Chances are even if you missed reading Annie Proulx's incredible short story "Brokeback Mountain," you caught wind of the multiple Academy Award-winning movie adaptation starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger. But a 2009 interview with Proulx in The Paris Review is coming back into public attention thanks to its revelation that she wishes she never wrote "Brokeback Mountain" in the aftermath of the film.
Prior to writing the short story in question, Proulx won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her first novel Postcards, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction for her second novel, The Shipping News — which, notably, was also adapted into a movie in 2001 starring Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, and Cate Blanchett. Her short story "Brokeback Mountain" won an O. Henry Prize, and the issue of The New Yorker in which it appeared won the National Magazine Award for Fiction for its inclusion of Proulx's story.
"Brokeback Mountain" is part of Proulx's Wyoming stories, and it centers on two men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, who meet when they are hired to look after sheep at a seasonal range. Their story plays out over two decades as they form a sexual and emotional relationship, but they also marry respective wives, have children, and find new jobs.
Spoiler alert! It doesn't end all hunky dory, lovey dovey for Ennis and Jack, no matter how much we all wish it would. Instead, Jack is killed in a hate crime — and this seems to be the point of contention with readers. But not to put words in her mouth, let's break down what Proulx herself has to say about why she regrets writing "Brokeback Mountain":
So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And one of the reasons we keep the gates locked here is that a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.
This is true. There is a large fanfiction community around "Brokeback Mountain," just as there is often a large fanfiction community around anything with a cultish fan-following. But take note: Proulx does not respect fanfiction. She even goes on to say:
But that’s not the story I wrote. Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law.
But what Proulx seems to be sidestepping is that people have these "powerful fantasy lives" and "rewrite the story" because the characters she has created are so powerful and so beloved that fans (and they are fans) cannot bear to have such a tragic fate befall them. That's a credit to the author. She goes on:
They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it. ... People saw it as a story about two cowboys. It was never about two cowboys. You know you have to have characters to hang the story on but I guess they were too real.
I agree that it must be frustrating to feel like something you've put so much work and heart into is completely misunderstood. But all I can say to Proulx is that the people misunderstanding the crux of your piece doesn't make them bad people or even bad readers. They are engaging with your work enough to take out a piece of paper, an envelope, and buy a stamp to talk more about it. (This doesn't count for readers who are rude, of course, or overtly mean, but no writer should be paying attention to trolls, anyway.)
But there is something that I can identify with Proulx about:
I can’t tell you how many of these things have been sent to me as though they’re expecting me to say, Oh great, if only I’d had the sense to write it that way. And they all begin the same way — I’m not gay, but . . . The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I how these people would have behaved.
Ugh, mansplaining is the worst. I'm with you on this, Annie. I can't imagine how annoyed she must get with this type of tone in fan letters. But hey, Annie: You literally wrote the book on this. You don't have to even entertain these sentiments. Say your piece on why you wrote it the way you did — or don't. All of us women have to deal with this kind of thing everyday, so it's great you brought it up, but don't take back "Brokeback Mountain" because of it. That's just letting the men here win.
Images: Google Images; Giphy