I recently wrote about Devoney Looser’s new book, The Making of Jane Austen. Among other things, I opined that she would likely be fun at parties. The author thought that was pretty funny (and accurate!), and many of her friends did, too, so I asked her if she would mind answering some questions. She’s pretty busy traveling these days, having rather lot of fun (as one does) while getting to talk Austen with college students and faculty, and with Jane Austen Society of North America audiences. We did manage to connect via e-mail, and here’s what she had to say.
Name: Devoney Looser (above)
Hometown: White Bear Lake, Minnesota
Current town: Phoenix, Arizona
Occupation: English professor
I’ve enjoyed reading your book because it really did bridge the world of academia and the world of fandom, and I always appreciate it greatly when academics are accessible to the general reading public. What has been the critical (and popular) response so far? Have people been pleased by it? Have you been pleased with its reception?
I’ve been so fortunate in getting this book in the hands of critics and readers alike. The book has been reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the Times Literary Supplement, among other places, so that’s pretty amazing in itself. It’s been fun, too, to get opportunities to talk about the book on the radio, on CNN, and with audiences of all kinds. I love when readers interact on Goodreads or offer a comment on Amazon.com. Of course, not every reader loves a book. My sons were doubled over with laughter when I got a one-star review from a woman who rated cat food more highly than my book. You can’t please everyone, I guess! I set out to try to combine original research and new stories about Austen’s becoming an icon in a style that non-experts might enjoy. And how can you write about Austen without trying to go for some humor, right?
Yours was, I think, a very original take…was there some resistance in the publishing world to this type of analysis?
Any time a scholar takes a more conversational, accessible approach to presenting original material, there may some who worry that intellectual heft is sacrificed. If there is any resistance to my book, then, it may come from that sort of place. I disagree with scholars who think that speaking exclusively to the fewest, smartest people is evidence of someone’s thinking the deepest, best thoughts. You can say really hackneyed, cliched, and even dumb things in abstruse language. It happens all the time! I believe that in Austen studies, because it attracts devoted non-specialists, it’s especially crucial that scholars cast our nets widely as we share new findings and insights.
So many people claim Jane Austen and interpret Jane Austen, and as you point out in your book, this isn’t anything new. I discovered the novels on my own as a teenager, thanks to one of my aunts who gave my sister a collection of all the books in one volume (I stole it from her), and just uncritically enjoyed the stories and the fine writing. When I was an English major in college, I studied Jane Austen as an satirist, reading Pride and Prejudice alongside the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (the Penguin abridged version). I still love the stories and the intelligent writing and I appreciate the wit and all of the subtle irony. (And I find myself a little annoyed when people “Bronte-fy” Austen…I appreciate the Bronte sisters, too, but they had a very different sensibility.) So, what (or who) is your Jane Austen? What camp do you fall into? What adaptions or interpretations speak to you?
My Austen is definitely the satirical, feminist social critic Austen. I know that not everyone reads her that way. In order to read her that way, you have to say that the most important thing is *not* their ending in fairy tale marriages. You have to say that there is a lot more going on than that. A happy-marriage ending is what a comedy does. It’s not the be-all, end-all of her fiction, which also explores dissatisfying marriages, economic struggles, family conflict, dependence and independence, and how to live a meaningful life in a world that is often deeply unfair. But the novels do it with laughs, everything from light humor to dark satire, and without hitting you over the head with a one-size-fits all moral lesson. That’s my Austen.
I think some adaptations showcase that Austen better than others. My favorite adaptations are Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995), the BBC Pride and Prejudice (1995), and Clueless (1996). You might notice that all of those came out when I was a lot younger. I don’t think it’s an accident that adaptations of Austen that we see at a particular age or stage in our lives imprint themselves on us differently. Like you, I can’t embrace the Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice (2005), because it’s just too Bronte-ized. I’m worried about this new one that’s being done by the Poldark team for the same reason. I hope they don’t out-Wright Wright.
I will admit that I found the first half of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies pretty funny. I don’t watch zombie movies, and it wasn’t until P&P&Z that I even learned what a “zom-com” is. I liked it for its comic juxtaposition of the marriage market and the zombie apocalypse. Making Elizabeth Bennet cry in P&P&Z was really wrongheaded, though, to my mind. If readers take a look at my book, they will see there is a history of having her shed tears in stage adaptations, going back to 1935!
I don’t think of Elizabeth as much of a crier, either. When you mentioned that the fairy tale happy ending isn’t the most important thing in Austen novels, at least how you interpret them, it reminded me a bit of my graduate student days, and reading plays, and one of my professors pointing out that plays are more than their endings. But sometimes a conventional ending to a play (or a novel) seems to subvert the message we thought we were getting. Is there anything in the Austen novels (not necessarily the endings) that you really find problematic?
I think what I find most problematic in Austen’s fiction are her assumptions about class and labor and the relative invisibility of the working class in her fiction. I don’t think she was *worse* than others in terms of her class privilege. She was probably even somewhat more humane than was customary for her own class. But once you start looking for it, it’s easy to see the ways in which the servants are faceless, or without much depth, in her novels. This is where something like Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn (which reimagines Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective) is really illuminating. I think it’s great when Austen adaptations, sequels, and continuations nudge us to return to the original novel and look with fresh eyes.
