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July 02, 2006

Jane Austen Gets Defensive

'... I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding: joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers; and while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogised by a thousand pens, there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel reader; I seldom look into novels; do not imagine that I often read novels; it is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss -------?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame. It is only ... some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name! though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste; the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation, which no longer concern any one living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.'

-- Jane Austen Northanger Abbey


"novel writers" with "science fiction writers" or "genre writers"

"novels" with "genre fiction"

"the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne" with "the nine-thousandth sex in the suburbs imitator"

"the Spectator" with "anything written by John Updike"

"their language, too, frequently so coarse" with "their language, too, frequently so obtrusive and yet cliché-ridden"

and you'll have my sentiments exactly.

It's funny to think that she was living and writing two hundred years ago now. Somehow, in the 80's, it was easy to think of the early 19th century as only a century ago. It's also funny to think of the domestic literary novel as a despised mass entertainment ... but then, it's come a looong way down the entertainment pole since then. Now, it's a duty. Then it was an unalloyed pleasure ... but then they had Jane Austen.

Someone from my Clarion West class asked recently who the Jane Austen of science fiction was. (Was it you, Wendy?) Forget that! Who's the Jane Austen of now, period? I don't think there is one. There are no women fiction writers who write of common domestic concerns in highly structured novels using neat, concise, simple, and wicked language and always taking care to deliver a happy ending. None, that is, who are unafraid of boldly two-dimensional characters drawn in a few alarmingly apt lines. None who, while providing male characters who are to be romantic objects, insist upon giving them some character tics.

I dunno, is it possible to have a Jane Austen nowadays? It is possible to have our version of Emily Dickinson.


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