Friday, January 15, 2010

do you like Jane Austen for the wrong reasons?

Fran Lebowitz offers a video commentary on why Jane Austen is popular these days because people don't understand her (thanks for the link, Maud!). Lebowitz says that Americans, who are generally unironic, think of Austen as a romance writer and an archetypal Victorian; they don't realize she wasn't a Victorian writer and furthermore was a moralist, not a romance writer. She wasn't telling fairytales; she was showing us how to behave.

I respectfully disagree, Fran, on two fronts.

1: Give us a little credit! Austen may appeal to our romantic side, but she makes us work for our joy. A reader is forced to think about right and wrong, human shortcomings, fiscal and practical realities, and the moral and emotional scopes of human nature. Like I said, a lot of work. And, honestly, a lot more work than most romance novels ask of their readers. If we just wanted romance novels, wouldn't we just read romance novels?

I won't get into how actual Victorian novelists make you work even harder ::cough:: George Eliot ::cough::.

2: Austen DID write fairytales--you know for a fact going into an Austen novel that you'll have a meaty, satisfying, happy ending, even if it will be nuanced by hardship and obstacles. And you know what? I think Jane gave them happy endings on purpose. I think she wanted them, well, to be popular.

Just my humble little opinion.

30 comments:

CT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Watery Tart said...

I enjoyed that clip, regardless of my firm belief that there is NEVER a wrong reason to love a book or an author--if if appeals to you, then missing some of the subtle points doesn't matter. In fact I think it is one of the joys af great books that you can read it at different ages and get different things out of it.

I actually laughed out loud though, when Liebowitz said you only had to meet one writer to not care to meet writers--BUWAHAHAHAHA. I suppose there are a lot of us whose skill is in writing and not in the face to face end of it.

Cammie said...

I'm not much of a romance-for-the-sake-of-romance fan, so I can say that what I liked most about Sense and Sensibility was Austen's cheekiness about kids and motherhood (no offense to all the awesome moms & tots out there!) It was just so funny to read a pre-Victorian mocking the conventions of her society.

jennysbooks said...

What is this about Americans not understanding irony? I love irony! And I can't imagine anyone could read Mansfield Park and fail to recognize that the author's moralizing.

Huh. Piffle.

Laurel said...

Thanks for sticking up for us ignoramuses who like Austen.

This kind of intellectual analysis of why someone you don't think is as smart as you are likes a classic drives me nuts.

First and foremost, Austen wrote good stories. They are witty and the characters draw the reader in. THIS is why people like Austen. People who don't read romance read and enjoy her so the notion that everyone is an Austen fan because we ignorantly assume her books are strictly romance is absurd.

Believe it or not, the unwashed masses out here are fully capable of reading literature from the canon and not only understanding it but enjoying it. Great books haven't survived the ages because they were only for the intellectually superior.

Miriam S. Forster said...

Is is weird that I don't care why I love Jane Austin? She writes awesome stories with impeccable language and wit. That's more than enough to earn my undying loyalty. :)

writtenwyrdd said...

For me, Jane Austin's wit is what makes these books shine. I love the comedy of manners aspect of her tales, and I love how she can make fun of characters without being entirely cruel. Her treatment of Elizabeth Bennet's mother, who is such a figure of fun, is such that we see how much Lizzie loves her and yet despises her gauchness.

but I have to agree with Watery Tart: there is never a wrong reason to love a book or author.

In my experience, people who love Austen get that she's poking fun at people's foibles, that these aren't straight romantic novels.

Jessann Burton said...

I enjoy Jane Austen (though naturally not to my full potential, back assward, ignorant American that I am). She definitely preaches proper behavior as well as embracing love and romance, but her heroines always seem sort of mercurial to me.

It's not happy ever after unless it's the union is as financially sound as it is emotionally. Which, one could argue, continues today in the romance genre. It's hard to find books with, and forgive me for using the phrase, "average Joe" heros of comfortable means. Throw a dart at a wall of romance books and 9 times out of 10 you're going to hit a book with an obscenely rich and powerful hero.

Jane Austen's heros are the same way. Persuasion most clearly comes to mind. Poor (and HOT) Captain Wentworth isnt' really marriage material until he's made his fortune.

And now I get off my Austen pedestal. :)

stacy said...

I've only read one of Austen's novels, Northanger Abbey. I know it's not her strongest effort, but even as a teenager she showed flashes of wit. I don't think she was above making fun of the main character, even though it was gentle.

And please. I'm all about irony.

suzie townsend said...

Thanks for sharing that clip :) I'm all about irony - I love Jane Austen.

David said...

