Friday, September 08, 2017

William Deresiewicz on being a Jane Austen fan and the puzzle this presents to the women who don't get why a man would admire her work and the man who think no real man should enjoy her work

September 5, 2017 wasn't just the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Batman: the animated series. It was also the day a piece by William Dersiewicz went up at The American Scholar about, among other things, the bewilderment certain women and men display toward him when he says he admires Jane Austen's work. 

So that interview was not the first time I had had to defend my love of Jane Austen. Nor would it be the last, especially, some five years later, after I published A Jane Austen Education, a memoir of my encounter with the author during those very years in graduate school, and of the way she helped me to become an adult. Every time I explained what the book was about—at a party, or to the friend of a friend—there was always a little pause as they tried to work it out, tried to do the math. Men, in particular, would get this look in their eyes, as if to say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?” And whenever I did a reading or went on the radio, I always felt a subtext, a question hanging over the proceedings.
Sometimes the text was not even “sub.” One host, on a local public radio program, patrolled the gender lines relentlessly throughout our conversation. “I know there are many Jane Austen fans listening, probably women,” she said right off the bat. “I’m curious about the men who may be listening, who may be thinking, ‘Eh, this guy’s a weenie. I don’t care what he says.’ ” So already she was furnishing a script, a gendered script, for listeners to follow.
Which they did. The very first caller criticized the book, which I’m pretty sure she hadn’t read, for not discussing the fact that women in Jane Austen’s day were dependent on men for financial security and therefore occupied a subordinate social position. You’re right, I said, they were and they did, but there are also lots of other things to talk about in Austen’s work, most of which apply to men and women equally—like love, and friendship, and growing up, and keeping your eyes open—and those are the things I discuss in my book. But that clearly didn’t cut much ice with her.
In all this, I think, we can distinguish two impulses. One is a desire to exclude men from the sphere of Austen’s readers—or at least to mark them as resident aliens rather than natural-born citizens and thus to claim Austen as the exclusive property of a female readership.
The other impulse rejects the idea that men—that real men—would want to enter Austen’s world to begin with. We still have trouble with gender, no matter what advances we have made. We still think in terms of “acting gay,” which often, to a first approximation, means acting female: dressing colorfully, or being into musical theater—or loving Jane Austen. Those are all fine, if you actually are gay. But they’re not fine if you aren’t. Straight men are still supposed to act the way they’ve always been expected to (just as straight women are). So for a straight man to express a devotion to Jane Austen’s novels is to fall short of the gender performance that society expects of him. This will almost invariably arouse anxiety in other people, who will feel entitled, like the dean or the radio host, to police the violation. [emphasis added]

Later on Deresiewicz notes that our contemporary reception of Austen has been, in a phrase, Hollywood-ized:
Austen’s novels have also been received, especially in recent years, as feminine in a more stereotypical sense: as romance novels in the contemporary meaning of the term, chick lit in its purest form. The movies do this, and so does the fan fiction. But her stories aren’t primarily about romance. Love comes only at the end—her heroines must grow up first—and when it does, it doesn’t look like Cupid’s arrow. Love, for Austen, is a slow outgrowth of friendship. It’s something you have to prepare yourself for, not something that magically happens to you.

But the movies—the major way that people are exposed to Austen’s work today, and certainly the leading factor in creating her contemporary image—never stand for that. She is always Brontëized, always turned into the exponent of grand and unquenchable passion. [emphasis added] The music swells, the handsome actors and beautiful actresses—always so much better-looking than the characters are in the books—lock lips with hungry urgency. So what’s scrubbed from her stories is not only everything else they’re about, but Austen’s own violations of gender performance. Jane Austen, as anyone who has read the novels (and still more, the letters) knows, was not a good girl. She was cool, sharp, sometimes bawdy, sometimes cruel. Her novels can be gloomy, even sour. In her own life, she chose art over marriage. Yet all this has been airbrushed from the picture.

Or, alternately, people could conclude that she just really wanted to be married herself and didn't "win the lottery" and that she was writing out of her own failed desire to do the normal thing of being married off.  But then, as Kyle Gann noted in his complaints about contemporary historical approaches toward influential figures of the past, we're all trying to psychoanalyze touchstone artists and writers and composers of the past as though we would, in those respective shoes, be better people than them rather than trying to understand the possibilities of how those long dead thought and acted within the confines and also opportunities of their times.  Particularly with music it seems writers prefer to write about the lives than the music for which musicians are known but I digress.  
What occurred to me, as I listened to the panel, was that Austen’s world does function as an arena for the unbridled expression of female desire, but that desire is the reader’s. The impulses that her heroines must conceal or repress, out in the intensely public spaces of her novels, her readers are encouraged to indulge in the privacy, as it were, of their bedrooms. And that indulgence is all the greater precisely because it is denied to the heroines. More demonstrative characters would get between the reader and the hero, would take up all the emotional space. Readerly imagination, as is often said, is incited by what is omitted. Austen’s readers, indeed, can be said to desire her heroes, at least some of the time, even more than do her heroines, because they often get there first. They have no ambivalence about Mr. Darcy, no ignorance about their feelings for Mr. Knightley, no indifference to Colonel Brandon. They are only waiting, as it were, for the heroines to catch up.

Here's my off-hand proposal about why so many men might find the idea of reading Austen, let alone the experience of reading Austen, so distasteful--there's too many men who resent the idea that the man in the narrative can be so easily thought of as the trophy spouse.  There may just be a strata of men who can only imagine a trophy partner being a woman. 

And, of course, there's always the reality that lots of people don't like reading late 18th or early 19th century novels because of a separated-by-a-common-language barrier, too.  But it has been interesting to notice the love or loathe dynamic with Austen and those who have read her work.  My personal loathing is for Hemingway and I also have no use for Twain, but then I don't feign a failure to appreciate that every writer and polemicist is ultimately a moralist and that writers who object to moralists are not objecting to moralism as such but to the morals of a moralist.  And to be deliberately blunt about it, the kinds of men who tend to look down on Jane Austen tend to come across as, well, dicks. 

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