arhyalon (arhyalon) wrote,

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…
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