Friday, July 31, 2009

A proposition, and a plan.

Like many people, I feel I have a claim on Jane Austen. Though mine seems to me more binding than most: both she and I are authors of satiric novels. I'm not proposing myself as her equal, merely observing that we work the same mine. She habitually strikes gold and I some baser metal, but it's still the same job. I use her tools, I know her trade. We're colleagues.

And yet, whenever I'm asked for my chief inspirations, hers is the name I consistently avoid mentioning. I'm a man, after all, and more than that a man of the world; while Austen is widely considered a woman's writer, scratch that, a particular kind of woman's writer, quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic—the inventor and mother goddess of “chick lit.” The wildly popular movies and TV serials based on her books are filled with meaningful glances across well-appointed rooms, desperate dashes over rain-pelted pastures, and wedding bells ecstatically clanging over oceans of top hats and shimmering pelisses.

Well, all that's a load of crap. It's not Jane Austen, it's “Jane Austen”—a great writer reduced to a marketing brand, literature retooled as product, genius reconfigured as kitsch.

It's high time I came to my colleague's rescue.

Jane Austen was—is—a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century. She's wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous with the animal glee of a natural-born sadist. She takes sharp, swift swipes at the social structure and leaves it, not lethally wounded, but shorn of it prettifying garb, its flabby flesh exposed in all its naked grossness. And then she laughs.

Despite her admittedly limited palette, her psychological acuity easily matches Shakespeare's, and her wit as well; like him, she's also violently allergic to sentimentality of any stripe. If she were alive today, she'd be either a snarky old Doris Lessing type, in tweeds and sensible shoes, abusing journalists who dared to approach her, or a flamboyantly fang-toothed fag hag. Either way, you wouldn't want to cross her. Her tongue could kill at twenty paces.

How did someone whose vision is so darkly, even bleakly, comic—whose work brims with vicious, gabbling grotesques, most of whom are never adequately (or even minimally) punished for their sins (as Dickens, not so many years later, felt compelled to punish his)—become the patron saint of the turgid, chest-heaving, emotionally pornographic genre called “Regency Romance”?

I don't know, and I don't care. I only care to stop it—to fire the opening salvo that will, I hope, ignite the barrage of indignation that brings this travesty to a halt and restores, once and for all, the spit and vinegar to Jane Austen's public profile, raising her to the pantheon of gadflies that she might take her place beside Voltaire and Swift, Twain and Mencken. My goal is to make the world acknowledge, at long last, the bitch in the bonnet.

To that end, I'll be re-reading the entire Austen corpus, one novel at a time, in the order of their original publication, and sharing with you, here, my bellicose pronouncements along the way. Should be a kick.

But it won't be for the faint of heart. Those of you who fear taking offense...consider yourself forewarned. Offense will be generously on offer. So spare yourself, and go mewl in the corner with your goddamn Georgette Heyer.