Stupidest criticism of Jane Austen ever

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Huh. Jane Austen is fed up with irrelevant criticism of her work.

You’ve probably heard someone say this – Jane Austen isn’t a great writer because she somehow managed to ignore the great events of her day like Waterloo and only wrote about domestic matters – little local problems, first-world problems, women’s stuff. Turns out she wasn’t Thackeray, and she wasn’t Dickens. Weirdly, she’s not Martin Amis, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler or E L James either.

This is such a dumb criticism and here are a few reasons why people say this dumb thing :

Sexism

Clearly this is basically a sexist criticism, because it implies that a woman writing about her own concerns – the concerns of her class, of the people around of her, of her gender – is not important, not valuable, not what life’s really about.

Bad news-ist

It privileges a view of the world in which what matters are the sort of things that get reported on the news – even though by simple statistics, only a very few of these events actually affect the daily lives of any of us at one time (please don’t flame me about climate change etc -you know what I’m trying to say here). Most of us are kind of just getting on with incredibly mundane, yet to us, important activities. [NB this doesn’t ignore the great suffering of many people in the world – but this criticism of Jane Austen doesn’t usually come from a Syrian refugee or a London homeless person; it usually comes from a smart ass college student]

Historically narrow

The idea that history is (only) the history of kings, generals and wars, mass movements etc. rather than, you know, people. People including categories like poor people, or shopkeepers, or children, or musicians, people trying to live in the circumstances they’re in, people like…erm…women?

Lack of understanding of the artistic process

Artists create art (perhaps we’ll stick with literature for the moment) for all sorts of reasons, but usually it is not to present a balanced, historically accurate view of the time they’re living in. I don’t go for the whole ‘write what you know’ scenario –  Tolstoy didn’t know Napoleon’s attack on Russia from personal experience for example, but War and Peace ain’t a bad book. Likewise, if you read Austen’s biographies and letters, in fact the people she was writing about led a very different life to hers – mostly up a class or two. People create art because something matters to them – it may or may not matter to you, in which case, read something else.

[on an aside, as a writer, do you get people coming up to you and saying, I’ve got this great idea, you should write it? I find that so weird. a) Why would I want to write someone else’s idea? It’s hard enough getting on with my own ideas, and I’m not in school any more; and b) why don’t they write it themselves if it’s such a great idea?]

Lack of understanding of what art is

Again, better stick with literature. People, straw men who I’m arguing with, literature is not history. Nor is it sociology, or science. An artistic object – a work of fiction – is a thing in itself, and it sets its own terms of reference. To criticise something for being itself, for not being something else, is to start from a belief that every book should somehow be all things to all men. Which is just nonsense. If you criticise Jane Austen for not including the wars etc that were going on at the time, then you’d have to criticise Dickens for mostly creating caricatures rather than flesh and blood people, you’d have to criticise Lee Child for writing about the same protagonist over and and over again. Etc etc.

 

 

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Unlikely blogfellows: Jane Austen, Brian Williams (the NBC guy) and love

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m not going to write about romantic love.

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I’m thinking about another kind of love. I’m thinking about the love that comes from celebrity, and what it can do to a person. In the back of my mind is the story of Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection. I promise this will relate to Jane Austen, eventually.

The story of the NBC journalist Brian Williams who lied about his time in Iraq caught my eye this week. In an article in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry.

I was really struck by this – especially the phrase “public love always leaves you hungry”.

It made me think about the different kinds of love that we need, and the different kinds of love that we crave.

Recently I had a miniscule taste of that celebrity feeling. When I launched my book Becoming Mary on Amazon there was quite a rush on sales, and I got extremely over-excited, casting the film, quitting my day job, lying awake all night with my heart pounding, checking my sales figures every few minutes (that’s actually not an exaggeration).

Inevitably the number of sales tailed off somewhat, and I found myself really missing that excited feeling. I’d been floating high in a fantasy balloon, and reality had punctured it, and the withered balloon was drifting back down to earth with me inside it. Boo hoo.

[On the plus side, I’m now sleeping better and eating less chocolate.]

Despite the smallness of my 15 minutes of fame, what I observed in myself was a hit of this craving for the excitement of being admired, that had got stirred up in me. I wanted more and more of it, and when it went, I felt deflated and a bit gloomy. I wondered how I could get it back.

Something then resonated with me on hearing about Brian Williams and his stupid lie.

I could imagine how he might allow himself to make that lie. I think any of us might recognise that moment of slippage – you’re telling an anecdote, and you embellish it just a little bit, add some hyperbole, make yourself look a tad better, overstate your part in something, add that fabulous one-liner as though you’d actually said it at the time.

