Thursday, December 03, 2009

BitchBuzz: Jane Austen Writes

My BB column this week revisits the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan which I enjoyed so much last week (and yes, the William Blake exhibit is still on for a few more weeks). It's such a delight to see Jane's own handwriting and little pieces of her life gathered together for this exhibit, which offers a good sense of the Regency period in which she lived:

Through March of next year, the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC features an excellent exhibit, "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy" which contains her handwritten script of Lady Susan as well as many letters, mostly written to her beloved sister Cassandra, and other personal effects.

While it seems impossible that we don't know everything there is to know about Jane (which isn't as much as most fans would like), it's a revelation to see so much written in her own hand.

Sure, there's the fannish squee of being so close to something Jane herself touched (then again, I'm a medievalist who shed a tear upon seeing for the first time the one and only Beowulf manuscript), but it's also an intimate window on the world in which she lived: one where paper was so precious that she used up every bit of surface area in her letters by writing across her own lines with further perpendicular lines (known as "cross-hatching")..

As usual, you can read the rest at BB HQ. Please help spread the news be retweeting, sharing and linking here!


Todd Mason said...

I hadn't realized that paper so much as postage had been the primary expense...certainly, Civil War soldiers, who had little luxury for carrying paper, also did the crosshatching with their letters, and international mail's aerogrammes have encouraged such things over the decades...

Do you think the Weiner HUFF POST article is more about trivializing women's writing or about the tendency to do so, even by the women writers sometimes themselves? (Quite aside from Weiner's implicit criticism of her subjects.)

C. Margery Kempe said...

I think Weiner wants to address both, though she clearly is more concerned with the first. Like the Madeleine Albright quote my editor mentioned the other day -- about there being a special place in hell for women who don't help other women -- I think there's a real annoyance when an idiot writer like Heltzel seriously imagines that a "bass voice" is more serious simply by virtue of hormones. I don't care if a writer sounds like Bettie Boop if she's a good one. But that immediate dismissive condescending assumption about "women's" narratives really exasperates me. I think we've got a lot better about acknowledging the variety of discourses we all engage with in our daily lives, but it still tends to be held against women that they might be -- gasp! -- silly with their friends and thus, less serious about their work.

Whereas when you're Neil Gaiman, it garners you oodles of adoring fans who sigh, "Isn't he just adorable?" That's nothing against Neil -- he's just being himself. But there's more of a pressure for women writers to seem serious in order to avoid the pink ghetto. Look at the ways Atwood and Winterson tie themselves into knots to make sure they are not regarded as SF writers.

Todd Mason said...

I looked back at Heltzel's essay, where she actually wants us to quit taking a basso more seriously than a soprano, but does seem to take a few rather insensitive steps in the course of shooting the barrelled fish of at least the EAT PRAY LOVE Profferer of Smugness (she strikes me as one step away from the fatal inanity of a John Gray, but only one step). But as someone who's been listening to a lot of comedian and voice artist Maria Bamford over the last several days, who among other things makes a point of how we react to various sorts of voices--her regular speaking voice is girlish, and usually brings a sort of condescension upon her, she reports, and so she slips into the kind of deeper, confident, borderline-supercilious voice, with a lot of use of "Hon'" in addressing the stranger, that gets respect at least from strangers such as shopclerks in one routine (and in an interview, mentions that several radio hosts upon hearing her voice have asked her at what age in childhood was she molested, a multileveled bit of observation no matter how one approaches it).

Also interesting how much Atwood will dither about her relation to sf, much as Kurt Vonnegut would, since in both those cases the connection is inarguable (I haven't read as much of Winterson's protestation), and as clearly driven in part by the dual quality of mutual snobbery between the apparatus around both mimetic fiction and sf. The self-consciously hip professors and critics Who Get Down with the Youth are now graybeards, and, as Weiner notes that Stephen King has noted, have been replaced by those who were raised on the likes of King and never have bothered to go much beyond him in the literature he draws on, and so overrate him ridiculously...with some greater justice, they have also clutched Ursula Le Guin to their chests, but she always did have academic credentials, and Philip Dick, safely dead but put under their noses thanks to Paul Williams's tireless efforts in the young hipster media in the '70s and '80s.

It's intersting also to see who doesn't even have to deny they are sf/fantasy writers, such as Audrey Niffeneggar (who embraces the literature and the label) and Kevin Brockmeier, since others will foolishly do so for them, much as Cormac McCarthy is surely no western, crime fiction, nor sf writer, right, I mean, c'mon, he's not writing that STAR WARS crap that, say, you or I might. Not That There's Anything Wrong With That, Ha Ha.

But, yeah, there are all sorts of ghettos to fall into. Heltzel particularly cites Joyce Carol Oates as a good example, and she is, but part of what has distinguished her work has been what has also distinguished McCarthy's--a willingness to incorporate the utmost brutality in ways that many writers back away from, or elide, in their work...and, as with the splatterpunks in horror, this can be too easily employed, and too easily mistaken for Seriousness that an Austen won't deal with, so an Austen acolyte clearly isn't striving for that seriousness, with all those high-pitched fripperies...being the details of life. It seems that Tillie Olsen could be taken seriously while dealing with these, and a few others, but that, say, John Irving has ever been taken seriously by anyone, or the elevation of King when most of his work is derivative, prolix and frankly dull and uninspired, is just part of what makes the world so darned annoying entirely too often. (Did you note the NYT chose Jay McInerny's collected short stories as one of its Most Notable of the Year? EAT PRAY LOVE suddenly seems...well, just as trite as previously, but it certainly has company.)

C. Margery Kempe said...

Gaah -- no, I hadn't see that about McInerny. Rather wish I still didn't know. Well, already feeling inordinately hopeless about the whole writing biz today, so I guess it's a bit of a blow on a bruise at this point. Sigh.

I have to learn to write things like a diet book with girly frills and a topical theme: how about The Glitter Vampire Diet? Tagline: make yourself a vamp by eating nothing but glitter!

Todd Mason said...


It took an old pro like Richard Wheeler to point out on Bill Crider's blog that all the NYT notable books seem, hmmm, to come from big advertising publishers. How'd THAT happen?

C. Margery Kempe said...

I'm sure it was purely "subliminable" as one great mind put it.