Jane Austen Must Die!
Want to sell your book or your screenplay? Of course you do! And lucky you -- I'm going to tell you how, right now, free of charge: Put the words Jane Austen in the title.
In the past few years, in particular, we've been assaulted by the beloved 19th century British authoress' name with startling regularity at the multiplex and the bookstore: The Jane Austen Book Club, a good, if chicklitty, novel, followed by a film version; Becoming Jane, a pretty much made-up, highly idealized look at the romantic life of the writer that was a book and then a movie; the novel Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict; pretty much annual movie adaptations and readaptations of her works (including an admittedly stunning Pride & Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley two years back). Oh, and don't think we're done yet: There are Clueless and Bridget Jones' Diary, two modern masterpieces modeled on Austen works, all the way down to lazy how-to books that slap her name onto the cover to legitimize their existence -- The Jane Austen Handbook, Jane Austen's Guide to Dating, Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners.
We're overwhelmed by versions of heroines who are a touch feisty but always, in the end, well-behaved, and, god knows, assuaged by the locating of The Right Man. I'm as much a sucker for Elizabeth Bennett as Mr. Darcy is, but centuries later, is this the best we can do as a model of womanhood to continue regurgitating?
The closest we've come to making her more "modern," more human, is to add a few pounds and an amusing trifle of a drinking problem and call her Bridget Jones. Men have grown up reading about the exploits of fictionalized versions of Hemingway and Kerouac, drinkers and womanizers who didn't always learn valuable lessons or warm people's hearts but somehow still offered plenty of insights into what it means to be male. (Imagine a book called "Confessions of an Ernest Hemingway Addict" or Sal Paradise reinvented as a popular Beverly Hills high schooler. No one would dare.)
Those men's seminal works, in fact, addressed, at their cores, what it's like not just to be men, but to be human. And to be clear, that's not because men are naturally better at writing universal characters -- it's because male characters are simply more freely allowed to be messed up. Thus they're the ones who become the classics, the ones who show us what life really has to offer to the flawed among us (read: all of us). Try telling someone your favorite author of all time is Kerouac, then tell someone it's Austen. See the different reactions you'll get, even though, for all my carping here, Austen was supremely talented. It's not her fault she became apparently the only female author worth worshipping as a lifestyle. ("Virginia Woolf's Guide to Dating," anyone?)
God knows we've progressed in so many ways, but even though women are the clear majority of readers, we still, apparently, allegedly, don't like our female protagonists to have faults -- any of real consequence, anyway. Honest memoirs about real women's real sexual adventures (like Cindy Guidry's forthcoming The Last Single Woman in America ) are dinged as "tawdry" in some reviews. Meanwhile zaftig-narrator-confronts-minor-problems books have pretty much formed their own subgenre of chicklit because, of course, overweight = relatable flaw that women can handle. If you're wondering why Sex and the City continues its stranglehold on the entire female population of America -- we have -- it's simply because it's one of the few major pop-culture touchstones that come close to depicting stuff we've actually gone through, even though it still makes a lot of us squeamish to admit it. And if those still wildly unrealistic Manolo-wearing, movie star-dating, dirty-talking girls are the closest our culture can stand to get to our reality, we haven't come very far at all, baby.
Even more interesting is the fact that while the chicklit craze has retreated demurely into piles of cheap, powder pink paperbacks, women have -- thanks to Carrie Bradshaw, et al., perhaps -- started coming into their own on TV. Summer brought us some delightfully devious female anti-heroes (most memorably, Glenn Close in Damages), and a slew of "Sex and the City" knockoffs are arriving later this season (or at least they're slated to, though nothing's sure now with TV writers striking). Yes, it can get grating to watch wealthy people whine about their love lives over endless martinis. But there is at least the whiff of truth to some of the women's struggles -- one of the hotties in ABC's Cashmere Mafia even has a real, live relationship with a woman (not a one-off kiss for ratings or even a Samantha-style I've-tried-everything-else affair). ABC, in fact, seems to have decided straight men are a lost cause as an audience after its blockbuster success with TV's girliest (Grey's Anatomy), gayest (Ugly Betty), and girliest-and-gayest (Desperate Housewives) shows, and in marketing to us has actually stumbled upon some genuine, multidimensional chicks. "Housewives," despite various missteps along the way, became a phenomenon by taking some of the most traditionally female archetypes, mixing them with Douglas Sirk-like subversiveness and making them wonderfully human. Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes is so adept at writing flawed women that even though the show's message boards flame with (well-founded) hatred for the main female characters this season -- I've blogged some of the complaints myself -- yet clearly those bitching are still watching, rapt, every week.
And that's just the point: Women are watching this slew of complicated female characters on television, which makes sense to me. I remember reveling in my absolute hatred for Carrie one whole "Sex and the City" season when she toyed with Aidan. Why? Because I'd done something similar myself. I wasn't proud of it in the least, but I could watch and see reflected exactly where I'd gone wrong, why it was wrong and why it was also just my own dumb (ultimately forgivable) humanity getting in the way. I could analyze myself through her missteps in a way that was perhaps a little too painful to take head-on in my own life. I could, in a word, relate. Not because we shared a body type or a silly penchant for double-chocolate brownies or a dumb-girl trait like an inability to balance a checkbook. Because her genuinely painful journey paralleled -- and enhanced -- my own, and I came out the other end the better for it.
This, my friends, is exactly what books are supposed to do. They're better equipped to handle the nuances, the inner thoughts you'd never dare verbalize. It's literally why they exist and why the book is usually better than the movie. First-person narration doesn't have to signify only "breezy, mildly self-deprecating observations ahead," as it has in so many of those throwaway pink books. The problem with the debate that has raged over chicklit's value in society is that it clumps together far too many, far too disparate books, like saying all women are pretty much the same because we all have vaginas. Why is TV kicking literature's ass in depicting complex women? Because publishers really don't get it. It's tough to prove what doesn't get published, but I've heard it over and over in writing workshops, from agents, in getting my own work critiqued and hearing stories from other female authors: Make your main character more likeable. Why is she such a bitch here? Why so sarcastic? Wouldn't it help if she were less aware of her own attractiveness? Or maybe less attractive? Or maybe just, you know, nicer? Who, telling an uncomfortable truth that needs to be spoken, is nice? Or likeable? It's the quintessential problem of the good girl, the people-pleaser, the overachiever, writ large, with sinister marketing implications to back it up: Do we have to be nice even in the literature we write for each other? Shouldn't books be our one refuge?
The reason for this conundrum is simple: We, as female readers, are not demanding more. And we should be, as the struggling publishing industry's still-most-fertile demographic. Now is, in fact, the perfect time, as your favorite primetime dramas start dropping off the schedule if this screenwriters' strike wears on and fly-by-night reality shows start taking their places. (After all, we all know how reality shows treat women.) Pick up a book -- one that has absolutely nothing to do with Jane Austen.