Last week I pulled out my hefty Jane Austen collection (pictured below), and by hefty, I mean hefty–the thing weighs three and a half pounds. Lately I’ve felt like every book I read is just average. Boring. I wanted something I knew would enthrall me so it was time for a little Jane. Turns out she was exactly what I needed. It’s been a long time since I read a book so good that I wanted to drop everything else I’m doing to read it.
I’m still an Austen n00b. I figured with all of the excitement that has been centered around Jane Austen’s novels for centuries, I couldn’t possibly die without reading them. And I’m glad that I am. I’ve read Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion so I’m only halfway through the most popular novels but already I feel like I’ve been invited into the very exclusive Austen fan club. I’m currently reading Mansfield Park (maybe you already noticed this in my sidebar?) and so far I really love it. I mean, really love it. It could be my new favorite (my previous favorite was Sense & Sensibility).
But, I have to admit some Jane Austen blasphemy.
I’m cursed by the analytical brain every writer gets standard issue with their laptop and thesaurus. I can’t help but pick apart her writing style, her storylines, her characters and as much as I love Austen’s novels, I can’t help but think–with the standards we writers are held to today, Jane Austen would never get published in modern times.
I would almost bet money that if someone were to take these incredible novels, strip Austen’s name from the cover and then try to get them published, they would be dropped in the trash can after the first page. It’s sad but it’s true. Agents receive so many queries these days that they’ve become jaded toward anything that isn’t glowing perfection from the first sentence. Today’s unforgiving standards would never allow–
- Pages and pages of background right at the beginning. That is one of the biggest no-no’s writers are taught today. Readers should be hooked with big action within the first page whereas Austen has just finished her first verbose sentence about the history of a single character–a character who often isn’t even the main character in the novel.
- Pages of narrative with no dialogue to break it up. And then when she does finally stop summarizing to give the readers a scene, they are usually short and lacking dialogue tags. I often have to skim back through the last few paragraphs to figure out who’s talking.
- Keeping track of who the characters are is a nightmare for the first, oh…hundred pages. There’s Mr. This and Miss That but then she got married so her new name is Mrs. What’s-Her-Face and the second oldest daughter is now Miss That and Mr. This moved out so the second oldest son is now Mr. This except that sometimes she calls him by his first name, Edmund. And who was it that was in the navy again? And which one had a crush on Miss That? The one who was originally Miss That or the new one? Eventually I do get it straight and I’m starting to understand the way the family titles worked back then but it can still be very confusing.
- There’s a lot of downtime where very little action takes place because back then, in their type of society, that’s just the way it went. Today we expect bombs and car chases in at least every other chapter.
As a writer who is constantly looking for a way to make my own writing better by analyzing other works of fiction for guidance and understanding, it seems ironic (and a little unfair) that someone who has been enjoyed by readers for centuries could have so many pieces of work that would never make it past a literary agent today.
Why we still love her anyway:
Thank goodness publishing standards weren’t at all like they are now back then because the world would have missed out on some of the best novels ever written. Jane’s insight into human nature is so fascinating! I love that–
- Austen is a master of showing, not telling. Even with her pages of narrative and summary, she still has a way of letting the characters show for themselves how they feel about one another with a blush here and an avoiding eye there. Her dialogue itself could almost stand alone because her word choices say it all.
- She creates the most realistic characters. Each person, no matter how large or small (or how hard it is to remember his name), is so alive from page to page that surely she must have taken these details from life. Each person has their own quirks, ideas and goals and her characters undoubtedly stand the test of time.
- I have found very few other novels that have such a high level of emotional tension (angst!). By the time I get to the end of the novel, I’m hanging on the edge of my seat, waiting for characters to profess their love for one another…finally!
For me–and obviously, for a lot of other people–the pros definitely outweigh the cons and in some ways, the cons actually add to the character of Austen’s stories. Whatever agents and writing books have to say, there’s no denying there’s an X factor about her writing that transcends all rules. If there’s anything to be learned from analyzing Austen’s novels, it’s how to find that X factor in your own writing. Essentially, I think that’s what agents are really looking for. Isn’t that what we (readers) look for?