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01:57 pm: The Reign of Tawdriness
For my birthday, I got to go to the bookstore and pick up not one but two new (actually reissued) books by Mary Balogh, who is currently the only romance writer I feel safe reading. While I was there I saw a book that looked really charming. It was a NY Times bestseller called THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB by sometimes-sf author Karen Joy Foster. The reviews made it sound like AND THE LADIES OF THE CLUB (one of my favorite books) written by Jane Austen. There was even one or two: “If Jane Austen wrote today, she’d be writing this” bits. Even better the first page or so was delightfully sparkly and witty.
 
It was also on the bargain table for less than a paperback.
 
So, I bought it and brought it home and dived into it with great anticipation. I was, therefore, much more disappointed
when it failed to live up to its original promise than I might otherwise have been. The witty dialogue disappeared after the prologue. There were a few interesting comments about Jane Austen, but each one was separated by so much description of the house and situation as to remove any sense of banter (I can’t think of the word banter without recalling the line from the delightful but short-lived TV show CUPID: “Hate to banter and run…”) or even discussion.
 
Spliced between the few comments about Austen were flashbacks looking into the lives of the seven characters present. What disappointed me about these scenes were how tawdry they were, as if the author wanted to shock us but could only manage to be banal and unpleasant.
 
Quite a few of the scenes involved some kind of sex. As if she wanted to carry forward the torch of liberation, helping to free the ‘up tight’ from their repression by pushing the envelop of what is considered acceptable. Only the days when you could be shocking by having characters have sex is long gone.
 
I remember coming upon FORVER by Judy Bloom in a bookstore in high school. It was the first time I had read a book in which two teens actually had sex. It was shocking and amazing, as was the Tamlyn book QUEEN OF SPELLS, in which the modern teenage girl, Janet, was pregnant. One knew about such things back then, but they weren’t in books.
 
Those days are now long gone. Quite the opposite, in fact, it’s hard to get away from sex in books. So, no one can shock you with anything that is remotely wholesome. The problem with pushing the envelop is that sooner or later the envelop grows to encompass most of what was originally outside of it, and all that is left beyond is now uninteresting, dull, or just gross.
 
You come to a point where what is left in Pandora’s Box of Taboos is there for a good reason, and if you want to continue to let it out, you have to dredge the bottom, coming up with more and more ridiculous or tasteless things. 
 
So, the events in the lives of the characters in THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB were not filled with joy or tenderness. They were just tawdry and unpleasant. After a little while, I stopped reading and skimmed. Then I put the book aside. Then, I took one more look and found what I ran into so ridiculous and annoying that I put it aside for good.
 
I will not repeat here any of the scenes I didn’t care for, because then I would be guilty of spreading the same kind of ideas I didn’t care to encounter in the first place.
 
Jane Austen had class. She would never have written something like this. What a shame to have her name associated with it.
 
It reminds me of that recent sequel to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE that I picked up because it was well recommended, only to put it down because I got bored reading umpteen repetitions of the huge proportions of Darcy’s…er, manliness. What does that have to do with the characters I so liked in the original?
 
Is it because Jane Austen is so descent that these people feel they have to attack her and associate her name with filth? Or are they so inured to good taste that they don’t even realize that they are slandering Austen by their portrayal?
 
People who try to defend these modern books – and I see this among people defending the more recent Anita Blake books, as well –  say things like ‘well if you can’t handle the sex’…they always word it as if people who are objecting to sex are doing it because they are “repressed” and if they were only whole and healthy, they would also like the scenes. The idea that a person could dislike it for some other reason – such as that they would prefer plot, mystery, action, characterization, etc. – does not seem to occur to them.
 
Would if the same approach work for other subjects, do you think? Could opponents of MOBY DICK be criticized for being “too repressed” to see the liberating quality of the long, detailed whaling scenes?
 
Despite all this, hope springs eternal. Just put a hold on a new book called AUSTENLAND, about a modern girl whose ruined for real people because she so admires Darcy, until she goes to England and tries to recreate Austen’s world. Sounds sparkly and delightful.

We’ll see…


Comments

[User Picture]
From:dessieoctavia
Date:July 1st, 2007 06:14 pm (UTC)
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I was similarly disappointed in that book. And the "sexy" P&P sequels. I also saw a different set of P&P sequels, about Lizzie and Darcy's daughters. I opened one at random and Darcy was being OMG oppressive! by objecting to his teenage daughters reading indecent books. I put the book down. Didn't it occur to the author that maybe Jane Austen's fans actually like the values portrayed in her books?

And this summer a movie about Austen's life is coming out, and I saw the preview and wanted to jab my eyes out.

I'll check out that book Austenland. You might check out Reading Lolita in Tehran, which has a section devoted to Jane Austen.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 2nd, 2007 02:21 am (UTC)

Reading Lolita in Tehran

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I've seen that book, but had never thought to read it. Now, I'm curious...

I have no idea if Austenland will be good, but at least the bad reviews on Amazon didn't make me wish I hadn't put it on hold. I gather it will be a matter of whether the author's writing style appeals to me, rather than of the material...at least, I hope so!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 2nd, 2007 02:22 am (UTC)
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>. Didn't it occur to the author that maybe Jane Austen's fans actually like the values portrayed in her books?