I really liked Longbourn, and thought it was very original. Do you have a favorite of the novels?
Pride and Prejudice. Hands down.
What’s your favorite book that’s not by, or inspired by, Jane Austen?
Wait, there are other books? Just kidding! Do you know that famous line from Gilbert Ryle? He was once asked if he read novels, and he replied, “Yes. All six, every year.”
I read a lot of novels by Austen’s contemporaries, and among those, I enjoy the authors that Austen also valued—including Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth—as well as some she didn’t mention but that I think influenced her, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays.
Closer to our own day, I’m grateful for fiction by Margaret Atwood and David Lodge, essays by Audre Lorde and Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write is a book that inspired me at a young age), and poetry by Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, and Cornelius Eady. You want to know what’s amazing? Cornelius Eady, who was my colleague when I taught at the University of Missouri, wrote me a theme song-poem once! It’s called “Stone Cold Jane.”
That is very cool! We should all have a theme song-poem! Do you have another book in the works? (Or an idea for one?)
I have an edition of Sense and Sensibility (for which I introduced and provided essays on Gossip, Illness, Inheritance, Letters, Pop Culture, Seduction, and Sisters) coming out from Penguin Random House in October 2018.
I’m working on a book about the once-famous and now-forgotten sister novelists, Jane and Anna Maria Porter. They lived fascinating and heartbreaking lives, yet so little has been told about them. Masses of unpublished material survives to work with for this book, too, so that’s really thrilling. We have only 161 of Jane Austen’s private letters, but thousands of the Porter sisters’ letters are sitting in rare book libraries and archives around the world. I’m eager to tell the Porters’ stories, as writers who published alongside Austen, among the first generations of author-“career women,” but did so as celebrities.
And I know I have a book in me yet about roller derby! (I used to play roller derby under the name Stone Cold Jane Austen, and I still skate whenever I can.)
Are there any books or authors that you are supposed to admire, but that you just don’t?
I got called out in graduate school for disliking Ernest Hemingway. I admire his prose style, and I understand why it’s remarkable, but I can’t love his fiction. Maybe it’s because I studied Hemingway with a sexist professor. One day in class he caught me sneering at something he said about Hemingway’s men, and he blurted out, “What does Hemingway think of women? Devoney!” I answered, “He doesn’t like them very much.” My professor responded, “Yes. Exactly.” And that was the entirety of our class conversation on women in Hemingway. Somehow that exchange seems perfectly in keeping with my reading experience.
If you haven’t read it, maybe you would like The Paris Wife, which is basically A Moveable Feast from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. How do you feel about historical fiction that takes place in Austen’s time period? Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, the Master and Commander series, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell…do you have any thoughts on any of these (or other) novels that look back to the early 19th century?
I don’t read widely enough in Regency romances and other contemporary genre fiction set in the nineteenth century to have a strong opinion. I certainly respect the readers I know who love this stuff. I think it can be done well. Like anything, it can also be done very poorly!
If you could assign the world (or maybe just the United States) one book to read, what would it be?
Of course, I have to say an Austen novel, right? Pride and Prejudice would be fun, and would, I think, spark really interesting conversations about gender, economics, class, nation, and family conflict. You might have seen that an op-ed in the Washington Post used it to reflect on #metoo. There is a lot in that novel that can be debated, that can help us clarify our sense of self and community, past, present, and future. Of course, that’s true of many works of literature! I’d just love to see people keep reading great books. That’s my low bar.
What is the best advice that you’ve been given?
I’m tempted to respond with a line from Spinal Tap: “Have a good time all the time.”
More seriously: the women in my family advised me, from childhood, not to rely economically on a man, because men sometimes turn out not to be reliable, whether they mean to be or not. It was cynical advice, perhaps, but it’s been very good advice and made many things possible in my life and even in my marriage, believe it or not.
The importance of economic security for women is certainly something you can see in literature by women…everything from Austen to Edith Wharton to Virginia Woolf. The classic marriage plot really gives us, still, a lot to think about. On another note, if you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
I’m sure there is a more clever answer to this question. I would learn how to roll my Rs.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I’m left handed.
What is your strangest phobia or superstition?
I cannot stand to let my car get below a quarter of a tank of gas.
Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
I’m excited about the edition of Sense and Sensibility I’ve just edited for Penguin Random House, coming out in October. In the meantime, I’m continuing to travel as part of my Making of Jane Austen book tour. My next stop, believe it or not, is the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota! Other cities and dates are listed on my website. I always love to connect with readers and lovers of literature in person, but barring that, I’d welcome a chance to connect through Twitter (@devoneylooser; @Making_Jane), and Instagram (@devoneylooser; @makingjaneausten). Thank you!
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Picture of Devoney Looser Courtesy of Alex Chapin ©2017 Arizona Board of Regents
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