Literary Novels and Thoughts on Jane Austen

Cross posted from the class blog from my Jane Austen class. It’s my final thoughts on one of the discussions we’ve been having in class. I just found the downside to blogging: final thoughts on a class do not easily fit into a blog posting.

A while ago, I came across this article from The Guardian on BBC2’s Culture Show‘s 12 Best New Novelists list. No, there are no Austen re-visions here, just an interesting, if I think ultimately misplaced argument about the genre of the literary novel. I admittedly have not yet read any of the new novelists on the list (although, I’m intrigued enough by at least four or five of the titles to go find copies). Indeed, John Mullan wisely refrains from simply reviewing the novels. After all, he could not do so adequately in the space of a column for the Culture section of The Guardian. Instead, he uses these novels and their genre–the literary novel–as a starting point for a mediation on the state of the contemporary literary market and the public’s embrace of the complexities of the form that the literary novel tends to employ. It’s an interesting deepening of our on-going conversation about professional readers and pleasure readers, about scholars and the Janeites. I also think the categorization of novels as “literary” or not is part of our reading habits today and informs how we read Austen now.

According to John Mullan, the literary novel is a genre sometimes derided as being “pretentious” or “plot free.” (A complaint frequently leveled at Austen.) It borrows freely from other, presumably more accessible or reader friendly genres, such as science fiction or historical fiction. (As do the current revisions of Austen.) It’s a genre supported by best of lists like this one produced by the Culture Show or Granta‘s best young author’s lists. It’s also dependent on prizes such as the Man Booker Prize, which has catapulted it’s short list of novels into best seller status for awhile now. It’s a form unrecognized by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but also one that has been prominent in shaping literature since the 1960s, and most especially since the 1980s. It’s no coincidence that the Booker Prize’s prominence (est. 1969; Salman Rushdie’s win in 1981) coincides with Mullan’s dating of the literary novel. In other words, the literary novel and the publishing industry surrounding it produces it’s own canon.

Ultimately, for Mullan at least, the literary novel is defined by its use and experimentation with form. He claims that “This is because such fiction calls attention to form. Once this was the property of avant-garde fiction; in recent years it has become a tendency in fiction that appeals to a mass readership.” On the one hand, I think Mullan is right that readers today do not shy away from complexities of form in fiction. While a certain number of consumers buy literary bestsellers for appearances, most readers do so from a genuine interest in the work. My problem with Mullan’s mediation–and it’s a niggling, small, almost infinitesimal problem comparatively speaking–is the idea that formal complexity was the sole purview of avant-garde work before the 1980s.

Yet, this small snag for me in Mullan’s otherwise intelligent and refreshing assessment of the state of the British novel today (and it’s so relieving not to wade through yet another argument about the death of the novel) is in fact one that goes back to our ongoing conversation about professional readers versus pleasure readers. Many scholars claim that this divide in reading practices stems from the Modernists. Simon Joyce argues that nineteenth-century scholarship tends to be mediated through a modernist lens. In other words, the Modernist emphasis on elevating art and literature away from mass production, of breaking with prior Victorian forms, transformed our understanding of the placement of literature within culture. Pleasure reading became the purview of the masses; scholarly reading of erudite texts became the world of the critic and the scholar. Indeed Claire Harman makes the argument that the resurgence of interest in Austen’s work in the early twentieth-century is because “[n]ovels were shorter in the new century; biographies were too, after Lytton Strachey [hyperlink added], and Jane Austen’s life and works, which seemed restrained and tidy by comparison with the ‘breeding plots’ of the big Victorian family sagas, fitted in very nicely with the style of the times” (165). Austen’s work chimed with the Modernist rethinking of the form of the novel.

I think this divide between high and low culture ultimately ignores Raymond Williams’s key injunction that “culture is ordinary.” In his essay, “Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture” (1958), Williams argues that

“We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life–the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning–the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind” (6).

If we accept Williams’s reading of the word culture, then we necessarily bridge the divide between pleasure reading and scholarly reading. Culture is ordinary; the reading practices are necessarily intertwined.

So what does this all mean for our study of Jane Austen and Austen’s textual afterlives. I’ve been pondering this question all semester, particularly as we moved through this last unit, discussing Austen adaptations and re-writings today. We would we consider Austen’s work today as part of the genre now termed the “literary novel”? Would Austen’s work make the Granta Best Novelists list? Would we still consider her literary enough for a Booker Prize? Her work is certainly now packaged in this manner. In 2008,Penguin Classics repackaged several canonical texts in a special, redesign by Coralie Bickford-Smith.

These books both echo their original nineteenth-century binding and the publishing design of current literary novels. Yet, I like to think Austen’s work and its impact is better represented by adaptations like Bride and Prejudice, which take Austen’s astute control of plot and remake it into our ordinary culture, one that is multinational and hybrid in many ways. And perhaps more importantly, such adaptations are still utterly Austen. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, claims that “Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. […] when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote” (68).We can add zombies and vampires, write countless sequels, and situate Austen in India. All of these textual afterlives are irrefutably Austen. She is still “our dear, everyone’s dear Jane” (James, “The Lessons of Balzac”).  I have come to the conclusion that even attempting to divide our reading practices, at least where Austen is concerned, misses the point of Austen.

(And for those who didn’t know; there’s now a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Pride and Prejudice: Dreadfully Ever After was released on March 22, 2011.)

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