It’s been months since I think about V.S. Naipaul sexist remark about female inferiority both in daily and literature world. But several days ago I read an article about two new books that out this summer seek to rescue Austen by telling us how we ought to read her. And I couldn’t help but remember that silly and awful event. At that time, Naipaul scorned Jane Austen for “her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world,” declaring that no woman, not even Austen, was his literary equal. Than his next infamous remark:
“A woman,” he said, “is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing.” Women at best produce “feminine tosh.”
The first thing that came to my mind is how arrogant & silly that remark is (I’m not a super fan of Austen myself, though I still like her novel; but hei, I’m a woman! Hahaha). It’s like he was saying Chinese write like Chinese, Latin write like Latin, and Western people are better because they are writing like Western people (means other style is a tosh). For me, everything is about taste. If you prefer Asian food to Western, then eat the Asian without insulting the Western one. I would rather observe the Western food and than take some good points there (because despite the dislike, there must still be good points there) to be put in Asian food so it can be better than good. Not to mention that I can bet my money Naipaul can’t write in woman style, especially since he must be to proud to even try it.
As always, I’m proud to be a woman and often wondering why woman could only be called great when she throw aside her feminine side and mimic the masculinity of male. Because in that case, of course man are better. Man in masculinity vs Woman in masculinity seems quite silly for me. Not that I said woman can’t be masculine, everyone has their own taste & style after all. But I think no one should feel shame about become feminine. Not even a man that has feminine taste. They should proud of it, and have no shame on doing (achieving) something great in (by) feminine style (way) anymore.
Ok, come back to the article. It was written by Audrey Bilger who is the Faculty Director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse and Associate Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College. And I have to say it is a good one. She open the article with fact and opinion about Jane Austen. Here she wrote that like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers. True enough, further she gave us one example:
Contrast Austen’s fame and fandom with that of Shakespeare. As Deidre Lynch, editor of Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, points out: “Shakespeare fans, we should note, can act like fans, parade through Stratford-upon-Avon every April 23 sporting sprigs of rosemary, and not put at risk the plays’ claims to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, feels compelled to take this cult audience to task for their excesses and their failure to blush over them.” Bardolatry does Shakespeare no harm, but Austen’s cult following has, in the eyes of many, branded her as a chick-lit exemplar, a frivolous writer of “feminine tosh.”
Two new books that I mention before are A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz. Bilger said it is his self-explanatory and I haven’t read it myself. But I think it will be quite interesting since I want to know what Jane Austen’s book look like from man’s point of view. The second is Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein who asks and attempts to answer her titular question, “Why Jane Austen?”. I haven’t read this one either but I have a feeling I would like the Deresiewicz’s better since the article said even though Brownstein shares Deresiewicz’s humanistic approach, but unlike him, she would rather we stopped talking about gender altogether. Not a bad thing of course. This is what most people see as equal after all. But it will missed my point in the beginning, of how someone can make and do something great by being a woman. Because for me even though pretending there is nothing called ‘woman’ and ‘man’ could help equality, this doesn’t mean there is nothing called ‘woman’ or ‘man’. I think, same as nationality, equality means not doing prejudice because of gender or ethnic, but still proud of the uniqueness that it carries. Maybe in other time and topic, I could prefer Browstein’s. She was, after all, also wrote great book with great thinking, like when she worries that Jane Austen has become such a name brand that no one actually bothers to read her any more: “Familiarity breeds contempt; simplifications trump complexity; writing has driven out reading; Jane-o-mania has gone on too long.”
One other great thing that I get here that when she expresses surprise when a surgeon tells her that literary study is superior to medical research because “art saves lives”. A real remarkable thinking (of surgeon…) I even consider this as my topic for my second year’s SIDANG (session) at college. Maybe I could adjust it a bit with my main topic latter. Haha.
I think you should read the article about how Deresiewicz changed from someone who might have agree with Naipaul’s point about Austen’s inferiority to then calls her as “the woman who would change my life” at the interview for a position as an English professor when the hiring committee (a woman) asked him, ‘So what’s with you and Jane Austen?’. He also said:
“Like so many guys,” he confides at the outset, “I thought that a good conversation meant holding forth about all the supposedly important things I knew: books, history, politics, whatever … [I]t had never occurred to me to imagine how things might look from someone else’s point of view.” Once he discovers that “[r]eal men weren’t afraid to admit that they still had things to learn — not even from a woman,” he’s well on the way to a happy ending.
He said that he finds Jane Austen with the help of a humanistic professor, one who required “[n]o lists of secondary sources or packets of supplemental reading, no theoretical framework or critical jargon.” “Literary study,” this professor taught him, “was not about learning a secret language or mastering a bag of theoretical tricks. It was not about inventing a new, professional personality, either. It was about getting back in touch with the ways we used to read — the ways people read when they’re reading for fun — but also about intensifying them, making them more thoughtful and deeply informed.”
After his eyes are opened to Austen’s merits, he looks back on the writers whose heroes he had wanted to emulate and finds them wanting by comparison: “[S]he didn’t need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good.” Austen, he sees, took her stand in the midst of the everyday; she “understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.” We’re firmly on “little bit of ivory” turf here, rounded out with the gallant notion that women, because of their limited sphere, have special civilizing powers to tame masculine excesses and make them fit for society. Men should read Austen, according to Deresiewicz, in order to learn “what it means to see and think and talk like a woman,” “what it meant to act like a woman,” and “why it was worthwhile.”
Then he also presents his hard-won life lessons in terms that are fiercely humanistic and practically platitudinous:
Learning to read … means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you’re looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time. … Life, if you live it right, keeps surprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most, I now understood, is yourself. … Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun — an effort, not just another precious feeling. … Friends, Austen taught me, are the family you choose.
So, like Bilger wrote, his journey of discovery is punctuated by such neatly packaged insights, not, ultimately, about women’s worlds or men’s worlds but a common ground of humanity. And despite some impression that I before I give more weight about being a woman, this is very very true. And I could’t resist to put it here. Hehe
However, again, she wrote about something that Deresiewicz said that had to make us proud of being woman and if our status used wisely, it could bring many advantages.
Deresiewicz, who similarly calls Naipaul a “grumpy old man,” takes a different tack on the woman writer issue, providing a context for why gender matters when we talk about Austen:
What he says about Jane Austen and women writers in general is the biggest cliché, the least original thing you can possibly imagine. People have been saying this, ever since she wrote. Women write about trivial things, women write about narrow things. They’re sentimental.
The fact is that Jane Austen is not only a great writer, she’s a great writer because she was a woman, because instead of going out hunting and shooting and conquering India like the men of her time, she was sitting in a drawing room, watching how people interacted, listening to how they talk. She’s the greatest writer of dialogue in the language, after Shakespeare, because she listened to how people talked.
In Deresiewicz’s approach, feminism coexists with humanism. We can see gender difference as a cultural reality without writing off women (and feminine) as less than fully human.
Here is the link to the Willian Deresiewicz’s book at goodreads:
And here for Rachel Brownstein’s:
Oh, almost forgot. This one for the article: