Stupidest criticism of Jane Austen ever

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Huh. Jane Austen is fed up with irrelevant criticism of her work.

You’ve probably heard someone say this – Jane Austen isn’t a great writer because she somehow managed to ignore the great events of her day like Waterloo and only wrote about domestic matters – little local problems, first-world problems, women’s stuff. Turns out she wasn’t Thackeray, and she wasn’t Dickens. Weirdly, she’s not Martin Amis, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler or E L James either.

This is such a dumb criticism and here are a few reasons why people say this dumb thing :

Sexism

Clearly this is basically a sexist criticism, because it implies that a woman writing about her own concerns – the concerns of her class, of the people around of her, of her gender – is not important, not valuable, not what life’s really about.

Bad news-ist

It privileges a view of the world in which what matters are the sort of things that get reported on the news – even though by simple statistics, only a very few of these events actually affect the daily lives of any of us at one time (please don’t flame me about climate change etc -you know what I’m trying to say here). Most of us are kind of just getting on with incredibly mundane, yet to us, important activities. [NB this doesn’t ignore the great suffering of many people in the world – but this criticism of Jane Austen doesn’t usually come from a Syrian refugee or a London homeless person; it usually comes from a smart ass college student]

Historically narrow

The idea that history is (only) the history of kings, generals and wars, mass movements etc. rather than, you know, people. People including categories like poor people, or shopkeepers, or children, or musicians, people trying to live in the circumstances they’re in, people like…erm…women?

Lack of understanding of the artistic process

Artists create art (perhaps we’ll stick with literature for the moment) for all sorts of reasons, but usually it is not to present a balanced, historically accurate view of the time they’re living in. I don’t go for the whole ‘write what you know’ scenario –  Tolstoy didn’t know Napoleon’s attack on Russia from personal experience for example, but War and Peace ain’t a bad book. Likewise, if you read Austen’s biographies and letters, in fact the people she was writing about led a very different life to hers – mostly up a class or two. People create art because something matters to them – it may or may not matter to you, in which case, read something else.

[on an aside, as a writer, do you get people coming up to you and saying, I’ve got this great idea, you should write it? I find that so weird. a) Why would I want to write someone else’s idea? It’s hard enough getting on with my own ideas, and I’m not in school any more; and b) why don’t they write it themselves if it’s such a great idea?]

Lack of understanding of what art is

Again, better stick with literature. People, straw men who I’m arguing with, literature is not history. Nor is it sociology, or science. An artistic object – a work of fiction – is a thing in itself, and it sets its own terms of reference. To criticise something for being itself, for not being something else, is to start from a belief that every book should somehow be all things to all men. Which is just nonsense. If you criticise Jane Austen for not including the wars etc that were going on at the time, then you’d have to criticise Dickens for mostly creating caricatures rather than flesh and blood people, you’d have to criticise Lee Child for writing about the same protagonist over and and over again. Etc etc.

 

 

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Why the film and TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice get Mr Bennet so wrong

In both the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and Joe Wright’s 2005 film, Mr Bennet is cast and played as essentially a lovable and cuddly fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, and a winning sense of humour. Yes, he has a few foibles and weaknesses but basically both Benjamin Whitrow (BBC, 1995) and Donald Sutherland (Joe Wright 2005) are quirky teddy bears. Just look at them:Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 12.07.31

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Even today a Mr Bennet would probably be good company – if you like drily witty verging on sarcastic (which I kind of do). But though I might enjoy a conversation with him, I wouldn’t like to be his friend. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be intimate or dependent on him.

But it’s not just that he’s “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice”; he has more serious faults and Jane Austen cares very much about those failings. We’ve seen how he treats his wife – yes she’s annoying, but he’s really not nice to her and continues to punish her for not being who he thought she was. And his neglect of his children is highlighted in this scene, in which Lizzy begs him not to allow Lydia to go to Brighton. This is not just about whether he’s a nice person or not ( – not). What is demonstrated here is how his laissez-faire attitude is simply a rationalisation for his indolence. Lizzy adds more pressure to try and get him to act:

“Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?”

Mr Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject; and affectionately taking her hand, said in reply,

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known, you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of — or I may say, three — very silly sisters.”

He seems to understand Lizzy’s distress and is warm for a moment, but his response is to appeal to Lizzy’s vanity by simply comparing her favourably to her sisters. He is fobbing her off with flattery. This is now a more serious failing. It’s not just about whether he’s a nice person or not: what he avoids is the principle – the fact (of the time) – that reputation mattered to the respectability of the family, and that he was responsible for the moral character of his daughter. The overriding principle of his role as father at the time was to uphold the mores of society. He slithers out of his responsibility by turning a matter of principle into a personal matter.

