A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter — William Deresiewicz

I really like and admire A Jane Austen Education, despite agreeing with the younger Deresiewicz who the older one mocks for believing sentiments like this one, about Jane Austen’s Emma: “The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village. No grand events, no great issues, and, inexplicably for a writer of romance novels, not even any passion.” Deresiewicz is setting himself up to be knocked down, and yet when I read Emma I, too, was bored by the “chitchat” among the bumpkins.

But Deresiewicz goes on to explain why his younger self was totally wrong, and how he grew as a person through closely reading Jane Austen and applying her novels to his life experience. Though his explanation is persuasive, I still don’t buy it. To me, the characters in Emma are still “a pretty unpromising bunch of people to begin with, and then all they seemed to do was sit around and talk: about who was sick, who had had a card party the night before, who had said what to whom. Mr. Woodhouse’s idea of a big time was taking a stroll around the garden.” I usually call the ceaseless chatter without any action referent “empty status games,” because the games don’t refer to anything outside their immediate social situations (granted, it might also be that I don’t usually excel in them). These sorts of situations are akin to the ones Paul Graham describes in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

I think the important thing about the real world is [that. . . ] it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

Jane Austen’s societies obviously don’t generate into savagery—unless they’ve been transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!”)—but their inhabitants do feel “trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect,” which makes them unsatisfying, at least to my temperament. Graham might also not be an ideal person to cite, given how much he admires Austen: “Everyone admires Jane Austen. Add my name to the list. To me she seems the best novelist of all time.” Still, strike me from the list: her style is amazing and her content vapid. Consider this description, also from Deresiewicz:

One whole chapter—Isabella had just brought her family home for Christmas—consisted entirely of aimless talk, as everyone caught up on one another’s news. For more than half a dozen pages, the plot simply came to a halt. But the truth was, for long stretches of the book there really wasn’t much plot to speak of.

Or this: “What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?” There are much duller books—Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable comes to mind, since those are novels written to make some philosophical statement about the meaninglessness of life or to give English professors a bone to gnaw into scholarly papers—but the point stands. I’m not opposed to “women novelists,” and anyone who is on the grounds of perceived unimportance should try The Secret History and Gone Girl, but “long, heavy novels [. . .] on trivial subjects” are tedious regardless of their author’s gender.

Moreover, I’m not alone: “As it turned out, people had been reacting to Jane Austen exactly as I had for as long as they’d been reading her. The first reviews warned that readers might find her stories ‘trifling,’ with ‘no great variety,’ ‘extremely deficient’ in imagination and ‘entirely devoid of invention,’ with ‘so little narrative’ that it was hard to even describe what they were about.” At some level, as happens with much art, a preference for Austen may come down to temperament, and to what a person believes about what The Novel or a novel should do. I’ve never been able to get into novels that don’t have some kind of narrative drive or energy—both vague terms that I could spend the rest of this essay describing, or, rather, trying to describe—and, like Lev Grossman, I think “Plot makes perverts of us all:”

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them.

For as long as a century, however, if not longer, literary culture has been bifurcating between high-culture, non-plot types who inhabit universities and book reviews and institutions, and common readers, who like something to happen and maybe some T&A or depraved longings in their fiction, even if the language used for the T&A and depraved longings isn’t very interesting. Most of us are taught that long, tedious books written in stilted language are more valuable than those that do the opposite.

To be sure, I don’t think the people who genuinely love Austen have been academically brainwashed—I think they do authentically love her writing—but I also think the original reviewers and the younger Deresiewicz have a point too, but that point is mostly drowned in school-based settings.

At the time Deresiewicz had his Austen breakthrough, he was seeing a waitress, and they “had little in common and had never progressed beyond the sex. She was gorgeous, bisexual, impulsive, experienced, with a look that knew things and a laugh that didn’t give a damn.” Perhaps this is a function of me being in my 20s, but this arrangement doesn’t sound so bad, and, having dated the equivalent woman, I rather enjoyed those things at the time. Furthermore, I don’t think such relationships are wrong—though I would also say, obviously, that they’re not the only kind of relationships available, or the only kind a person should have over the course of their life. Sometimes people eat fast food; other times they dine in fine restaurants, or at the Cheesecake Factory, or cook for themselves, or cook with another person, or cook simple foods, or complex ones, or have potlucks. I leave it to you to map that metaphor onto sexuality and relationships, but the point about variety in relationships is useful. For Deresiewicz, “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” But people who are always morally serious can also be dull, just as people who are never morally serious are often unintentionally cruel.

The trick is being able to distinguish the two, and to find a middle way, and to develop some self-awareness, which is hard for many if not most of us. Certainly it was hard for Deresiewicz’s younger self:

If you’re oblivious to other people, chances are pretty good that you’re going to hurt them. I knew now that if I was ever going to have any real friends—or I should say, any real friends with my friends—I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to learn to stop being a defensive, reactive, self-enclosed jerk.

On the other hand, being oblivious to other people sometimes means being very tuned into technical or other problems that need solving—for the best example of this I’ve seen in literature, consider Lawrence Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon, who is shockingly oblivious and essential to the Allied war effort and who extends cryptography. It should also be noted that he’s not intentionally mean to others, and in the novel no one is emotionally hurt by him in an obvious fashion, but the depiction of his thought process as an engineer / mathematician seems pretty accurate. You get moments like this: “In particular, the final steps of the organist’s explanation were like a falcon’s dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity,” perhaps in exchange for attention to other people. To what extent are dispositions trade-offs? It’s a decent question, I think, but also one I can’t really answer.

Which is the kind of thing that I’m encouraged to do; in one moment, Deresiewicz praises the kind of professor we all hope to have: “When my professor asked a question, it wasn’t because he wanted us to get or guess ‘the’ answer; it was because he hadn’t figured out an answer yet himself, and genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.” This is what I try to do in the classroom, although I’m guessing this kind of strategy works better for humanities students than for, say, math students, when the answer or answers are well-known, at least up to a fairly high level.

There are also intellectual surprises in A Jane Austen Education, and those surprises made me realize things I didn’t before:

Popular music is one giant shout of desire, one great rallying cry for freedom and pleasure. Pop psychology sends us the same signals, and so does advertising. ‘Trust your feelings,’ we are told. ‘Listen to your heart.’ ‘If it feels good, do it.’

And if everything is pointing you in one direction, it might be time to ask what lies in the other. Literature seems to ask this question. Pop music, as Deresiewicz points out, doesn’t. In Deresiewicz’s rendition, Austen herself was reacting against her time, which is to be commended:

Austen lived in the great age of trash fiction: the gothic novel, the sentimental novel, the bodice ripper—crumbling castles, creaking doors, and secret passageways; heavenly maidens and dark seducers, piercing shrieks and floods of tears, wild rides and breathless escapes; shipwrecks, deathbeds, abductions, avowals; poverty, misery, rape, and incest.

In other words, she lived in “the great age” of all the good stuff, though I would argue that the good stuff is still with us if we know where to look—I’m pretty sure Game of Thrones has every element in the Deresiewicz list.

Some weird stylistic quirks recur in the book, like the habit of “Austen was showing me” or “Austen was saying”-style constructions (“I could grow up and finding happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important” or “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means” or “Austen understood that kids are going to make mistakes, and she also understood that making mistakes is not the end of the world”). But the overall effectiveness is tremendous, and not only because I might be a major component of Deresiewicz’s target audience: self-absorbed people who secretly think they have the answers other people lack.

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