This is my boyfriend’s response to the same prompt I responded to yesterday.
Readers who don’t like Austen’s novels complain about the narrowness of her themes. They sometimes accuse her of ignoring the world outside her narrow society and of forsaking broader, historical—and more “important”—themes for a relatively small set of preoccupations and concerns. How would you respond to such a critic?
I do not like this prompt because the complaint of “readers” who don’t like Jane Austen is not that her subjects are too narrow. No, English majors and literary critics who don’t like Jane Austen say that because they couldn’t find a way to fit her into their grand cosmic theory of literature. The everyday reader who doesn’t like Jane Austen doesn’t like her because her novels are about a bunch of prissy 19th century Brits sitting around all day talking about love and going out and finding ways of messing love up, at least until the last ten pages when everything magically resolves, and that isn’t their type of book. Then they complain that this “Jane Austen” added way too much new stuff that wasn’t in the movie, that Emma is supposed to take place in Beverly Hills, and that it wasn’t a faithful adaption of what’s on the screen, because who reads books these days anyway? But I digress.
This is what I would say to the literary critic who is really the one represented in this prompt: “Who are you to say that Jane Austen’s narrowness is a problem?” Austen did not aspire to write about Life, the Universe, and Everything (kudos if you get the reference). She wrote because she had a talent and enjoyment for it and a keen observation of the world that was immediately around her. I have read her juvenilia, and it is evident from her ridiculous plots that she enjoyed making up stories to entertain her family and then simply started writing them down and finally started editing some to the level of a true, non-ridiculous novel. She was not moved to write because of some great personal or national tragedy or philosophical revelation that so often seems to inspire hopelessly complex works of writing. Encouragement to use her skill from her family was a big factor. She looked at the world she personally inhabited and wrote stories from it, because she wanted to. This prompt implies that the asker has a right to demand that an author (even a dead one) write a hopelessly complex book on some cosmic topic to be considered worthy of historical importance. It’s like a fan of all sports looking at the best hockey player in the world (Alexander Ovechkin, by the way) and saying “Well, you didn’t score any touchdowns this year, so you can’t be any good,” because they think American football is better than other sports. The one thing I really like in this prompt is that it puts quotations around the word “important,” thus indicating the writer of the prompt recognizes that deciding what is important is a very delicate and subjective matter—especially when someone is speaking for an entire academic field like literary criticism.
What should matter to the literary critic writing this question is that Jane Austen did her writing superbly, and in her admittedly limited subject matter she was one of the best. The works of Jane Austen contain troves of knowledge of basic human interactions that still are relevant and insightful today, and that makes them more important to humanity as a whole than if she had tried to write on “bigger” themes. Many of the big issues of any period in time resolve themselves and fade to the point where a reader today would find writings on them only useful for historical purposes. The trappings of male-female courtship have changed since Austen’s time, but many of the underlying issues she explored have not. The literary critic of this prompt would tell Jane Austen, if she were alive today, that she should rewrite her books to give more emphasis to the more arbitrarily important issues of her day and dilute the basic lessons of human behavior. That advice, which restricts the freedom of a brilliant author to compose on her own terms and denies literature and humanity an excellent view of a timeless theme, would hopefully be rejected, and then Ms. Austen would hopefully call me and tell me who told her that so I could find them and punch them for being so self-centered.
As an after note, I produced three pages of musings about literary criticism (which I have quite a few problems with) making this response. I would like to include a paragraph about the duty of the critic because I liked it and it clarifies my point about the literary critic “speaking for an entire academic field”:
In the creative world, we can judge for ourselves or for others. When we judge for personal taste, applying our own vision of what an author should be is good and helps us consume things that satisfy us. However, when we take an official position as a critic, and thus judge for others, it is only fair to judge to the author’s standards, because in the idealized world of free creation, the creator answers to no one but themselves. That doesn’t obligate anyone else to find it to their personal taste, but the critic should have the obligation to say, “Maybe no one else likes it, but the artist achieved the vision they were aspiring towards.”
Maybe if I can ever convince him to join this blog and write regularly with me (he’s a dental student, so I forgive him for not having as much time as me to read, much less write about what he’s read), you’ll get to experience more of his awesome writing. I particularly like his hockey/football analogy. 🙂 What do you think of his response?by