Yeah...exactly. Maybe we'd like to read a book like that, instead of a book that mocks everything her books stand for.
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From:laariii
Date:July 2nd, 2007 06:31 am (UTC)
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I've given up on Jane Austen sequels. Even the ones that are not full of sex are just badly written.
i read a book ages ago called, " Jane Austin in Australia" that was okay if you can suspend your disbelife that far.
[User Picture]
From:catholicteacher
Date:July 2nd, 2007 07:10 pm (UTC)

I hardly deserve to comment

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While I am not much of a Jane Austen fan, I definitely prefer the decency and conduct of her characters to that of most of the historical novels of today. I find it unfortunate that the story has to be interrupted so that the hero and heroine can stop and have sex, especially since it is so often innapropriate for them to do so at the time. I am sick to death of intelligent, aristocratic, young Victorian women running about behaving like modern day Americans. It's not believable. On that note, I just found another historical romance writer that I thought did a slightly better job than most. The author got a few of the social reactions wrong, but at least the heroine had a background that made it reasonable for her to behave as she did rather than seeing a nicely brought up English girl jump in the sack because she was in love.

I have read in more than one place that publishers are pressuring writers for more and more extravigant sex scenes. I found it very strange that L. K. Hamilton made her books more tawdry because someone told her that a woman couldn't get books like that published. I wonder how well a romance without all the sex would do in the marketplace if it were given support from the publishing house.

And thank you for the title of QUEEN OF SPELLS. You have talked about that book for years without mentioning the title before. Now, I can look for it.

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 3rd, 2007 01:23 am (UTC)

Re: I hardly deserve to comment

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I don't think being a fan of Jane Austen is necessary for commenting. ;-)

Funny, I wonder what I would think of Queen of Spells today. At the time, the idea of a pregnant teen in a book was so shocking that it really stayed in my mind ( I was probably 11 or 12 at the time) and I loved the story.

But is it well written? Would I like it as an adult? I have no idea. Kind of creepy. ;-)
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From:headnoises
Date:July 3rd, 2007 01:12 am (UTC)
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*blush* A bit of a confession-- I tend to get a lot of my pleasure-reading from the "children's" or "teens" section.

If you find a good one, they have a great story, wonderful characters, and if there's love they don't spend half the book obsessing over what they stuck where and when.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 3rd, 2007 01:21 am (UTC)

Children and teens

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I love children and teen books. In fact, many of the books I read when I was young are now children and teen books, even though they weren't at the time.

One series (completely unrelated to romance) that I am currently enjoying is the Percy Jackson, Hero series. That's not the name of it, but that's what my friend and I call it. The first book is THE LIGHTNING THIEF.
[User Picture]
From:headnoises
Date:July 3rd, 2007 03:21 am (UTC)

Re: Children and teens

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Ooh, I'll have to look for it-- I deeply enjoy Tamora Pierce and... Oh, the lady who wrote The Wind In the Door series.

Great stories, great characters, and a lack of whole paragraphs I have to skip from embarrassment. (I use to greatly enjoy the Anita Blake series, but I'm kind of a private person-- I blush when I see folks do a deep kiss.)
[User Picture]
From:catholicteacher
Date:July 3rd, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC)

Innocent confessions

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I love GOOD juv fic. Of course, I didn't become an avid reader until high school, so I was introduced to most of the greats in college. I have felt no shame in catching up on what I missed as a child...But then, I have never felt any shame in seeing childrens films in the theatre either.
[User Picture]
From:headnoises
Date:July 4th, 2007 02:27 am (UTC)

Re: Innocent confessions

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Ooh! If you get a chance, turn a youngster on to "Hank the Cow Dog."

That's the first series I ever got really into-- they even had audio tapes. I'm a ranch kid, and can vouch that they're very well written from that angle!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 5th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)

Pemberley Shades

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I don't know if you can find this anywhere, but an English spinster wrote a P and P sequel during WWII, and it's very good. It could pass as a "lost Austen" in a pinch, but the plot has some depth that Jane didn't always reach. It picks up when Elizabeth and Darcy have a two-year-old son, and deals with the marriages of Kitty and Georgiana (and even Anne!), but more importantly, with an impostor who comes to Pemberley and has to be out-witted.

I found it in a used bookshop. It looks like there are a few on Amazon.

p.s. Hi Jagi, see I do check in on your blog sometimes! --Ruth
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:July 6th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)

Re: Pemberley Shades

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Good to see you here! And thanks very much for the recommondation. There are a great deal of Jane Austen sequels, and having been burned a few times now, I'm hesitant to try them. Very nice to have a recommendation from someone who has actually read one!

I saw last night that they have rereleased the original Jane Austen sequel, the one written a few years after her death, ( by her niece, I believe.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 6th, 2007 03:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Pemberley Shades

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Yes, I think Catherine Hubback finished "Sanditon." The rest of the family was not amused.

Pemberley Shades is nothing but good, straight through. Very much worth picking up on Amazon before all the used-book copies are gone.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 6th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Pemberley Shades

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I'm replying to myself. I realized after I typed it that you must have meant something else, not the Sanditon fragment enlarged.

[User Picture]
From:saintjoi
Date:July 6th, 2007 10:58 pm (UTC)
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Have you read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde? I recently discovered his books; I haven't laughed so hard at a book since I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was 16.

Basically, it's set in an alternate version of 1980's London; instead of politics and celebrities, the people are concerned with books. Instead of having cults come to your door, you get Baconians, who try to convince you that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. Anyway, the main character is SpecOps agent Thursday Next, who ends up having to track a bad guy through the pages of Jane Eyre.

It's very funny, lots of nice jokes that you only get if you know some literature, and is written by someone who obviously loves the books he writes about (you get characters from Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Shakespeare, etc)
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