Jane Austen sums him up through Elizabeth’s thinking:

Elizabeth however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.

But she had never felt so strongly as now the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife.

Austen’s disapproval couldn’t be clearer.

So why is it that the adaptations let Mr Bennet off the hook by both the casting and the script-writing?

I think partly they prioritise the humour of making him a foil for Mrs Bennet – polarising her silliness and his rationality. But Austen doesn’t do that in the same way – yes, her Mrs Bennet is silly and hysterical, but her Mr Bennet is a much more nuanced, ambivalent character than the film people convey. Austen allows and encourages us to disapprove of him, whereas both adaptations make him the good guy, the emotional heart of the house; more of a lovable rogue than a weak, selfish and indolent man who has not looked after his family as he should.

But I think there may also be a historical problem: Jane Austen’s values are not today’s values. A man of that time who did not uphold the moral principles of society, a man who did not do his duty by his family was a reprehensible character. The values of Jane Austen’s time are not romantic values – they are moral and they are pragmatic. Love does not conquer everything, principles matter, character matters. The principles of Jane Austen’s time are not the principles of our time – and for the filmmakers to be upholding 19th-century morality would make them look like disapproving fuddy-duddies of perhaps their own fathers’ generation. We are nowadays generally much more ambivalent about authority, and have a lot more freedom and variety in our definitions of morality.

In some ways, the adaptations say more about the problems of today in being a man and a father than they do about the original text. What is a father today? How does a basically decent man aspire to be as a father? If you uphold principles, act as the representative of the wider world, does that still allow you to show kindness, affection, understanding? Is a father’s job discipline? Is it a father’s job to come between a mother such as Mrs Bennet and her children?

Certainly Mr Bennet has opted out of all these responsibilities, and Jane Austen is fully aware of both his attractiveness as a wit, and his failures of principle, and of duty of care to his family.

I think the adaptations slide away from confronting the moral and emotional problems that Mr Bennet poses to a modern audience, and they go for the easy option, of making him cute and lovable. In this day and age, we really don’t know how to think about Mr Bennet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I hate short stories

I’ll tell you why I hate short stories.

I hate short stories because:

  1. You’re just getting involved with the people and it’s over.Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 15.07.16
  2. You can’t go on and on reading a book of short stories – when one story finishes, you can’t just cut off from that world and leap to another world, so you have to stop reading,  and that interferes with the whole getting-engrossed-and-reading-and-reading-into-the-night-and-not-getting-enough-sleep-and-regretting-it-in-the-morning thing.Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 15.08.47
  3.  Short stories require frequent, repeated surges of brain energy to connect you with new people and situations. This releases dangerous chemicals into your bloodstream and shortens your life.
  4.  Also because they are short and usually sharp, they have a quicker emotional impact, thus raising your blood pressure and causing strokes and eventually heart attacks and again shortening your life.
  5.  Everyone time a short story ends, you have to go through the whole 5 Stages of Grief and Loss thing:

DENIAL – “nooooooo, it’s not over, it can’t be!” and ISOLATION – “gaaaaad, I miss those guys so much, now I’m alone again” (sobs)denial

ANGER – “I hate you Raymond Carver, how could you do this to me?” (throws book across room)

anger

BARGAINING – “if I wrote to the author, maybe they would turn it into a novel?” (PLEASE!)

bargaining

DEPRESSION – “what is the point of reading anything? there’s no point, it’s too painful” depression

ACCEPTANCE – yeh right, sure, that’s not happening. (kills everybody)

acceptance

      6. Ultimately short stories make you aware of your own mortality. You too will pass away into the void and be no more. Your life will end up as a brief thought in someone else’s head until they too pass away into the void. Can this possibly be a good thing to be reminded of? Specially last thing at night?

So in summary:

    Curse you Raymond Carver, curse you Alice Munro, curse you Tessa Hadley, curse you Katherine Mansfield, curse you Lorrie Moore, and curse all of you amazing and brilliant short story writers out there. You have ruined my life.

    Just saying.

This is about the UK TV programme Stella. Warning: no mention of Jane Austen

Stella is brilliant.

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Even though I’ve only watched the first two episodes, I’m going to tell you why. It’s all about impossible contradictions, and that is what makes it such a stonking artistic achievement.

