A letter to Wes about Tolstoy

by gradus22

You took Austen against Tolstoy? So you’re that guy who bring the knife to the gunfight! Leo Tolstoy is a super-heavyweight, Wes. Just for context, let’s remember that one of his lesser known works, The Kingdom of God is Within You, sparked a correspondence with an Indian lawyer named Mohandas K. Gandhi, and inspired versuseverythingland tag leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Those are some quality guys to have in your corner, Wes. Abraham Lincoln would have a hard time going up against that crew.

I have to confess that I have never been able to make it through any of Jane Austen’s books, even the one with the zombies, and even though former Marquette University star (and multiple-time academic probationer) Dwyane Wade said it was his favorite novel as part of an NBA Cares campaign. There is something about her that has always reminded me of Sex and the City; I hear the theme whenever someone starts in on the “It is a truth universally acknowledged” bit. Jane Austen also has the misfortune of being the ancestor of a lot of other stuff that continues to define gender expectations to this day: Disney princesses, magazine ads, Ken and Barbie, NYT articles that are shocked to discover that college-age women might take charge of their sex lives (Good heavens!). The avalanche of Jane Austen sequels, Mr. Darcy-as-a-vampire novels, and Jane Austen movies that are not adaptations of her books have done nothing to discourage this impression. This is the starting point, the patient zero, of the assumption that marriage is a woman’s chief goal and responsibility. It’s certainly not fair to blame all of this on Jane Austen, and I understand her work is probably the best stuff in its genre, but it has to be mentioned. I imagine my female relatives reading Jane Austen, narrowing their eyes, and then returning resolutely to their math homework. My suspicion is that Anna Karenina has more to say on marriage than Jane Austen’s work does in its entirety. (To be clear, there’s nothing pejorative about being calling Jane Austen is “less than” a book that gets consistently mentioned in the “greatest of all time” conversation.) My opinion on Jane Austen is more or less irrelevant. It’s just not for me.

But I see your point: Austen-vs.-Tolstoy isn’t a choice we have to make. I’m hard-pressed to find examples of art, literature or music that have had an overall, cumulatively negative effect on society. I can’t stand pop music, including, but not limited to: “Freshman” by the Verve Pipe (Inexplicably still on the radio! How does that happen?), anything by Katy Perry, Adam Levine’s botoxed vocals, Macklemore and “Blurred Lines” (I guess song intros are the new songs), but I would never argue that these things shouldn’t exist. Even right now, someone is enjoying the hell out of “California Girls” or “Hot ‘n Cold,” which is enough to validate their existence. Who am I to make that person feel bad?

But when it comes to literature, a person can only read a small fraction of the entire corpus in a lifetime, so sacrifices have to be made. You’ll never convince me that The Da Vinci Code is better than Foucault’s Pendulum; if the two could meet as members of the animal kingdom, Eco’s book would devour and regurgitate Brown’s book many times over. Hell, it may have done that already. I’m not offended by Dan Brown; people are always looking for something to read on the beach or after a long day of work and we all can’t emulate Augie March’s grandmother and re-read Tolstoy every year. But I am offended when people claim that the two are equivalent; It’s one thing to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger and another to try to convince the people around you (or yourself) that it’s steak. That’s just insecurity. If you’re going to have a guilty pleasure – as everyone does – you might as well own up to it and really enjoy that cheeseburger in all its artery-clogging glory.

I don’t mind Game of Thrones, but I read a dozens of fantasy novels just like it when I was still a teenager. It’s perfectly diverting and it doesn’t aspire to be anything more, but there’s not a lot of substance there. At least Martin kills off his characters when they get boring, I’ll give him that. I will never understand readers who devour multiple thousand-page fantasy novels and never try Tolstoy at least once. War and Peace always struck me as an advanced version of Lord of the Rings. They’re really very similar: both are set in far away foreign lands, populated by people with unpronounceable names who are fighting a prolonged war for their ideals. It was like reading Tolkien without the elves, with one essential difference: when I finished reading it, I was a different, better person. How could I return to fantasy novels after that? I could only hope then – and I still do now – that everyone could have the same experience. Too often literature is divvied up like breakfast cereal – it’s either good for you or it’s enjoyable, no in between. The best stuff out there does both, you just have to find it.