Sunday, January 27, 2013

Austen Forever


A recent post over at Jezebel.com, with the needlessly inflammatory "Is Jane Austen So Popular Because Her Books Are Just Highbrow Twilight?" title left me with a few feels.

1. Ugh, Jezebel, what a bait-y headline. The only reason to do it is to try and get Austenites cranky, and congrats, you did. Well done?

2. The article itself is just sort of...there? I generally like the writer, but this is about as "lite" a comparison as could have been made and required some really lazy generalizations, comparisons, and overall kind of blah writing. The "point" of the article was apparently that Austen's work have become a popular, oft mined "franchises" because of the romance. I strongly disagree and so did just about every other commenter, with incredibly valid, obvious reasons to back those objections up. The writer just didn't bother to consider them and, honestly, if that was the point of the article, it got pretty convoluted when she compared Darcy to Edward like they have -anything- in common other than being male leads. I don't care if Stephanie Meyers is producing a modern story about an Austen fan, that doesn't make Twilight anything like Austen's work. Jennifer Love-Hewitt being in some apparently modern adap of Pride & Prejudice for Lifetime doesn't mean they "get it" either. There's a reason the most popular Austen adaps are usually BBC mini-series, period films, or something like Clueless or Bridget Jones. Because they -don't- just concentrate on the romance. Even though Bridget Jones has some issues, it's mostly about Bridget figuring herself out and that she deserves better in a relationship. And the love story still hinges on them getting to know each other, flaws and all. Anyone who is only reading/watching for the kiss at the end is A. not really a fan of the work B. missing the entire point of it, like completely. I don't know anyone who is actually into Austen's work strictly for the romance. They're in it for the character exploration. I know everyone remembers Colin Firth wearing a wet poofy shirt in the BBC adap all those years ago, but that's not why it was popular and continues to be watched now. It's because it got the WHOLE story in there.

Austen's works are meaningful exploration of characters that also have romances. They don't work without the former. They are also incredibly acerbic, insightful commentaries on human nature, gender, class, and society, cleverly woven into a tight storytelling package. That's what people are invested in.

3. I think the author really lost me on two points:

A. She generalized Darcy as being like Edward (and Christian Grey), as "famously swoonworthy because they're arrogant, aloof babes who are secretly sensitive and end up saving the day when they're unexpectedly overcome by love." Holy shit, NO. Not only does that generalization hold up under no scrutiny whatsoever, it's absurd. Darcy isn't actually "secretly" sensitive. Elizabeth doesn't know about that side of him because she never bothers to find out and she's too busy nursing hurt pride, so she believes Wickham, who's the actual asshole in this scenario. It's not a "secret" so much as someone she would've noticed about his character sooner if she'd been paying attention. That's kind of the whole point of his letter later on when she suddenly realizes she's been unfair and blind. Because she is a flawed character, too.

Darcy is arrogant (or prideful), but then so is Elizabeth in her own way. It's also fairly clear in the book that Darcy has a general dislike of forced social situations and, due to raising his younger sister at a relatively young age, (with, again, a great deal of love and kindness that's obvious to anyone who knows him) he takes himself a little too seriously. That's the sum total of his flaws. As Lizzie later states to Wickham, his essentials do not change, it's her awareness of them that do. Also, Darcy doesn't "save the day" because he's unexpectedly overcome by love. He helps Lizzie's two sisters because he wants to, when he has no hope of her loving him back, after she's already told him where to stick it. Which is a MAJOR difference between Twilight and anything Austen ever wrote. Love is earned, it is NOT instantaneous, and it is never, ever, based on looks. She is highly critical of people who love for superficial reasons.


But perhaps the most important difference between Darcy and those other two; HE'S NOT AN EMOTIONALLY ABUSIVE/MANIPULATIVE STALKERY CREEPSTER. None of Austen's heroe's ever display these traits.  The worst they ever get is a bit prideful and distant if they've been hurt. That's as bad as they get. If you're looking for that, you need to check out Rochester and Heathcliffe (and even then the similarities are highly superficial). 


However, the worst thing the article does is this:


B. " I always found Austen's female characters one-dimensional and lacking in passion and energy;". I just. I can't even. What is this. No.


Aside from the fact that most of her novels directly deal with characters who need to balance sense and passions (Sense & Sensibility is ALL about that, yo, look at the title), describing her characters as "one-dimensional" is objectively wrong. It might be the writers subjective experience, but I seriously have to wonder what she was reading and what mood she was in when she read them. You don't have to like any of Austen's work to know that her female characters are incredibly nuanced. They're also not interchangeable from one another. Lizzie Bennett is not Marianne Dashwood is not Emma Woodhouse is not Fanny Price is not Anne Elliot. And that's just some of her main characters. Her ancillary female characters also run the gamut. Hell, Pride & Prejudice is like a crash course in how many different female characters you can have in one family, let alone in a village and beyond. Austen was, I think, interested more in how people really are than overly dramatic plots. If you want that, the Bronte's are your girls. Expecting Austen to give you that is missing the point of her work.