Gradually you could forget the true story, because the new one is funnier and more interesting. It’s so tempting to believe the myths we tell about ourselves. In Brian Williams’ case the myth was that he was as courageous and active as the soldiers.

I think it’s hard to let go of celebrity love – this “public love”. The feeling of receiving it is intoxicating. It’s delicious – but unfortunately it’s delicious in the way that junk food is delicious – tasty, fatty, sugary and ultimately unsatisfying. It leaves you full but hungry, and in your heart of hearts (now lined with cholesterol), you know it isn’t nourishing, and you know it won’t last.

That’s the kind of love that any of us might crave – in small ways and not so small ways. It makes us feel good, big and clever and exciting.

But there’s another kind of love that we need. It’s a much more ordinary thing – more sustained and more sustaining. It’s not about worship and adulation, it’s open-eyed, realistic, aware of the good, the bad and the indifferent but reliably there nonetheless. If the narcissistic love is junk food, the other kind of love is the one that comes with hot-dinners and eat-your-greens.

When I thought about Mary Bennet, and why she’s like she is, both in Pride and Prejudice, and in my continuation, it seems to me that she craves her version of that celebrity love – she seeks satisfaction in admiration and praise, which she wants to garner by her musical performances and her displays of erudition. The myth she constructs about herself, is that she is wise, knowledgeable and a seriously good musician – and rather superior to others.

In her case, she turns to this narcissistic love, because there is such a shortage of the other kind of love. She really doesn’t know what else to do to get something. She has nothing that either of her parents value – no wit, no beauty – she’s not even very good at music. Her sisters have paired off, Jane with Lizzy, Kitty with Lydia, and there is nobody in the family for her. She’s lonely, neglected and thoroughly unlikeable.

What I did in my novel was take this Mary, and bring her to the point where she realises that she has been chasing a shadow, that what she was seeking was not the love that she truly needed, and she has to start the painful journey of self-knowledge, which, no doubt like Brian Williams, will include much remorse and heart-searching.

But because it’s Jane Austen fan fiction, she will also find true love and live happily ever after. So that’s romantic after all.

 

 

 

 

First-person narrator: the big fat lie. And a brief analysis of the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice to make my point

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing in the first-person throws up a whole load of different challenges to writing in the third-person. In first-person, every single word is a product of the mind of the protagonist, is in the voice of the protagonist – every description, every thought, every feeling. You don’t get to hop from mind to mind, POV to POV. You don’t get to pontificate, to be poetic, or to look on your protagonist as an object. Dammit, it’s tricky enough trying to get a physical description in there at all without using a rather contrived mirror sequence.

However, as well as the challenges, there are great joys to be had from writing first-person. Ask Raymond Chandler. Mark Twain (Huck Finn). Dog in the Night-time guy.

I’ve written two novels so far, Becoming Mary, my Pride and Prejudice sequel, and The Advice Lady, a northern noir with a young female sleuth (is northern noir a thing?). (It’ll be published soon, be calm, be patient)

Both of them are written in the first person, and here’s why.

1) Inner Turmoil. I love inner turmoil. And nothing expresses inner turmoil like the first-person pronoun. (Jane Eyre. I rest my case)

2) Unreliable Narrator. Everything in the action is seen through the eyes of your first-person protagonist. This will be by definition unreliable, as a subjective view is a subjective view.

In Mary’s case, the reader usually knows how wrong she is, and that (I submit) is part of the fun of the book; in The Advice Lady, Clare, the sleuth, is often in the dark, but so is the reader. Clare is a reliable narrator: her doubt is your doubt, her ignorance your ignorance. Such is the way of crime fiction. She’s not unreliable as such, just the blind leading the blind.

3) No snarky and omniscient narrator (this is a quote from someone who reviewed Becoming Mary on Amazon, and is not a Jane Austen fan….[weird that. I think they read it by accident]). Anyway, it’s an interesting one. In P and P, Jane Austen’s own well, yes, somewhat snarky voice is there right from the beginning, right there in your face. Let me explain….

Analysis time!

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Remember the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice? (of course you do! You wouldn’t be here otherwise). It opens:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

I don’t know the names of all the rhetorical tricks that are so densely packed into that sentence, but here’s my two cents.

It starts with a grand flourish – a truth – unarguable, almost an article of faith – universally acknowledged, like religion or something – an absolute, that everyone, yes, everyone, agrees on (how big is this universe?). So unless this is the opening of something like Fordyce’s Sermons, you’re already aware of the author’s sarcasm, and it’s already funny.

