KAREN JOY FOWLER

JANE AND ME

THE COMMON OPINION OF JANE AUSTEN—GENTEEL, ROMANTIC, INSTRUCTIVE—ROBS HER OF SUBVERSIVE WIT AND CAUSTIC CRITICISM. AND HOLLYWOOD IS IN ON THE SWINDLE.

DISCUSSED: Film Adaptations, An Anti-Anesthetic Dentist, Marvel and DC, Mark Twain, Buffy, Fairy Tales, Seventeen, So True!, Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier, An Easy Number, Men Who Like Austen, Women Who Like Men Who Like Austen, Virginia Woolf, Metal Man, Entailment, Gretna Green, Marxist Social Realism, Misreading, Shame, Marilyn Monroe, Rudyard Kipling, A Shin-Bone, Emily Dickinson, Copyright Issues, Ang Lee, Subversive Parts That Get Cut, Nabokov, Edward Said

I. “WHAT IS ALL THIS
ABOUT JANE AUSTEN?
WHAT IS THERE IN HER?
WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?”
—Joseph Conrad to H.G. Wells

I’ve been thinking about Austen again. We haven’t had a new Austen movie since Bush took office (coincidence?) so there’s less smoke blowing around the novels, a clearer view of the books as books. According to BookScan, 100,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice sold last year with no help from the movies at all.

In other news, a tea room in Bath, planning to market Jane Austen teas and coffees (in “distinctively nineteenth-century flavors”) found the name already trademarked for restaurant and catering services by a Mrs. Rachel Mary Morton of Dorchester, Dorset.

Plus, I’ve already seen my monthly quota of writers’ lists of recommended reading in which no woman author’s name appears (Carol Shields’s last book, Unless, has resensitized me to the issue) and we still have three weeks of the month to go.

But the real reason Austen has my attention again is that I’m in the process of publishing a work of fiction entitled The Jane Austen Book Club. Four months ago I passed out galleys of this book at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Convention. (So much more fun than selling them. I recommend it.) Several people there talked to me about Austen. Many women told me that they read her books over and over again. One woman said, “I read Mansfield Park four times before I liked it.” Another, “I didn’t really get her until I was forty years old.” And from almost every man who picked up a galley, “I’m getting this for my wife.”

Some months ago I showed an early draft of my book to a close friend. He is himself an enormous Austen fan and quotes her aptly when explaining soccer strategies, video games, California politics. The presence in my book, he told me, of one Austen-reading man was perfectly plausible. The appearance of a second was not.

Although my own circle contains multiple Austen-reading men, I suspect he’s right, and have rewritten accordingly.

So among the questions I’ve been asking myself are these:

If I were a man and I liked Austen, would it be for different reasons? (If I were a man, would I ever have read her at all?) And just why is it that I like Austen so much anyway?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Karen Joy Fowler’s new book, The Jane Austen Book Club, will be published by Putnam in April, 2004. She has five previous books, including two short story collections. Her third novel, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. She lives in Davis, California.

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