And I say all this as someone who loves Jane Eyre and some overwrought drama, but Rochester is a HUGE asshole. You'd be excused if you wondered just what Jane sees in him for the majority of the book, because he's kind of really manipulative and shitty a lot of the time. He does "get" her, which is his one redeeming quality. He spends a lot of the book deliberately making her think he loves someone else, just to make her upset. The dude then tricks her into nearly marrying him, and it's only because he gets caught that he comes clean. He's punished for it later, but, you know, that's a seriously dick move. Instead of rising above the hardships in his life he indulges in them and then expects Jane to "fix" them. He only becomes a better man because she leaves. And as much as I respect the ending, the fact that Jane doesn't accomplish things she wanted, like traveling, makes it a little down for me. It is her choice, though, so I can't fault that. 


But in terms of realistic portrayals of layered, multi-dimensional characters, I would hold any of Austen's up to Jane. They may have different dispositions, but they're no less nuanced.


I just can't take a writer seriously who is unable to see past their own biases enough to write that Austen's female characters are "one-dimensional". Which brings me to...


4. A major pet peeve of mine is when people use their personal preferences as an excuse to not "get" a work or a writer, or the value of said work. I'm sorry, but, no. There are plenty of things that are not to my taste that I'm able to recognize as objectively important/worthwhile. I have zero interest in Wuthering Heights and The Age of Innocence, while incredibly important and well written, just doesn't grab me. That's my subjective experience with them, which is in no way an objective "truth". I would never, ever, say either of them were boring or had one-dimensional characters, even if I don't like them, because that would be incredibly obtuse on my part. If you're going to engage in lit critique or comparison, the least you can do is not let your personal preferences completely overtake your ability to be reasonable. What I "like" or "prefer" is not really all that relevant. The work and what it accomplishes is.

5. I'm way over comparing Twilight to every other work written by women that involves romance somewhere in their plots. First of all, it usually results in uncritical link bait, and doesn't do any of the works any justice, including Twilight. Second, it's really easy to dismiss Twilight, but it's probably not a good idea to do so. Millions of girls and women have read it. I may dislike some of the messages and the writing, but it obviously speaks to a lot of people on an emotional level or it wouldn't have become so popular. If you think about it even a little, Bella as a character clearly resonates with how a lot of girls -feel-, which is ignored and boring and plain. Dismiss the relevancy of that at your own peril. Do I personally prefer more "aspirational" or inspiring characters? Yeah. But wer'e not talking about my personal preferences. I read a lot of Piers Anthony and Mercedes Lackey as a teen. I also loved Hamlet.  Teenagers are capable of nuance and variety, I promise.

Is the romance deeply problematic? Hell yes. And that should be discussed often and in depth. But I don't think it necessarily means teen girls are going to emulate it, and in any case, our culture teaches them way more problematic messages than the books, which mainly just mirrors them. You could argue it also perpetuates them, but again, you'd have to acknowledge life in general does as well.

About the only comparison worth making between Twilight and anything else is how superficial it is. It doesn't really explore any issue all that deeply, including love, and is mostly just a lot of teenage navel-gazing. And honestly, that's fine. Not everything needs to have a big deep message. But it also doesn't mean you can compare it to Austen or the Bronte's in any particularly meaningful way, other than showing how much better you can explore human nature, life, death, and love. That doesn't change that some teens may just prefer Twilight for the high drama and angst. They're allowed, being an adolescent sucks, I'm not going to judge them for reading anything. Again, I cite my reading of Piers Anthony as proof-positive that you can read that stuff and turn out just fine.

6. Finally, I'm epically over with people dismissing Austen's work because it's "light". Just because she finds humor in the utter absurdity that is humanity, and didn't write giant tomes about moors and characters who constantly lament their looks, doesn't mean she was any less of a keen observer or commenter.

One of things that I think people forget most about Austen's work: she makes it look easy. So it's also easy to take what she did for storytelling for granted. She was way ahead of her time in a lot of ways, and yet incredibly present and observant of her time. And she did so in a lively, witty, even acerbic way, without having to get overly dramatic. It's probably why I love her work so much, she did NOT rely on heavy, overdone writing to accomplish insightful social criticism and accurate character portrayals. One isn't better than the other, but what she did is deceptively simple -looking-, but actually incredibly difficult to pull off. Her writing is also still very relevant today, with themes and characters we can all recognize easily. Her stories are accessible and there's a reason we're still reading them over 200 years after they were written. Longevity like that is not an accident. 

So to sum up: boo on uncritical lit discussions, yay for Jane Austen and her work still providing insight and wit on the ridiculousness that is humanity to this day. I bet you would've been an awesome tea buddy, Jane. We miss you.

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