Then comes the bathos (you see I do know something – ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’). From this grand, flourishing, absolute truth, you suddenly realise it’s actually about a little local difficulty, a specific person in a specific time and place; Jane Austen is observing a group of people with shared beliefs which they don’t see beyond, which are so basic to them that they have the quality of a universal truth. You can hear the assumptions and prejudices of Mrs Bennet straight away, and – clearly flagged up – the two inextricable issues of the novel: love and money, venality and romance.

That’s a helluva lot of info to get into one sentence. It’s then followed by a chapter where an enormous amount of information about both plot and character is revealed, in dialogue and in nuances and fragments. E.g.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

How much that tiny exchange tells us about Mr and Mrs Bennet! – his laconic and sardonic manner, her obliviousness to his put-down and his irony, her eagerness to talk at any price. That’s only one example of many.

Come the end of the chapter, and Jane Austen herself steps out from behind the puppet theatre from where she has been manipulating the characters to tell us plainly:

 “Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”

Jane Austen shooting from the hip. Ouch. Just in case we hadn’t already got it.

OK, so that’s Jane Austen, both indirectly and directly telling us what to think about her characters. She IS absolutely the snarky and omniscient narrator. And I love her for it with every particle of my being.

But in a novel narrated in the first-person, where is the authorial, authoritative voice? How does the reader know what to think? How does the reader know what the author thinks?

Well, here’s where the big lie comes in. Because it might look like there’s no omniscient narrator, but of course there is. I know this is probably just stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I contend that I am every bit as opinionated, didactic and judgemental as Jane Austen. I have a lot of beliefs and theories about human behaviour, society and morality etc. etc., and I want to convey them to the reader.

The difference is, that with a first-person narrator, I have to say it at one further remove than Austen, because my ‘voice’ resides in the opposite of what Mary thinks, in Mary’s lack of self-knowledge. I can’t tell the reader directly what to think, because officially I’m not there. I have to tell you by subterfuge. I hope I succeed.

 

 

 

 

 

Simon Cowell meets Jane Austen! Mary Bennet – does she have the X-Factor?

If you wanted a laugh in the 18th century you could buy a ticket to Bedlam to watch the lunatics.

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Nowadays we just watch X-Factor or Britain/America’s Got Talent.

OK sure, partly we’re watching it for the sudden pockets of brilliance, for the hook of seeing ‘ordinary’ people – people like us – randomly achieving stardom, but let’s be honest: mostly it’s for the rather nasty pleasure of those train-wreck auditions. I’m talking about the desperate ones, the ones who’ve been singing in the bathroom, or dancing in the living room, and someone’s told them, or they’ve told themselves, hey you should be on the telly! and it’s clear when you’re watching them, that they have no idea how dreadful they are. Why not remind yourself and have a guilty laugh by clicking here?

It is a kind of madness – like 18th-century Bedlamites, these folk don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t know what they look like to others. We pity, sneer, and laugh at them simultaneously.

Of course those X-Factor contestants aren’t truly properly mad: what they’re doing is living in a sort of dream world: it’s a bit like when children play – they are the queen, or the sorcerer, they just inhabit the role, and when you watch them, you see how they are turned inwards on themselves as they live their game. In kids, this is fine, most children go in and out of this, it’s creative play which doesn’t affect their ability to be in reality as they grow; but for some people, for whatever reason, this deluded state hangs around, and in a sense, they are still caught up in the pretend game in which they are a hero or a star.

To my mind, the Mary Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is very much like one of these contestants. If she were alive in our times, she might well find herself queuing for an audition on X-Factor, and being stared at in disbelief by the mocking judges as she strutted her stuff. She has no idea how she comes across, she has delusions of grandeur completely at odds with what she’s actually like. And she was created for us to laugh at and despise.

Now Jane Austen was deliberately writing a caricature for comic, satiric purposes – just as the producers and editors of these talent shows are setting up the terrible performers for the same thing. There’s no interest in the inner world of these characters – they are there purely for entertainment.

But I became interested in the possibility of Mary being more than a caricature – what makes somebody behave like that? What makes her spout moralising nonsense that she’s read in books? What makes her continue to play and sing in public when she is so excruciatingly bad? What is she thinking about and feeling? How did she get like this?

These are some of the questions I was seeking to explore as I wrote the novel. And the answer to these questions – well, it’s in the novel, but I will also be writing some more on the topic soon.