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    Monday, July 17, 2006

    Austen's Power

    Jane Austen's Power by Laura Thompson tells us that any woman who likes Jane Austen these days is probably misreading her. When she sits on the train across from a woman paging through Pride and Prejudice, a voice inside Thompson says, "Poser!"

    The idea that Austen is just some sweetheart romance novelist to these women seems to have been fabricated by Thompson herself. Where's her evidence that these women "don't get it"? That they aren't as finely-tuned to the harshness of the reality Austen conjures as Thompson is. As soon as women make something popular we must immediately point out how they're wrong and stupid and cloying and too desperately middlebrow to ever understand. The assumption is that women only like mushy schmaltzy romance; they couldn't possibly be loving Austen for everything that makes Austen Austen, including her humor and wealth obsession and harshness.

    We also think that the "harsh reality" in a piece of art is always more interesting or important than any sort of romance. But the center of P&P, though it's brimming with fascinating bits, is most definitely the Elizabeth Bennett-Mr. Darcy relationship. That doesn't make it a bad novel, nor are those who fixate on that element of the text misreading. When you read a book once or twice, you are unlikely to remember everything about it. It doesn't mean you missed the things that don't spring to mind. Thompson, if memory serves, wrote her dissertation on Austen so she probably can afford to be a bit more aware of a character like Charlotte.

    Also, I haven't read any other novels classified as "chick lit" except the two Bridget Jones novels, the first of which I quite liked. (That's right, haters.) That said, from reading about them, I think that some of these writers are acutely aware of some of the "harsh reality" that Thompson believes they'd rather not contend with: class and beauty as two examples, and I would add generational conflict to that list myself. I haven't read it, but The Devil Wears Prada seems very much about those things.

    This just seemed like the kids who say, "You shouldn't even be allowed to wear a Ramones t-shirt if you can't name every track on It's Alive and recite the stage banter." Grow up.


    Blogger Jean said...

    I still like Austen. Can I still wear my pXp t-shirt?

    11:31 AM  
    Blogger Blackamazon said...

    I hate Austen but then I find most of that literary genre rather not in my taste and how can you be a poser at read ing abook if you know you actually read it?

    2:26 PM  
    Blogger CrackerLilo said...

    Completely and totally well-put. I knew Jane Austen's books were more than just romances in high school.

    I can't fathom culture snobbery. If you love something, don't you want to keep it alive and let more and more people see how awesome it is?

    9:29 PM  
    Blogger The Goldfish said...

    I have met folks who say they like Austen, but on closer interrogation have only seen the dramatisations - most of which are necessarily flimsy.

    Oh, how I hate the term chick lit!

    4:26 AM  

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