  1. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly poignant.
  2. It’s populated by people who don’t often make it onto the screen and yet are highly attractive and/or hilarious, yet never contemptible. Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 15.55.35
  3. The character of Stella is such that you both want to be her, and are grateful that you are not her.
  4. It seems real and believable, while at the same time managing to be utterly romanticised.
  5. It makes living in a downbeat Welsh country town seem both like a great idea and a terrible idea.Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 15.55.08
  6. It shows us how petty and awful and imperfect everyone can be – everyone, even the main lovable characters – and yet that the essential goodness of humanity will win out.
  7. It takes complex social issues – racism, teenage pregnancy, poverty, marriage break-up – looks them in the face and makes them into human and universal stories. With a happy outcome.
  8. The sets are so believably unstylish, that you have to think they filmed in people’s actual homes. They feel like homes, not sets.
  9. Ruth JonesScreen Shot 2015-02-22 at 16.05.08
  10. There is a pony that lives in a house across the road.
  11. Did I mention Ruth Jones?

That will do for now. I may say more when I’ve watched a few more episodes.

Unlikely blogfellows: Jane Austen, Brian Williams (the NBC guy) and love

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m not going to write about romantic love.

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I’m thinking about another kind of love. I’m thinking about the love that comes from celebrity, and what it can do to a person. In the back of my mind is the story of Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection. I promise this will relate to Jane Austen, eventually.

The story of the NBC journalist Brian Williams who lied about his time in Iraq caught my eye this week. In an article in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote:

There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures.

The sad part is the reminder that no matter how high you go in life and no matter how many accolades you win, it’s never enough. The desire for even more admiration races ahead. Career success never really satisfies. Public love always leaves you hungry.

I was really struck by this – especially the phrase “public love always leaves you hungry”.

It made me think about the different kinds of love that we need, and the different kinds of love that we crave.

Recently I had a miniscule taste of that celebrity feeling. When I launched my book Becoming Mary on Amazon there was quite a rush on sales, and I got extremely over-excited, casting the film, quitting my day job, lying awake all night with my heart pounding, checking my sales figures every few minutes (that’s actually not an exaggeration).

Inevitably the number of sales tailed off somewhat, and I found myself really missing that excited feeling. I’d been floating high in a fantasy balloon, and reality had punctured it, and the withered balloon was drifting back down to earth with me inside it. Boo hoo.

[On the plus side, I’m now sleeping better and eating less chocolate.]

Despite the smallness of my 15 minutes of fame, what I observed in myself was a hit of this craving for the excitement of being admired, that had got stirred up in me. I wanted more and more of it, and when it went, I felt deflated and a bit gloomy. I wondered how I could get it back.

Something then resonated with me on hearing about Brian Williams and his stupid lie.

I could imagine how he might allow himself to make that lie. I think any of us might recognise that moment of slippage – you’re telling an anecdote, and you embellish it just a little bit, add some hyperbole, make yourself look a tad better, overstate your part in something, add that fabulous one-liner as though you’d actually said it at the time.

Gradually you could forget the true story, because the new one is funnier and more interesting. It’s so tempting to believe the myths we tell about ourselves. In Brian Williams’ case the myth was that he was as courageous and active as the soldiers.

I think it’s hard to let go of celebrity love – this “public love”. The feeling of receiving it is intoxicating. It’s delicious – but unfortunately it’s delicious in the way that junk food is delicious – tasty, fatty, sugary and ultimately unsatisfying. It leaves you full but hungry, and in your heart of hearts (now lined with cholesterol), you know it isn’t nourishing, and you know it won’t last.

That’s the kind of love that any of us might crave – in small ways and not so small ways. It makes us feel good, big and clever and exciting.

But there’s another kind of love that we need. It’s a much more ordinary thing – more sustained and more sustaining. It’s not about worship and adulation, it’s open-eyed, realistic, aware of the good, the bad and the indifferent but reliably there nonetheless. If the narcissistic love is junk food, the other kind of love is the one that comes with hot-dinners and eat-your-greens.

When I thought about Mary Bennet, and why she’s like she is, both in Pride and Prejudice, and in my continuation, it seems to me that she craves her version of that celebrity love – she seeks satisfaction in admiration and praise, which she wants to garner by her musical performances and her displays of erudition. The myth she constructs about herself, is that she is wise, knowledgeable and a seriously good musician – and rather superior to others.

In her case, she turns to this narcissistic love, because there is such a shortage of the other kind of love. She really doesn’t know what else to do to get something. She has nothing that either of her parents value – no wit, no beauty – she’s not even very good at music. Her sisters have paired off, Jane with Lizzy, Kitty with Lydia, and there is nobody in the family for her. She’s lonely, neglected and thoroughly unlikeable.

What I did in my novel was take this Mary, and bring her to the point where she realises that she has been chasing a shadow, that what she was seeking was not the love that she truly needed, and she has to start the painful journey of self-knowledge, which, no doubt like Brian Williams, will include much remorse and heart-searching.

