Sunday, March 21, 2010

Books Like Whoa: Jane Austen Already Died Once...

So after church today, I embarked on one of my favorite lazy weekend activities: leisurely prowling the shelves at my local Borders. For those of you who know me, it is common knowledge that I am a bookstore snob and will not deign to shop at B&N- Borders is definitely the way to go.
Anyways, I started in religion, shifted to history and then took the escalator up to fiction. I was looking for a couple of books that I'd read about: The Postmistress, Bloodroot, and Drood, for those curious about my reading predilections. The first 2 are still in hardback, so I was just going to visually inspect before I thought about buying it in paperback. As I looked around the shelves, my rancor began to mount. Amid wonderful treasures from the likes of Christie, Dickens, the Brontes, Chaucer, Updike, Ishiguro, and, yes, Austen, I found a startling number of "tributes," if they can be called that, to Austen characters, especially Elizabeth and Darcy.
Let's get this straight right off the bat: I am an unabashed lover of Austen- she has an ability to lovingly dissect the society and its stereotypes that well may be unmatched, as far as I'm concerned. I love how well drawn her characters are... but what I really love is her ability to depict flawed people who are still endearing and enjoyable. One of the things I least appreciate about modern and post-modern literature is the compulsion to paint these vile, unlikeable whiners and expect us to sympathize with them. I don't mind an occasional dose of it, but to regularly hit me over the hammer with humans without any discernible redeeming qualities is testing the limits of my patience. Austen can honestly show people who aren't perfect, but who have good sides as well. One-sided characters on either end of the perfect/flawed spectrum are boring and facile. I digress.
All this to say, Austen belongs to a special pantheon of literary demi-gods who need not be messed with, who need not be altered. Yet dozens of fangirls have taken it upon themselves to augment and tack onto perfectly sound endings by imagining the "life afters" of all the great Austen characters. Again, let me be clear. There's nothing wrong with wondering about what happened after the "happily ever after." There's nothing wrong with writing some of those imaginings down, maybe even posting it to a website of like minded fans who want to share their fantasies to a willing audience.
What I do have a problem with, however, is people publishing these semi-erotic adolescent fantasies alongside serious authors who have come up with their own characters, who have committed the time to develop their own craft, and who are not riding the coattails of literary genius to make a quick buck. Seriously, it's hard enough for hard-working authors to get published without having to compete with people writing fan fiction that has no place on the bookshelves in the first place.
You may say, "Frankie. Come now. Aren't you being judgmental? For all you know, these are amazing works of piercing and insightful fiction." O contrare, mes amis. I am sad to say that I wasted an hour of my life reading the first 100 pages of one of the more popular incarnations of these literary desecrations given to me by my well-intentioned mother (I'll spare the author the embarrassment of being mentioned). Leaving out commentary on the poor quality of the prose, the small portion I read was little more than bodice-ripping, panting pages involving Regency-era Darcy and Elizabeth pawing at each other premaritally and then revealing Darcy's dalliance with prostitutes and married women.
What. in. the. world.
The beauty and romance of Austen's work is the subtlety, the unspoken attraction, the intrigue. There is nothing less intriguing than paid-for sex against the wall in a tavern. It just makes me sad to see such wonderful characters commandeered for a sloppy, unsexy puppet show.
The bottom line is that it's my prerogative as an American consumer to not support this sub-genre of fiction. But it's a tragedy that valuable shelf space is taken by amateurs who are misappropriating characters in a way that's making Jane roll over in her grave. I mean, honestly. She already had to die once.

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