Archive for the 'writing' Category

Jane Austen and (eek!) modern moral instruction

December 4, 2009

The WSJ has a wonderful article by James Collins on Jane Austen, which contends that “to write brilliant novels was not Jane Austen’s foremost goal: What was most important to her was to provide moral instruction.”

E-gad! Moral instruction? I thought she was all about romance! How perfectly embarrassing to the modern reader who, according to Collins, “sort of blips over the moralizing sections and tells himself that they don’t really count. It is possible to ignore this aspect of her work, just as it is possible to discuss a religious painting with hardly any reference to the artist’s religious intent. But this seems absurd: Ignoring a writer’s central concern is a strange way to attempt to appreciate and understand her.”

Certainly, the morality of some of her characters is their most maddening — and endearing — aspect. I want to throttle Anne Eliot in “Persuasion” as she loyally listens to that dreadful Lady Russell’s disparagements of the lowly Captain Wentworth while the couple burns with love and longing. I find that Elinor’s tightly held “Sense” in denying herself the company of the already-promised Edward compared to Marianne’s reckless “Sensibility” over the faithless Willoughby makes Elinor look all buttoned up and frustrated — the classical spinster, like her creator.

But, as Collins says, Anne and Elinor can best be understood in the context of their — and their author’s — time, which enforced heavy constraints on women. Men like Wickham and Willoughby could be complete cads and still have a place in society, but their female victims couldn’t. Can’t argue with that.

As for life in the 21st century, I admit that, after a day on the Internet checking in on major media outlets (which is actually part of my job), I crawl home into my book nook and find in Austen and her world a happy retreat. Social-climbing couples crash White House galas, serial adultery has become the rule among the glitterati, snark is the hot new form of discourse, continuing corruption on an almost laughable scale plagues business and government, and tales of encroaching poverty and personal collapse rival anything Dickens ever wrote. ‘Twas ever thus, I know, but elements of modern society seem hell-bent on finding new acts of escalating outrageousness, mostly for purposes of self-promotion. (Don’t get me started on Adam Lambert…)

Collins, in the WSJ article, seems to agree:

Perhaps Austen’s strictness is very old-fashioned, but anyone can find merit in the concepts of honor, duty, and obedience. Those strings have gone so slack that there’s nothing wrong in their being tightened by a sympathetic reading of this aspect of Austen; they will loosen again soon enough.

I would argue that it is this very morality that has kept readers across the centuries so deeply attached to Austen’s works — along with her sharply drawn characters, who are so often defined by their morality, or lack of it.

My surest proof of that would be the Bennet sisters, whose personal responses to the moral challenges of their time form an almost-perfect scale, from the meek, long-suffering Jane on down to the reckless libertine Lydia, with the savvy Elizabeth in the middle. We resonate to all those tones. The extremes are equally irritating, and we look for some sort of resolution. In short, we want to be Elizabeth — at least I do, unless I could be Darcy, with his 50,000 a year that gives him the leisure and the means to set everything right.

So which is it? Moral instruction, or great characters and romance? Can you separate them? Does it even matter? I just know I’m going to keep on reading — and savoring — Jane Austen.

My (not so) Great American Novel

December 2, 2009

If anyone out there is still listening, I apologize for my eight-month absence, but I’ve finally given birth (prematurely, I might add) to my first novel thanks to nanowrimo, a dandy little exercise in pain, humiliation, self-motivation and the limitations of caffeine.
Bottom line, it meant tapping out about 1,700+ words a day during the entire month of November, which is complicated by the fact that it is my second-busiest month of the year at work and full of other friendly distractions, like Thanksgiving. I spent almost the entire month about 2,000 words behind (you can track your progress on the site), but, thanks to some marathon sessions over the long weekend, I managed to finish a day early and several words over the 50,000-word goal (instead of a day late and a dollar short, as is my wont).
I admit I hesitated at signing up, at committing to having a short novel (and 50k is short) by the end of the month. I have rooms full of unfinished projects, piles of yarn and fabric and paper and books, with two abandoned master’s degrees lodged in there somewhere. The Spouse just rolls his eyes when I announce a new goal. But I really wanted to do this. I wanted this off my Life List. And I somehow managed to pull it off.
It is, of course, my roman à clef, my thinly veiled autobiography (well, maybe 30 percent of it anyway), which Maud Newton (who is attempting a similar feat in her own first novel) in a well-timed blogpost suggests that we all have to get out of our systems before we can do any REAL writing. As a measure of what constitutes real writing, Maud leaves it to her hero, Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”
Wanna read it? Well, you can’t. This baby is UGLY. It isn’t even close to being done. There’s even a bunch of stuff that I’ve got to get rid of, little stories and anecdotes that pleased me at the time but don’t do anything to move the plot forward. In fact, the more autobiographical parts are the least interesting. I was at my best during November when I sat down and just let the characters loose, when I was able to get out of my own way, as Jane puts it. For a few glorious moments, it actually got to be a little Zen.
I hope to have a full draft by the end of December, and then I’ll start the real rewrite, including a bunch of research, fact-checking and some field trips.
I’ll definitely do it again. Next November, I’ll issue a call for y’all to join me.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to…

December 1, 2009