Saturday, September 10, 2011

Much More Than That

In her essay Just Like a Woman, Audrey Bilger reviews (for the Los Angeles Review of Books) two works focused on their authors' passionate devotion to the "genius" of Jane Austen. One is by William Deresiewicz, who has previously published a more scholarly work, and one by Rachel M. Brownstein, formerly famous for her feminist work Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels (1982). The tale that Deresiezwicz tells is one of enlightenment, evident at once in his title: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter.

Bilger begins her essay by reviewing the V.S. Naipaul kerfluffle.
If Naipaul’s goal in putting down women writers was to get attention, he couldn’t have picked a better target than Jane Austen. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any other woman whose disparagement would have garnered so much notice. In a word-association game, if I say “woman author,” odds are the first name in your head would be that of the creator of Pride and Prejudice. It’s worth noting that when I tried to talk to one of my nonliterary friends about Naipaul’s remarks, his immediate response was “Who’s V.S. Naipaul?” Nobody ever says, “Who’s Jane Austen?”
And she references Naipaul when she begins talking about Deresiewicz's book:
Deresiewicz is someone who might have agreed with Naipaul’s point about Austen’s inferiority had he not undergone a dramatic conversion. When he was a young graduate student in the 1980s, he could barely bring himself to think of Austen: “Wasn’t she the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales? Just thinking about her made me sleepy.” In his misguided youth, Deresiewicz identified with manly modernist writers and their ungovernable heroes. “I was Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, raging against the machine,” he gleefully reports; “I was Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the rebel artist who runs rings around the grown-ups. I was Conrad’s Marlow, the world-weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies.”

A Jane Austen Education recounts how Deresiewicz overcame his bias against Austen and became a better person because of her. When he actually sat down to read the novels, he discovered that “Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter — and much wiser — than I could have imagined.” He blames masculinity for his initial skepticism: “If I was slow to catch on … there was a very good reason. I’m a guy, after all.” As he recounts his moral education at the feet of the author he once thought of as the “girliest novelist of all, the godmother of chick lit,” he makes a case for why men need to take women seriously and why Austen is the perfect teacher.

For Deresiewicz, Austen becomes not just a representative woman writer, but a stand-in for all women, and his ongoing surprise and delight at being schooled in the art of being human by, of all people, a female, is certainly honest, even if it leads to some cringe-worthy moments.
Bilger's discussion of Brownstein is where her essay gets interesting. Consider this passage:
Rachel Brownstein, author of Why Jane Austen?, shares Deresiewicz’s humanistic approach, but unlike him, she would rather we stopped talking about gender altogether. In referring to her 1982 study, Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels, a foundational text for feminist literary scholars, Brownstein expresses nothing but remorse. In fact, she claims to have written this new book “to atone for joining the chorus that has ended up by imagining Jane Austen as first of all and most of all a woman, the paradigmatic prisoner of sex and gender, and a paragon of proto-feminist romance — in other words, by misreading her, and not reading her as she meant to be read.” Brownstein now wants to focus on “genius” and on how “Jane Austen’s subject is, as she wrote, human nature.”

Both Deresiewicz and Brownstein are critical of ideological readings and of the current state of the academy, and Brownstein is, in addition, particularly hostile to feminism. She begins the book by expressing discomfort at having been called, at a literary party in the 1980s, a “feminist critic,” — this would have been a new term then — and although she comes to admit that this is exactly what she once was, she wants to distance herself from “the women’s party,” as she calls it.
According to Bilger, Brownstein wants to rescue Austen:
A subtext of Why Jane Austen? is Brownstein’s own disillusionment with academia and her recovered faith in the life of the mind via this exploration of what Jane Austen means. She recalls what it was like to encounter Austen before the late-20th-century culture wars erupted: “When I was in college in the 1950s, Jane Austen was the author of great works that were by the way delicious, six peaks of pink icing on the cake of English literature (or perhaps its rich center).” In discussing what happened in the decades that followed, Brownstein claims, “the critical attack on the canon in the late 1960s, and feminism and queer and postcolonial criticism, and the new media and the sense of a new millennium” all combined to diminish Jane Austen’s status. Toward the end of the book, Brownstein writes, “We reread Jane Austen because she persuades us to be nostalgic for what we never knew, and because we want her clarity.” She concludes by identifying the history of the novel as the “story of civilization,” and she associates Austen with the highest possible meaning: “[M]any of us see civilization now as a fiction, a story threatening to come to an end. Jane Austen is the focal point of nostalgia for that old story, a name for it.”
Rescuing Austen, as Bilger reminds us, is an old, old mission. Fans of one sort or another have been battling one another over Austen's ownership for more than a century. (Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, ed by Deidre Lynch, which she quotes from, is a fascinating book that addresses just that subject.) But I find it hard to wrap my head around the notion that "feminism and queer and postcolonial criticism" are responsible for ruining Jane Austen, given that Brownstein seems to be fussing most about Austen's being associated with "girliness" (which isn't an association that feminist, queer, or postcolonial criticism ever makes). Unless, that is, I zoom in the phrases "the story of civilization," "nostalgic for what we never knew," "civilization as a fiction, a story threatening to come to an end..." And once I do that, I'm really rather aghast. Brownstein is reading Jane Austen for that? Wow. I've never felt nostalgic when reading Jane Austen. Ever. So what is that all about? Oh: civilization. Ah, yes. The reactionary's longing for the Good Old Days, when the wealthy were ladies and gentlemen, and the poor knew their place and were grateful when the Mr. Knightlys condescended to them. Before a band of outlaws attacked the US exactly ten years ago. Now I get it.

Bilger doesn't zoom in on that, but she does go to the heart of what's at stake in the Naipaul kerfluffle:
For Brownstein, emphasizing Austen’s role as a woman limits any sense of artistic greatness. “Readers who excoriate (or, indeed, adore) her too narrowly imagine Jane as first-and-foremost a woman, a writer of romances, and/or a moralizing goody-two-shoes,” she declares. “She was in fact much more than that.”
This, from someone who used to call herself a feminist critic? Why in the world does she imagine that feminist, queer, and postcolonial critics don't see her as "more than that"? (Unless by "more than that" she means the reactionary ideologue filling us with nostalgia for the Good Old Days? For me that would be less, rather than more.) The problem is sexism, not feminism. For, as Bilger notes, "If feminism ever succeeds in making men and women full-fledged equals (for what else might?), we will be able to stop talking about whether women genuinely belong to the literary canon. Maybe there will even come a time when we can speak of Jane Austen without thinking of her as a female. Then comments like Naipaul’s will be universally mocked as the sexist “tosh” they so obviously are. Whenever this comes about, Jane Austen will still be a great author." I can't imagine why Brownstein thinks that rescuing Austen from feminist and queer theorists will bring about Austen's universal recognition as a Great Writer. It certainly won't bring the day on which we stop thinking of her as "female" a step closer.

More to the point, perhaps, is Bilger's quote of Deidre Lynch:
“Shakespeare fans, we should note, can act like fans, parade through Stratford-upon-Avon every April 23 sporting sprigs of rosemary, and not put at risk the plays’ claims to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, feels compelled to take this cult audience to task for their excesses and their failure to blush over them.” Bardolatry does Shakespeare no harm, but Austen’s cult following has, in the eyes of many, branded her as a chick-lit exemplar, a frivolous writer of “feminine tosh.”

And isn't that the real problem?

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