The Closing Case Against Book Clubs

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Closing Case Against Book Clubs

The Jane Austen Book Club

The Closing Case Against Book Clubs
New books dissected over email.
June 10 2004 2:33 PM

The Jane Austen Book Club

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Dear Meghan,

Yes! The venting has been a true pleasure!

If it's OK, I thought I'd work backward and start with Bernadette. In general, for me, the strongest parts of the book—the ones that seemed most thickly descriptive, and thus gained some storytelling traction—were the various flashbacks. I liked hearing about Grigg's childhood camping trip gone wrong—it reads like That '70s Show on peyote—and Bernadette's weird marriage. The slyly delivered if ultimately ho-hum lesson behind Bernadette being the book's narrator was certainly "Don't judge a book by its cover"; and in some sense, the bland surface texture of much of the book may be designed to make this same point over and over again. Each character, while trading prefab platitudes about Jane Austen, is sitting on a roiling stew of failures and regrets.

But similarly, isn't the entreaty behind any book's cutesy po-mo trickery, whether it's by Joyce or Dave Eggers or Karen Joy Fowler, "Don't judge a book by the book"? If there weren't a human story at the core of Ulysses (two really, the stories of Bloom and Stephen), would we put up with its narrative chicanery and endless verbal legerdemain? Fowler's ability to wink coyly for me never overcame how little emotional, sexual, or financial danger she put her characters in. And she gains no shelter by invoking Austen, on this or any score. The Austen whose feelings, like Shakespeare's, we supposedly never can fully divine still wrote very definite sentences like, "Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character."

The immense pleasure of connecting with a like-minded reader, of Tolstoy or Austen, or Elmore Leonard or Patricia Highsmith, starts with feeling the likelihood, I think, of no connection whatsoever. Novels are so distinctively modern—they come out of, and bring with them, an entirely new idea of a mass reading public, in which a disparate group of individuals, composed mostly of strangers, converge upon a single story. It's the nature of modern crowds that you can choose to emphasize the sociability in this phenomenon or its loneliness. I think it's the loneliness that gives the experience its characteristic intensity. Novels are composed alone, typically, and typically read alone. The feeling of provisional sociability that overwhelms one when a novel is good—and you really know it, the way you really know it when you read about Levin scything or Dorothea consigning herself to Causabon—is sharpened by surprise: How is it possible that someone coming at me from so far away has found a way to touch me so distinctively? The immense pleasure in discovering our mutual distaste for this novel, Meghan, was borne out of my not knowing you, or your tastes or distastes, very well going in.

Which is why I'm not so sanguine about Oprah's discovery of Tolstoy. The "success" of picking Anna Karenina—of the book climbing the Amazon charts, of it being greeted with a very public adoration—is built-in from the start. The stock response has been demanded—Tolstoy is a genius! Anna Karenina is a literary masterpiece!—and will no doubt shortly, and very duly, be provided. But where is the initial loneliness that allows for surprise? If someone gets intimate with Tolstoy here, it will only be by asking Oprah to exit the room first. Conversely, TJABC felt so tailored to a certain kind of reader—prim, vaguely unhappy, middle-aged—that at no point did the feeling of provisional sociability, that carries a book beyond a target audience, ever come close to kicking in.

Anyhow, we'll revisit Allegra and dangerous endings another day, stranger. Nice interlocuting with you!

Yours,
Steve

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor. Stephen Metcalf is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.