I’m not one to ever link to or read Jezebel but when Feministing told me to read the comments on this Jezebel post that argues that Austen is “highbrow Twilight,” I did it. And the comments are satisfying.
But I also read the piece, which is by Katie J.M. Baker.
Let’s break this down:
How come Austen’s popularity continues to climb? The WSJ thinks it’s because her novels have universal themes and storybook endings, which “give her novels both highbrow and lowbrow appeal.” In other words: do people seek out romance that makes them feel smart?
Okay. So “storybook endings” = “lowbrow” and if you read Austen, you combine that “lowbrow” ending with writing that “makes [women] feel smart.” If you have a happy ending, then you are most definitely reading something lowbrow? And lowbrow is BAD and dumb. Got it. (I so badly want to make a joke here about “lowbrow” and reading Jezebel but I’m moving on…)
It sounds more impressive to say you’re obsessed with Mr. Darcy than Edward Cullen or Christian Grey, but let’s be real: all three heroes are famously swoonworthy because they’re arrogant, aloof babes who are secretly sensitive and end up saving the day when they’re unexpectedly overcome by love.
I read a lot of romance novels. A LOT. The fact that Baker has two – TWO – male protagonists to call upon and they are Edward Cullen and Christian Grey says a whole lot more about her than it does about romance novels OR why women read them OR what is appealing about many of the male protagonists in these novels (stories in which it is often the woman who saves the proverbial day, thank you very much).
Before I get stoned by outraged Austenites: it goes without saying that Austen is way wittier and more talented than her modern day counterparts. She wrote incisively about money and class, not just romance, and there’s no shame in writing about love and marriage — especially given that, in Austen’s day, the decision of whom to marry was fraught with major social and financial ramifications.
“way wittier and more talented” — how does Baker know this? It appears that she is simply trashing on the entire modern genre of romance novels and why? Because everyone else does? Because it’s easy? Because you can tap right into a cultural narrative without ever having to read a single romance novel and then can make your witty, “controversial” statements about Austen in order to get people to click on your piece?
It’s not that I want to try to argue that any particular modern-day romance novelist is as good as Jane Austen but there are some damn fine romance authors out there. They write beautifully crafted stories that take on issues of class and ideas about marriage. They make me laugh and cry. They pull me into their story and I physically have to fight to stop reading them to do things like use the bathroom and eat and sleep because they are simply wonderful novels that demand my attention.
There’s no shame NOW in writing about love and marriage except when people like Baker make it seem like there is. And not ALL romance is about marriage anyhow.
I have read novels that deal with finding comfort with your sexuality following a physically and emotionally abusive domestic violence situation, novels about people making hard choices against the backdrop of their jobs and an imbalance of power caused by patriarchy, novels about incredibly smart women who are esteemed for their smarts and beautiful because of their brains, novels where characters marry for economic necessity and make the best of the situation, novels that explicitly talk about shame and female sexuality and tease that out into real-life situations in order to show how people deal and move on and find love.
I have a ton of incredibly intelligent friends who love Austen and got a lot out of her commentary. But she just never did it for me, even though I’m such a sucker for novels about women and the reality of their social situations — Madame Bovary, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, etc. I always found Austen’s female characters one-dimensional and lacking in passion and energy; I prefer the Brontë sisters for dramatic love affairs (edit: by “dramatic” I don’t mean “romantic,” but “horrifically overwrought”) and my all-time favorite, Edith Wharton, for crossed-signals romances amongst gentlefolk. Of course, Wharton’s novels are actually cynical (read: realistic) and the opposite of romantic, which is why Stephenie Meyer won’t be producing a movie version of The Custom of the Country (Best one! Trust!) anytime soon.
“Cynical” and “realistic” is the opposite of “romantic.” Lady, let me tell you that you just don’t know shit about the romance genre. And you clearly don’t care. And I know I’m wasting digital space writing this because 6 people read my site and 60,000+ (600,000+, I don’t know) read yours.
Yes, there’s fluff in romance. Not every novel is in the tradition set by Austen, not all the female characters are fully realized, actual people. Not all of the romances teach us something about ourselves or our societies.
But I’m so tired of the genre being dismissed outright simply because Twilight and 50 Shades exist, women read them in huge numbers, and now they are a cultural joke. I have problems with these novels and I plan on writing about that. It needs to be said, though, that when you choose to trash on the entire romance genre, you are trashing on an industry that women run — they are the editors and the authors and the consumers.
There are problems with romance novels. That they are all like Twilight or 50 Shades is not one because that’s just false.
And if Jane Austen is guilty for having spawned the genre that includes Twilight and 50 Shades (at least, the “highbrow” version of it), we must also acknowledge what else that genre gives us: at its most basic level, women read romance novels because they are one of the few places in all of pop culture that female sexuality is not demonized and where, in fact, women are often rewarded for owning their sexuality. It is the single place in our society where women getting head is not only a trope (almost ALL female protagonists get head) but that part of that trope is that the male protagonist wants, wants, wants to give her head. We’d be doing a lot better in a lot of ways if that was how we talked about female sexuality rather than the way we do in the rest of our culture.
On top of all that, it is a genre that cares about characters, it cares about how people build relationships and how relationships are affected by a myriad of outside forces (including oftentimes misogyny and sometimes classism), and it cares about its readers, even if other people find us lowbrow (as if that’s bad). Romance novelists, in my experience, are trying to be honest about the inner workings of relationships, are trying to draw attention to the difficulties in managing them, all the while never shying away from saying that for most men AND women sex is an integral part of all of that (where, really, are women allowed to think that much less write about it? And as the backlash against the genre indicates, the fact that romance novelists do this leads to nothing but condescension and dismissal from a large part of our society).
There is good in these novels beyond their “romantic”, “lowbrow” endings and neither Twilight or 50 Shades are indicative of the genre at large.
Jane Austen was an amazing writer.
The modern-day romance genre is not at all how it is described in this Jezebel post. This is lazy writing, lazy analysis, and it trashes on a genre that is all about and for women.