Is Jane Austen Overhyped?
Evaluating her literary merit amid the anniversary reverence.
This smug self-approbation was, I think, at the heart of my reconsideration of Jane Austen. If Austen can be reduced to that—the self-satisfied sense that one has the “right values”— it was really time to reassess. Reading the book made me more than sad, it made me look at the limitations of Austen. And, again without meaning to, the Oprah-aspirational author has given us the clue to a critique.
Indeed he gives us the clue in the first two pages of the book (even before he gets it on with the “gorgeous” etc.). He talks about the reason he wanted to go back to graduate school—before his life-changing Austen discovery—“to fill the gaps in my literary education—Chaucer and Shakespeare, Melville and Milton.” Those aren’t gaps, they’re abysses. Which raises the question, what kind of “literary education” did you think you had without having read them? And why go to graduate school, why not, you know, just read them and some of the better books about them? Public libraries carry quite a number.
But he goes on to say how he’s always looked down on 19th century novels (you know, Flaubert, Tolstoy—not up to snuff for him) and considered “modernism as the literature that formed my identity”—“Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov.”
We may have located the problem here: Reading the modernists without understanding the predecessors they grounded their work on. Like reading Joyce without having read The Odyssey.
He tells us the story of the person he once was, a posturing figure who used to “sit right down on the sidewalk with my Kerouac or my Catch 22 ... I was Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine. I was Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, the rebel artist ... I was Conrad’s Marlow the world weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies.” (Such an offputtingly tin-eared phrase for Marlow: “punches through.”)
In other words, even with the pretentiousness, he’s an altogether more interesting fellow than the domesticated writer of literary criticism he’s become. Although he’s still posturing. The fact that many young and unsophisticated people go through a Dostoevsky period does not diminish Dostoevsky. But it reveals how small Deresiewicz is to reduce these profound writers with tales of his own embarrassing adolescence.
Conrad, Faulkner: One doesn’t have to play down their worth in order to play up the virtues of Austen. They do different things. And I think it can be fairly said they can co-exist without having to cancel each other out, just as Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and romances can co-exist (although it can be said there are elements of each in each).
And yet Austen does not stray into tragedy. Sad marriages, sure. The mysteries of love, check. But there’s more to the mystery of life. There’s the mystery of death. The death of Ivan Ilych, the death of Paul Dombey, the death of Prince Andrei, you won’t find analogues of in Austen. As someone once said: All philosophy is about learning how to die. (Have you read Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers by the way? It’s a great eccentric take on the question.) Recently in writing about Martin Amis I spoke of the way he wrote two kinds of books: comic satiric works such as the incomparable Money and The Information, which were mainly about Bad Behavior, although pain and mortality were more than glanced at. But Amis also wrote other kinds of books like Time’s Arrow and House of Meetings which were about Evil itself.
I was going to argue that Amis’ Money is a kind of deranged Jane Austen of its time—the great modern epic of Bad Behavior—and then I rediscovered something I once wrote about how he once had been tapped to write the screenplay of Mansfield Park. (No sign of it yet, but still a great idea I think.)
It has occurred to me that, silly as they are, the zombie, sea monster, and horror movie mash-up versions of the Austen novels are, if not deliberate, then unintentional expressions of What’s Missing From the Snow Globe World of Austen. That sense that she is not questioning the moral order of the universe, the horror of unredeemed human suffering, and the meaning of the human presence within it. She doesn’t have to, but let’s not ignore the fact that she doesn’t. She does not venture into the realm of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the alleged goodness of God with the prevalence of evil—which almost every great novelist and dramatist does.
Austen writes brilliantly about Bad Behavior in a little world, which Deresiewicz distorts into little sermons on Good Behavior, but she doesn’t stare into the face of evil the way Conrad, Faulkner, and other Modernists—and 19th century novelists like Melville and Hawthorne—do. She could not write “Young Goodman Brown,” nor would we want her to. Her novels are a perfect expression of an exquisite intelligence valuable for itself not for domesticating Deresiewicz.
So there’s that. She is one of the great comic satiric novelists in our language but there’s more to literature—and life—than comic satires of self-satisfied provincials, however intricately and beautifully miniaturized they are.
Miniaturization, by the way, has become the new vogue term that some litterateurs like to use as praise in order to turn a bug into a feature, so to speak. (There is for example Michael Chabon’s recent essay on the New York Review of Books blog on the films of Wes Anderson. )
But let’s not settle for a miniaturized Jane Austen. She’s great in her own way, even if she doesn’t plumb the depths that Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov, Melville, and Hawthorne do. She does something else, inimitably.
I was thinking about the fate of the debased version of Austen being peddled these days, when, in the midst of writing this, I attended a reading by one of America’s finest writers, Lorrie Moore, a particular favorite of mine. I would guesstimate the packed house of hundreds was 75 percent women. This is sad if it indicates that superb women writers still primarily attract readers of their own gender. I think it has something to do with the way Austen has been misconceived, so I won’t say Lorrie Moore is “our Jane Austen,” but Ms. Moore too is an exquisite observer of human nature and deserves greater readership and recognition from both sexes. Start with one of her short story collections. Like the one called Self Help. Ironically!
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.