But because it’s Jane Austen fan fiction, she will also find true love and live happily ever after. So that’s romantic after all.

 

 

 

 

First-person narrator: the big fat lie. And a brief analysis of the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice to make my point

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing in the first-person throws up a whole load of different challenges to writing in the third-person. In first-person, every single word is a product of the mind of the protagonist, is in the voice of the protagonist – every description, every thought, every feeling. You don’t get to hop from mind to mind, POV to POV. You don’t get to pontificate, to be poetic, or to look on your protagonist as an object. Dammit, it’s tricky enough trying to get a physical description in there at all without using a rather contrived mirror sequence.

However, as well as the challenges, there are great joys to be had from writing first-person. Ask Raymond Chandler. Mark Twain (Huck Finn). Dog in the Night-time guy.

I’ve written two novels so far, Becoming Mary, my Pride and Prejudice sequel, and The Advice Lady, a northern noir with a young female sleuth (is northern noir a thing?). (It’ll be published soon, be calm, be patient)

Both of them are written in the first person, and here’s why.

1) Inner Turmoil. I love inner turmoil. And nothing expresses inner turmoil like the first-person pronoun. (Jane Eyre. I rest my case)

2) Unreliable Narrator. Everything in the action is seen through the eyes of your first-person protagonist. This will be by definition unreliable, as a subjective view is a subjective view.

In Mary’s case, the reader usually knows how wrong she is, and that (I submit) is part of the fun of the book; in The Advice Lady, Clare, the sleuth, is often in the dark, but so is the reader. Clare is a reliable narrator: her doubt is your doubt, her ignorance your ignorance. Such is the way of crime fiction. She’s not unreliable as such, just the blind leading the blind.

3) No snarky and omniscient narrator (this is a quote from someone who reviewed Becoming Mary on Amazon, and is not a Jane Austen fan….[weird that. I think they read it by accident]). Anyway, it’s an interesting one. In P and P, Jane Austen’s own well, yes, somewhat snarky voice is there right from the beginning, right there in your face. Let me explain….

Analysis time!

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Remember the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice? (of course you do! You wouldn’t be here otherwise). It opens:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

I don’t know the names of all the rhetorical tricks that are so densely packed into that sentence, but here’s my two cents.

It starts with a grand flourish – a truth – unarguable, almost an article of faith – universally acknowledged, like religion or something – an absolute, that everyone, yes, everyone, agrees on (how big is this universe?). So unless this is the opening of something like Fordyce’s Sermons, you’re already aware of the author’s sarcasm, and it’s already funny.

Then comes the bathos (you see I do know something – ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’). From this grand, flourishing, absolute truth, you suddenly realise it’s actually about a little local difficulty, a specific person in a specific time and place; Jane Austen is observing a group of people with shared beliefs which they don’t see beyond, which are so basic to them that they have the quality of a universal truth. You can hear the assumptions and prejudices of Mrs Bennet straight away, and – clearly flagged up – the two inextricable issues of the novel: love and money, venality and romance.

That’s a helluva lot of info to get into one sentence. It’s then followed by a chapter where an enormous amount of information about both plot and character is revealed, in dialogue and in nuances and fragments. E.g.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

How much that tiny exchange tells us about Mr and Mrs Bennet! – his laconic and sardonic manner, her obliviousness to his put-down and his irony, her eagerness to talk at any price. That’s only one example of many.

Come the end of the chapter, and Jane Austen herself steps out from behind the puppet theatre from where she has been manipulating the characters to tell us plainly:

 “Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”

Jane Austen shooting from the hip. Ouch. Just in case we hadn’t already got it.

OK, so that’s Jane Austen, both indirectly and directly telling us what to think about her characters. She IS absolutely the snarky and omniscient narrator. And I love her for it with every particle of my being.

But in a novel narrated in the first-person, where is the authorial, authoritative voice? How does the reader know what to think? How does the reader know what the author thinks?

Well, here’s where the big lie comes in. Because it might look like there’s no omniscient narrator, but of course there is. I know this is probably just stating the bleedin’ obvious, but I contend that I am every bit as opinionated, didactic and judgemental as Jane Austen. I have a lot of beliefs and theories about human behaviour, society and morality etc. etc., and I want to convey them to the reader.

The difference is, that with a first-person narrator, I have to say it at one further remove than Austen, because my ‘voice’ resides in the opposite of what Mary thinks, in Mary’s lack of self-knowledge. I can’t tell the reader directly what to think, because officially I’m not there. I have to tell you by subterfuge. I hope I succeed.