The fairytale nature is indicated by the unrealistic background. The soldiers in her novels are there to serve as romantic objects. In the real British army of the time, they were fighting and dying in large numbers. But her soldiers never have wounds, physical or psychological, and there are no mustered-out crippled beggars.

There's also no Industrial Revolution. Enclosing of a commons is mentioned in one of the novels, but just as a topic of business interest between two landowners.

Falen said...

I was really angry that Fran just stuck everyone together - she's obviously spoken to every single perosn who's ever read Austen and therefore can state blindly that we're all wrong.

Thanks for that Fran.

moonrat said...

I love that whenever I post about Jane Austen there's a huge number of responses... It's so nice to see a really wide-spread addiction in the book world. I think Jane's work is something a lot of very different people have in common.

And Miriam--good point. Who cares WHY you like Jane?!

stacy said...

Falen, I'm just waiting for Fran to now tell me why I love Dickens.

Rosemary said...

From the lady herself:

“I could not sit down seriously to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter."

But of course she did down to write "serious romances" of the very best kind. And we have to work as hard for that HEA as her heroines do. But oh my, is it worth it.

David said...

"Romance" had a different meaning in Austen's time.

I think she was talking about writing a serious novel.

David said...

Or, come to think of it, she might have meant a straight adventure novel. She once outlined one, as a joke, for her sisters. It was full of thrilling escapes, terrible perils, and absurd coincidences.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I do not like Jane Austen.

I do, however, love the idea of Jane as a vampire / failed author in the modern market.

michelle said...

The part I wholly agreed with was where Fran said that a book should not be a mirror, it should be a door...I think Jane is all door. She creates a world to get lost in whilst poking gentle fun at the "real world." In my humble opinion Jane is still so popular because today more than ever people want that escape...

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I like Jane Austen because she's funny, because I can look forward to a satisfying ending, and because her characters are unconventional and quirky. (But I like Elizabeth Gaskell even better because she has the courage to wade deeper into social justice issues ... I know we're not discussing Gaskell, but I couldn't resist throwing that in.)

Eye Reads said...

I think Liebowitz is confusing people who like Jane Austen with people who like BBC miniseries'.

Not mutually exclusive, but definitely two differennt animals.

Lynne Connolly said...

Of course Jane Austen ISN'T a Victorian novelist. She died 20 years before Victoria came to the throne. Her life and Victoria's overlapped by a whole two years. Lebowitz points this out very ably in her video. Austen is better grouped with the Georgian novelists like Smollett and Fielding.
Austen had a cynicism that modern readers often overlook. I do agree with many of the points made in the video. Sharp on the irony. Austen was not a romantic novelist, she was a mistress of social commentary and observation.
David - Austen commented on the world she knew and saw. She probably knew nothing about the industrial revolution and cared less. And the soldiers in her books were the ones she saw.
I really enjoyed Cornell West's commentary, too.

_*Rachel*_ said...

Jane Austen is probably the only author who can make me read a romance that doesn't contain weaponry. Sure, she has a lot of good advice, but she's like Narnia: you can love it whether you get it or not. It can be enjoyed AND learned from.

I'm generally quiet with my reactions to books. Smile, maybe snort, VERY occasionally get tears in my eyes. Pride and Prejudice is one of the few novels where I've truly LOLed.

Nicole said...

High five to that!

(just wanted to show my support in the most ignorant-American way possible)

Ellen said...

I do like this quote:

"If you're really a truth-teller you'd better be funny, because otherwise they'll kill you."

ggwritespoetry said...

I concur...

lws said...

And don't forget to listen to "poseur" Cornel West's inane comments in his video about Austen. He talks about reading Emma, but did he? Hmmmm. I doubt Austen is his "cup of tea."

Funny, I blogged about this yesterday, too, after visiting The Morgan this past week. Brother Rene forwarded this link to me.

http://www.thepublishingcontrarian.com

Froog said...

I don't think I've ever seen the word unironic before, and I had this overhwelming silly urge to read it as meaning limitedly ronic - you know, ronic in only one pole rather than, er, bironic. It really ought to be a word.

moonrat said...

Froog--you can make it happen! just tell us what ronic means.

Annette Lyon said...

In an odd way, I think Fran's point might make the most sense for those who love the movies based on Austen's books rather than those who have actually READ her books--those focus on the love stories and such, and you don't get the full level of irony and wit and class issues and all the other levels (Austen's an onion!). And yeah, people who weren't English lit majors might not realize that she straddles the Neoclassic and Romantic eras and often poked fun at them both.

That's the long way of saying I like Austen for the right reasons!