Is Jane Austen Overhyped?

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 13 2013 5:30 AM

Is Jane Austen Overhyped?

Evaluating her literary merit amid the anniversary reverence.

Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873.
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873

Courtesy of University of Texas/Wikimedia Commons

Enough! Please! We get it. I’ve written it myself several times. Jane Austen is a serious—and seriously great—figure of seriously great literature. Don’t diminish her work by calling it chick lit! Did I mention she’s a very, very, serious (but brilliantly comic and satiric) author?

But it’s begun to seem like she’s now assumed the role of the designated highbrow writer for light readers. It’s not that she’s overrated. It’s that she’s in dire jeopardy of being overhyped—and dumbed down in the process.

I know that sounds elitist, and I hasten to assert that my admiration for her fiction is deep, sincere, undiminished. But I’ve begun to feel—in the midst of the tsunami of schlocky, rapturous, over-the-top, wall-to-wall multiplatform celebration of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice—that it’s all a bit too much. Something quiet and true about Austen is being lost in the trumpet blasts and the spin-offs.

Did you see the story in the Wall Street Journal recently? Cleverly titled “Austen Power,” it highlighted some cringe-making, Austen-derived phenomena linked to the Pride and Prejudice bicentennial:

—EROTICA: Linda Berdoll’s sequel to Pride & Prejudice would make Jane Austen blush.
—WEB: On YouTube’s ‘Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ the characters have Facebook and Twitter feeds,
—TV: On the fantasy show “Lost in Austen” a fan swaps places with Elizabeth Bennet.
—FILM: “Austenland” just sold at Sundance, follows an Austen fan who falls in love at a theme park.

And finally, I guess inevitably: Pride and Prejudice and Kitties. “For those who like their Regency romances with funny pictures of cats.” (This is not my joke. Alas.)

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Yes they’ve paved Pemberley and put up a theme park. And Elizabeth Bennet’s got a Twitter feed! Alert Jeff Jarvis!

And of course there’s the zombie version of P&P and the other horror-movie mash-ups of the other Austen novels which at least send up the prevalent simpering reverence. Austen adaptations are not all bad. There’s still Clueless (a take on Emma, and the best of the modernizations), and the unending series of BBC/Masterpiece Theater-type film and TV versions and their endless remakes. (The first BBC Persuasion and the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility are by far the best. The Patricia Rozema Mansfield Park is by far the worst, trying to reconceive Jane Austen as D.H. Lawrence as if that were a step up.)

Most dispiriting of all, though was the recent attempt by a distinguished literary critic to repurpose Jane Austen for a faux-naive self-help book. I’ll get to that in a moment—I missed the book when it was first published last year, but coming upon it just out in paperback was the straw that broke the back of the needle in the haystack—no, seriously, a moment of stunning disillusion about a critic whose work I’d admired, who now seems to have entered the Austen cash-in craze in a particularly reductive, anti-literary, Dr. Phil-level way.

The book made me rethink my entire position on Jane Austen. Not recant, but revise, re-envision, recontextualize her work’s place within the pantheon of other great literature. After all, if she can be turned into a nicey-nice dispenser of advice on how to become a smug, self-admiring prig, can she really be that great?

But first I fear you doubt the profound sincerity of my original (and undiminished) reverence for Ms. Austen and thus will misunderstand that my revised view is not a recantation but an attempt to bring some sense of proportion, some perspective to the out-of-control Austenmania that has gripped the readers—and viewers—of America. I still subscribe completely to what one person wrote about Jane Austen 10 years ago:

Let’s dispose of the ‘chick lit’ slander. ... She is one of the great godlike observers, analysts and dissectors of human beings, of human character: one who saw, with a jeweler’s eye, the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human organism and the social organism, and the comedy and cruelty they reflect and refract.

OK that was me, in a column subtitled, with mock bravado, “It Takes a Real Man to Love Jane Austen.”

In a previous column, not online, I had constructed a speculative character typology with which—tongue in cheek—I identified individuals by their favorite Jane Austen novels. I declared myself a Persuasion person—doomed romanticist—who was most intrigued by the idea (I’d never met one) of a Northanger Abbey woman (bookish but unconventional).

Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice.
Keira Knightley in 2005's Pride & Prejudice

Universal Pictures

OK I admit it. My literary admiration was sincere but there may have been another agenda.

All of which I feel the need to confess in advance before discussing the Jane Austen self-help book by the distinguished literary critic and why it caused me to reassess Jane Austen. You probably saw the book in stores when it came out in hardcover last year:

The Jane Austen Diet: How I Lost Thirty Pounds With the Secret Pemberley Recipes.

In it we learn how William Deresiewicz, once a professor of literature at Yale, “discovered” Jane Austen’s greatness, something he managed to be oblivious to until after he got his Ph.D. (Didn’t I tell you not to go to graduate school? True, it was only Columbia.)

And seriously, haven’t you had enough of intellectuals “discovering” that Jane Austen meets their high standards for complexity and moral seriousness? (It’s like landing at JFK’s international arrivals terminal and claiming to have “discovered” America. Discovering Jane Austen condescendingly was old when Lionel Trilling wrote his famous essay on Mansfield Park back in the ’50s.

Anyway, until I read Deresiewicz’s book, I always had respected and admired his intelligent literary criticism and I still can’t quite believe he committed this gimmicky dumbing down of serious literature into insipid self-help. In the book, he portrays himself as basically someone raised by wolves, an oafish fellow with no social skills or interpersonal sensitivity until—sacre bleu!—he “discovers” Jane Austen and learns by reading her that he has been a jerk all his life, and that she has Important Things to teach him about life and love that transform him into a civilized sensitive human being.

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