Monday, November 26, 2007

The Austen Industry

If there were a sweeps week for literature blogs, which for all I know there is, that’s when I would post about Jane Austen.

When you see “the Faulkner industry” or “the Pynchon industry” or what have you, someone is making fun of academics and their monographs. But the Jane Austen industry is an actual consumer goods industry, of books, of course, and movies, and books based on books, and, as I saw recently, a board game. I don’t know of any porcelain figurines or scarves or umbrellas like Pamela and Oliver Twist inspired, but who knows and why not?

Austen is a best-selling author today. If you added together the sales of various editions to see it, Pride and Prejudice would be on the bestseller lists most years, even without a movie or TV tie-in. And unlike most old fogies, Austen’s books are read outside of the classroom. No other older writer enjoy so many current, and dedicated, readers. Maybe some children’s books can compete – The Wizard of Oz, Anne of Green Gables. Maybe.*

Some of this drives me crazy. The movies that misunderstand the Austen’s values, moral and esthetic. The sequels and prequels and miscellaneous hackwork. More on this later as I sort my thoughts, or organize my peeves. Unless I decide I'm just being a grump and drop the whole thing.

About that board game. It is basically Trivial Pursuit, with questions about either Austen’s books or Regency England. At the end the winner has “gotten married.” A lot of people dismiss Austen because they think her only subject is getting a young woman past various obstacles to a superior marriage. Many of her biggest fans love her for the same reason. Another thing to drive me crazy. This may be her only plot, but it is certainly not her only subject – pride and vanity, humility, the difficulties of communication, dependence and independence, the world around her. Not weddings, always a trivial part of the novels. Not marriage, at least not of young people. Of old fools, yes.

You can read Austen's books, even love her books, without giving a damn about who marries who in the end. A reader interested in literary art will want to change "can" to "should".

*Little Women? The Alice books? Huckleberry Finn? All in some sense kids’ books now. And I don’t think any of them come close to selling as many copies as P&P. Other examples are welcome.

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