The Spectator

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.)

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.

No, just kidding. It’s called A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.

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.

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.

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.”)

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!