A letter to Matt concerning Austen, again
Shots fired! This is exactly the kind of debate I hoped this blog could inspire. As I was running on the beach today, my every joint in complaint, my white hot fury at your literary views was the fuel.
Fortuitously, I have at my disposal a metaphor expressly created to capture the contrast I’m looking to capture: Tolstoy is a fox; he knows many things. Austen is a hedgehog, she knows one big thing. Her thing is courtship, not marriage, which is an important distinction. There are marriages in Austen’s books, and they are often unhappy, but they exist on the outside; we never follow her heroines into the wedded state. (The great English novelist of marriage is George Eliot, of course, whom one’s female relatives can read without qualm.)
True, Tolstoy has some insights about marriage in Anna Karenina and elsewhere, because he has insights about everything. But his settled views on the topic are greatly to his discredit. It is one of the areas of human life where his puritanism got the better of him. Tolstoy is clearly the more capacious writer and probably the greater writer. But he is untidy: he never produced any book as perfect as Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose every gesture is in perfect order. All I”m trying to say is, these two are different beasts, each of whom possessing virtues that are to some extent incompatible with the virtues possessed by the other. To dismiss either would be a mistake.
I’m not the biggest fan of the Austen industry either. But if we’re looking to lay blame for the existence of poor-quality works structured around the pursuit of romantic love, we might was well lay it at the foot of Shakespeare, who got this whole enterprise going in the first place. He is the patient zero, not Austen, which is why so many of his plays are now teen movies. The popularity of Austen’s work today may partly owe to an overemphasis on marriage as the chief component of a woman’s happiness in our society. But she (and Bill Shakespeare) also deserves much of the credit for popularizing the whole modern idea of romantic marriage at all: the idea that marriage is more than a strictly pecuniary affair, and that the goal of courtship is to find a person with whom it would be tolerable (spiritually and intellectually) to spend one’s life with. If Sex and the City is the price we pay for this societal innovation, than I’m willing to make that trade.
As for the issue of edification and art, I think we are basically on the same page. To have gone through your life listening to Blurred Lines without ever hearing Illmatic would be an impoverishment. But man does not live by Tolstoy alone, and the world as been generous enough to afford us many sources of pleasure in this life. And fortunately, there are works that are both a sheer delight to read and also wise. Austen provides several of them.