Is Jane Austen Overhyped?

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 13 2013 5:30 AM

Is Jane Austen Overhyped?

Evaluating her literary merit amid the anniversary reverence.

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A transformation brought about by a series of lessons which he then turns around and—treating the reader like a third grader raised by the same wolves—painstakingly teaches us. Mainly how to be nice. Not just nice, but nicey-nice nice. In doing so he manages to get just about everything about Jane Austen and her novels wrong. For one thing, she is not “nice.”

But first, before he unveils his new Austenified self, he must establish his street cred as a stud. I guess so we won’t get the wrong idea that he’s merely some pencil-necked geek.

He has to tell us how—before Austenization—he used to get hot babes to hook up with him in a New York minute whenever he wanted. Yes, on page 3 (!) we learn that before Austenization the poor fellow had been stuck in an overly sexual romantic relationship: “We had jumped each other one night” but the relationship “had never much progressed beyond the sex. She was gorgeous, bisexual, impulsive, experienced with a look that knew things and a laugh that didn’t give a damn. We would go to bed, and then we would go dancing, and then we would go to bed again.”

Duuuuude! You are the MAN, you unstoppable sex machine! Oh wait, sorry, since Austenization he’s left behind childish things like flings with gorgeous bisexuals who “know things” and only interrupt sex for dancing. (Remember the old joke: “Why do Puritans disapprove of sex? Because it could lead to dancing.” Well there you are.)

Sure, he could have any number of gorgeous, knowing, bisexual babes at the drop of a hat, but he’s become a better person than that now. A more virtuous person. He says so himself. And he’s even willing to impart to his implicitly oafish and clueless reader some super-obvious lessons about interpersonal interaction that he claims he only grokked to after reading dear Jane. Who would surely have made exquisite fun of his overbrimming self-satisfaction. Deresiewicz is exactly the kind of sententious character she particularly liked to skewer in a not-nice way.

This is the basic theme throughout the book: Jane Austen schools him out of his bad behavior.

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Which I probably need not point out is not the point, and certainly not the measure, of great literature: to teach us to behave like good little boys and girls. The idea that literature should be mined for morality lessons does it a disservice. The hallmark of great literature is that it makes one question—without offering simplistic answers—the foundations of one's beliefs about the nature of human nature, the structure of moral strictures, and the meaning and purpose of human existence. The idea that literature as a whole and Austen in particular should chiefly be read for rules of behavior rather than, say, for the unique intensity of aesthetic pleasure that a beautifully crafted sentence can offer, the idea that literature is somehow simplistically about how to behave—that literature has a single unified view of morality, of the self (and thus self-help)—is ludicrously retrograde, antiquarian, and frankly anti-literary. What if he "discovered" Genet? Less chance of getting on Oprah's Book Club, I imagine.

But Deresiewicz’s book comes across as so childishly simpleminded, I just have to believe he’s putting us on. Is Lolita not literature? Is Anna Karenina not literature? Is Coriolanus not literature? I rest my case. Literature is not Miss Manners, an affirmation of bourgeois values. In fact Jane Austen’s works are not bourgeois; she wrote about—dissected—the bourgeoisie.

But Deresiewicz is determined to wrench the exquisite novels into simpleminded “teachable moments.” In his effort to dumb Mansfield Park down to a self-help lesson, Deresiewicz seems to have missed the entire focus of the novel since he seems to think it is mainly about social climbing, a phenomenon he claims to have been unaware of until he saw himself reflected in MP’s social climbers. (The novel is really far more focused thematically on questions about theatricality and authenticity.) And of course, just about every Austen novel, every Austen page, pulls the rug out from social climbing. It’s one of her major preoccupations, yet Deresiewicz doesn’t seem to have absorbed it until he got to MP. Social climbing BAD, he “discovers,” now that he’s learned he should be more nicey-nice to his inferiors. For extra credit in social climbing as a literary trope I suggest he consult the novels of Edith Wharton, or has he not read Edith Wharton yet? (Please spare her from another self-help “discovery.”)

Deresiewicz’s book goes on in this vein. Every novel imparts a new and equally tedious lesson. “Emma showed me from the very beginning just how desperately wrong its heroine was. I couldn’t stand her—until Austen showed me how much I resembled her.” This childish business of “I couldn’t stand her until”—what adult reads this way? Although it does bear some inverse resemblance to Stanley Fish’s way of analyzing Milton’s technique in Paradise Lost: We are seduced by Satan’s rhetoric until we realize we are “surpris’d by sin.” (Michael Jackson copped this trope in “Man in the Mirror,” yo.)

Anyway, what a discovery! He’s totally gobsmacked: Emma isn’t all she seems to be—Emma is him! It’s all about him, all of Austen.

Literature is all about finding such teachable moments, Oprah moments, to better the reader’s personality isn’t it? Could a sophisticated critic really want to reduce literature to moralisms and manners? (How Dostoevsky Taught Me Not to Murder Old Ladies to Solve Metaphysical Questions: My next self-help book.)

To me the greatest sacrilege is when he reduces Persuasion, Austen’s greatest novel (to my mind), a novel about the desperate trials of love, to a chapter called “True Friends” in which he reveals the egregiously anodyne moral: “True friends do not shield you from your mistakes, they tell you about them: Even at the risk of losing your friendship—which means, even at the risk of being unhappy themselves.”

By this measure the professor has no “true friends,” or they would have told him what a moralizing twit he sounds like. By this measure I am his true friend (though I’ve never met him—or been reviewed by him, that I know of), and yes it makes me “unhappy” to have to be this harsh. But if he’s learned his little lesson about “true friends” from Persuasion, he’ll be grateful to me. Maybe put me in touch with the “gorgeous bisexual.” He has no use for her now that he’s stolidly married thanks to Jane. (He tells us that when he met his future wife she was “testing to see if I had the right values.” Guess what? Thanks to Jane he does. Never trust a guy who tells you he has “the right values.”)