Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s question is:
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?
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 creation of the canon has led to the idea that the texts that comprise it somehow got there magically by virtue of their own intrinsic and timeless properties. That is, if you write a great enough book, somehow your work will be universally acknowledged as a classic or worthy of the canon. This is not strictly true. People put the canon together–editors, academics, professors–and the canon has changed over time, though few people ever seem to discuss this delicate matter. Authors that were once considered great have since faded away as tastes have changed. Turns out the canon isn’t as timeless as its proponents might want you to believe.
This means that the books in the canon are in many ways books that share the same properties, properties that the literati tend to value at this moment in time. Think about what your instructors may have emphasized when teaching literature. Complexity. Word choice. Things like the Other, interiority, or what it means to be human. Someone could write a great book, but if it doesn’t fit into the categories currently encompassed by the canon, it’s not going to be admitted. And if you look at who is admitted, it tends to be white males. Writers like Jane Austen, women, who may focus on domestic matters, women’s issues, or romance apparently aren’t complex or deep enough by canon standards to gain entry.
Jane Austen, however, is, of course, complex in her own way. You can read her books as straight romance and there’s nothing wrong with that. Literature as entertainment or escape should not be devalued. But there are layers of social commentary, from the subtle digs at Mr. Collins to the fate of Charlotte to the almost glaring absence of commentary on Mr. Bennett’s running of his household. Austen lived in a time when women were commodified and struggled to find ways to achieve personal fulfillment and happy marriages within a system that dictated what they could and could not do, and what their value was based on their families and fortunes. And she did not let that elude her when she wrote.
I realize that the canon is ostensibly selective because you’re still supposed to be able to read all or most of it, but the reality is that the canon is already pretty unwieldy for the average person, and it could use the admittance of a few women and writers of color. I think Jane Austen should be there since she does give her readers a lot to think about and bears rereading–and rereadability is what I think makes a great book. We don’t even need to think about her social commentary in terms of her worthiness–I think her work is valuable in other ways as well and that romance itself is a category that can be analyzed discussed in an academic setting. Austen may not fit the mold the current canon demands, but the canon has never been static.
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