both our books were being written about in places like the New York Times and The New Yorker, which of course was totally thrilling.
But not everyone was happy about Seth adding the undead to Austen's story or about my turning Jane herself into a vampire. Because my book was not out yet Seth bore the brunt of the fallout, but I knew that at some point the spotlight would turn on me. And it did. Although no one said anything terrible, I found the occasional snarky comment on a blog or in an article about the rash of Austen mash-ups that appeared trying to capitalize on the success of "PPZ". One reader went so far as to send me an e-mail saying that I should be ashamed of myself for doing such a despicable thing to "poor Miss Austen, who has never done anything to you."
Here's a little secret about writers: We want everyone to like us. We want them to like our books too, but ultimately what we want is for people to say, "Michael Thomas Ford is such a sweetheart. I'm going to buy all of his books. In fact, I'm going to buy six copies of each one and give them to my friends. No, make that twelve copies. He really is a dear."
So you can imagine that when a few people accused me of being ungracious to Jane I was a little upset. I didn't weep or anything, but I fretted quite heavily and considered sending notes of apology.
The thing is it never occurred to me that making Austen a vampire was in any way disrespectful. Rather, I looked at it as giving her the chance to take revenge on those who have appropriated her literary genius for their own profit. I thought her fans (among whom I of course count myself) would cheer this opportunity for her to reclaim her rightful place in the literary world, even if she does have to do it under a pseudonym.
Alas, some of them, not so much. Well, two of them. Possibly three.
But it's okay. I get it. There's something about Austen that makes her readers want to protect her. I think it's her innocence. This is, after all, the woman who came in second (behind Queen Elizabeth I) on the Guardian's list of Top 10 Literary Virgins. She represents a time when chastity was a virtue, not a defect, and for many people she is a welcome respite from the less demure entertainments of our time. In a world where little girls (and some little boys) want to grow up to be Lolita-esque pop stars, Austen and her heroines offer a refreshing alternative.
And here I've gone and turned her into a vampire. I've also allowed her to engage in S-E-X. Nothing explicit, mind, but when it comes to Jane Austen anything more than a coy glance or at most a peck on the cheek is cause for alarm. The most common complaint about the plethora of Austen-related films is that they rely too heavily on romance at the expense of the original source material. Kiera Knightley and Matthew Macfayden made a lovely Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, but a number Janeites thought there was far too much kissing going on between them.
Personally I don't think there can possibly be too much kissing where either Kiera Knightley or Matthew Macfayden are concerned. Still, I do understand why some of Jane's more ardent fans might decry what they see as a besmirching of her legacy or, more accurately, an oversimplification of her work. For Austen was never just about romance, she was about the rules of society (particularly for women) and overcoming them.
My novel isn't about Austen's characters, it's about her, which for some folks is even worse than messing with her books. And it was tempting to keep Jane, well, innocent. But really, how long can we expect the poor woman to go without a little action? It's bad enough that she hasn't been able to get her latest novel published for almost two centuries. Surely we shouldn't begrudge her some romance.
Despite the occasional grumble, I think Austen's fans will give vampire Jane a chance. When in one of my novels I wrote about another great writer, John Steinbeck, and speculated that he might have had a romantic relationship with his best friend Ed Ricketts I fully expected a firestorm of "how dare you's" to come in. None did. In fact, I received a note from the director of the Steinbeck Center letting me know how much he enjoyed the book. (I'll tell you though, when I first saw his mail in my in box I felt a little ill and didn't open it until I couldn't stand not knowing any longer--which was about two minutes.)
So I think Austen's fans might just like the new Jane. Even better, they might find that this Jane is not so different from the one they already know and love.
Only now her bite is just as sharp as her bark.