Hello, all! Today I’m participating in one of the awesome prompts created by Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound as part of their Classic Remarks Meme. You can view the full list here for the dates and prompts; they are fantastic. I will be participating in the ones I feel qualified to post about. Like this one!
Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary. Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?
I want to start by quoting a bit of Krysta’s post because she outlines the topic really well (and I’m being lazy today):
Generally, the two schools of thought I hear when Jane Austen is discussed is either that she “just” writes romances or that, in fact, she writes pointed social commentary and should thus be taken seriously. Implicitly embedded in this discussion, then, is the idea that romance is not worthy of academic discourse. Perhaps because romance is traditionally associated with women?
The idea that romance is not worthy of academic discourse is not just a problem exclusive to romance, but with all genre fiction. And that’s only one of the problems with canon; we all know the canon is very white and very male. Kyrsta also makes the astute point in her post that the canon is constantly in flux, and what gets admitted greatly depends on the values of the time. We tend to think of the canon as a body of “must-reads” when studying literary history: books that shaped the state of literature in some way. And if Austen didn’t shape the state of literature in some way, then slap me on the ass and call me Susan.
To our modern sensibilities, Austen’s novels may seem like they should be shelved with the “chick lit” because they’re all about love and marriage. But it’s hard for us as modern readers to remember that there was no such thing as “chick lit” when Austen was writing novels. Quite the contrary; it was brave of her as a woman to risk publishing anything, let alone novels that provide social commentary about the strict conventions guarding the institution of marriage at the time. There were other novels being published by women, which Austen read and commented on (most famously her satire of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey), but these novels were seen as vulgar; anything that stirred that level of passion and emotion in women was decidedly improper, and women were the primary readers of novels at that time. So all novels were smut. The truly classy and educated read poetry. Or philosophy. Or some shit.
I’m not super jazzed concept of the canon in general, but that’s another topic for another day. As it stands, however, I believe that Austen belongs in the canon. After taking an Austen course in college during study abroad (in Bath, where Austen lived for a time), my eyes were opened to just how significant she was. The big question for me is, do you consider context when declaring an author or work’s literary merit? Literature is never created in a vacuum, and if the purpose of canon is to collect works that made a significant impact on literature, then context is important when considering admission into the literary canon. People who claim Austen is all fluff are probably unaware of the larger context in which she wrote. If taken out of context, her stories could easily be lumped in with the ever-increasing amount of romantic dramas that have BBC/Masterpiece Classic-esque feels. Austen was a brilliant writer, but if her novels were published today, they’d probably be at Barnes & Noble on the “buy 2, get the 3d free!” paperback table.
Thankfully for us though, Austen wrote several hundred years ago, and we have the joy of studying her work and seeing just how influential she was. She gave voices to women in fiction that will never be silenced, despite the hundreds of years (and, you know, the line between fiction and reality) that separate us.
Shout-out to Ami @ Luvtoread, who also wrote an excellent response to this prompt! Don’t forget to check out Pages Unbound if you want to participate in this great meme!