A letter to Wes, on Tolstoy vs. Austen again

by gradus22

White hot fury! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to say those words to me. It’s just like I dreamt it would be!This must be how Anne Hathaway felt when she won her Oscar .. .no, this is must be how Anne Hathaway felt on the set of Becoming Jane! Our dorky little duel (weapon of choice: classic literature) has been a great deal of fun, but I’m glad to see that you’re mature enough to concede that Tolstoy was probably the greater writer. Reader, I buried him!

Let’s get this clear, before the Austenophiles come after me: both Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy are in that first tier of the greatest authors. Nothing I could possibly say could change that. They are still published, widely read and praised centuries after their time. If there’s a global catastrophe, Tolstoy’s works will be preserved. If humanity is ever forced to flee Earth on a giant spaceship, Jane Austen’s works will  … probably be brought on board, most likely somewhere near the back, with the women writers and the other romance novelists. (Kidding! Jane Austen fans might be the easiest demographic to offend on the internet. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel).

But seriously, any effort to definitively choose between the two is an exercise in splitting hairs; any decision on the matter probably indicates personal preference more than anything else. I’ve tried Jane Austen and she does nothing for me. (I strongly suspect that I’m not the first male reader who has come away with this impression.) I’ll never feel comfortable completely dismissing her, but I’m certainly not going to read her for the sole purpose of doing so. That’s no way to express one’s appreciation for literature.

At our core, I think human beings are story-telling telling creatures. That, more than anything else, is what puts us over the other animals: our ability to store and communicate information and how it has evolved into complex artistic expression over time. A good story will always matter more to most readers than identity, demographic data, technical expertise or stylistic experimentation; you can see proof of this in Tolstoy and Austen as well as the best-seller lists. And story-telling is the function of an author’s choices, conscious or unconscious, starting with the big one (What should I write about?) and going all the way down to questions of usage and punctuation. Sometimes it’s reassuring when writers make the same choices – after all, you can’t have a meaningful system of language without some consistency. Sometimes it’s frustrating. It’s one reason I can’t stand the idea of genre fiction – that out of the millions of story-telling permutations conceivable at the intersections of imagination, experience and intelligence, anyone can settle on the default. I don’t hate detective novels, I hate the idea of detective novels.

When we evaluate the best story-tellers that human history has to offer, we start holding them accountable for the decisions that they didn’t or couldn’t make: Nabokov’s novels all have a strange aristocratic bias to them, Saul Bellow gets points off for failing to include a single African-American in his portrayal of 1930s Chicago (the same setting that gave us Native Son). We compare these brilliant and ambitious people to some mythical and non-existent species of super writer. It’s beyond unfair. It might be the most exacting standard imaginable.

So, given the choice of flaws, I’ll take the messy large books every time. The ones that can’t even hope to answer all the questions that they raise. For one thing, they’re rarer and rarer these days. I think you’re being a little unfair to good ol’ Bill. He may have leaned on the concept of romantic love a little much (hey, anything to sell those tickets!), but only if you overlook the better half of his work. In Hamlet, Shakespeare and his protagonist treat the entire romantic endeavor brutally, in a manner that plays perfectly with the theme and larger plot of the play. Jane Austen may have been a more perfect writer than Tolstoy, but maybe that perfection is part of the problem; it also fosters a cloistered, self-enclosed atmosphere. I cannot accept that decision on every page to reduce a woman’s priorities – or all of human experience, for that matter – to courtship. My brain rejects that proposition at a fundamental level. I have the same problem with most novels of manners or coming-of-age stories. (If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son.)

Maybe Austen isn’t a hedgehog after all, but some manner of perfectly-formed prehistoric mammal that survived the ice age and continues to thrive today, like those pygmy horses that used to live in the rainforest, a tarsier or early rodent. Tolstoy, on the other hand, is pure megafauna, whose influence can only seen today in similar mammals: a shaggy mastodon, gigantic three-toed sloth or glyptodon, foraging for vegetable matter from the highest branches, evading predators, fearful of early human hunters with their primitive stone tools, not knowing that an ominous cloud of dust and ash that will drive him to extinction, forever changing the planet, just an insignificant speck in a universe contained in one of the beads of the cat’s necklace in the closing credits for Men in Black II.

I think I just nailed it. Here come the men in black, Wes. Will Smith still has so much to teach us.

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