Novels on novels

It always amuses and fascinates me when novelists comment on novels and novel reading in their novels — this happens an awful lot in the 18C when the novel is just becoming an established genre and people were really anxious about what it meant and how it was changing the culture of reading. It happens also in Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel Sanditon (1817).

Charlotte, the novel’s heroine, has decided that Sir Edward, who has spent some time flirting with her, is a complete idiot (my words, not hers), and she knows this partly because of the way he talks about novels. Sir Edward claims he is “no indiscriminate novel-reader,” staying away from “the mere trash of the common circulating library,” but when Charlotte asks him what kind of novels he likes to read, he has a peculiar answer:

You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn. — In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; — we distil nothing which can add to science. — You understand me I’m sure?

Charlotte astutely replies, “I am not quite certain that I do” and asks him a follow-up question. His answer is an even longer string of sentences that make little sense, including this extraordinary one:

They hold forth the most splendid portraitures of high conceptions, unbounded views, illimitable ardour, indomptible decision — and even when the event is plainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned machinations of the prime character, the potent, pervading hero of the story, it leaves us full of generous emotions for him…

Sir Edward’s problem is that he is a bad reader. He claims to be a good reader and to read only “quality” novels, but the narrator tells us otherwise:

The truth was that Sir Edward whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him.

It’s not just that he’s read too many sentimental novels (which were extremely popular at the time), but that he’s not smart enough to make proper sense of them. He has a “perversity of judgment” that makes him sympathize with the villain when it’s clear that’s not what the author wanted. And he thinks reading well means pulling out every big word he can find and then throwing it into casual conversation — which results in the kind of atrocious sentence I quoted above.

Austen singles out Richardson in particular — Sir Edward is too fond of Richardson and those who have imitated Richardson:

His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s; and such authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character.

All of this amuses me because Austen was a Richardson fan herself, and, of course, she’s a producer of the novels that she’s here pointing out the dangers of. She learned a lot from Richardson, after all.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that novelists were very concerned about what novels were supposed to be, what makes a good novel or a bad novel, what novel-reading would do to people’s minds, and how people would interpret their own novels. Were their readers going to be smart and savvy, or stupid like Sir Edward?

So, many novelists have passages like this one from Sanditon where they seem intent on separating their own good, wholesome novels from those bad ones that have pernicious effects. And in these kinds of passages, they are also asking us to be smart readers — we are supposed to be more like Charlotte than like Sir Edward, to read this passage and condemn Sir Edward and determine not to be foolish like him. What novelist doesn’t want to have smart readers, after all, so why not throw in passages like this one that indicate to us how we should read — or how we shouldn’t?


Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Novels on novels

  1. What an interesting blogpiece. I just finished reading an EXCELLENT article in Harper’s magazine tonight, where Cynthia Ozick argues that the thing missing from our current literary culture is not the plethora of novels on the consumer shelf, but rather the lack of good literary criticism. It has really made me think, the article. As your blog has also done.
    Who does the writer write FOR?
    The lowest common denominator in the populace [the potboiler?] or the select coterie of discriminating readers?
    Does the novelist write what they are compelled to write, or are they compelled to write what they assume their readers want to read? [!!]
    Is this question the the very question that ends up separating great literature from lesser…. literature?
    How would Jane Austen answer that?
    And what would her answer MATTER, in the face of a modern world, the majority of which cannot tolerate her novels?
    Are we reading great literature, or are we preferring [sales-wise, majority-wise] to read TV shows/movies, in book format?


  2. Makes me wish Austen lived long enough to complete Sanditon and a whole bunch of other books too.


  3. Austen was a master at writing about the novel within a novel. But then, she was a master in many ways, huh? Not many 20th/21st-century authors do that, huh? I can’t think of any at the moment, but would love to read those who do.


  4. What a great point! You’re absolutely right about authors trying to “teach” us to be smart authors. When you look at Austen’s novels and comedies of manners, too, she also spends some time telling you what kind of person, in general, to be. Certainly Elizabeth Bennett is the ideal, Jane a close second, but the youngest sister (I think her name is Lucy?) or Mrs. Bennett? Well, if you align with them you shouldnt’ even be reading her novel…


  5. This reminds me a bit of the article (though I only skimmed) written by Zadie Smith about how readers also need to bring something to the book and be responsible, too. Do you think modern authors do the same thing as Austen did (they probably do and I am not picking up on it!). I wonder about one of Cipriano’s comments–that the majority of the modern world cannot tolerate Austen’s novels? How sad if that is true. I am looking forward to reading the last two fragments in this book!


  6. I love the idea of great readers being wonderful people. Hands up who, around here, would want to disagree with that?


  7. Thanks Cipriano. I read that Ozick piece too, and liked parts of it, but I wasn’t sure she made all the pieces of her argument fit together. I wasn’t quite sure how the critic she describes is really going to help the novelist produce novels. I’m willing to believe it might be true, but she didn’t explain how to my satisfaction. I tend to think that novelists write what they are driven to write, and that this doesn’t depend on what the market wants, but perhaps that’s an idealistic view, or one limited in scope to certain kinds of writers. Surely there are lots of writers who write with the market very much in mind? I think this question could be the question that separates greater and lesser literature, as you say, but surely not all the time? Good questions!

    Stefanie, I agree completely. I think Drabble wrote something about Austen as a writer who didn’t write nearly enough.

    Emily — good question — I suspect that many contemporary authors do write about writing and novels in their novels, although I don’t have a list at hand. In a way Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, while not being about novels, does have a lot to say about stories. I read an Anita Brookner novel, Hotel du Lac, recently where the author was a novelist — a romance novelist — and the story was partly about the whole genre of romance. I’m interested in whether people think this sort of thing is more common or less common in contemporary literature than 18C?

    Courtney — yeah, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t seem to be didactic, really, but Austen is definitely suggesting that Elizabeth’s intelligence and energy are to be admired. And she’s a good reader, too.

    Danielle, that’s exactly what Austen is saying, I think — that readers should take responsibility for their reading and do it well. And what author doesn’t want good readers and wouldn’t mind shaping their readers into responsible ones? About what people think of Austen, I think it depends on one’s perspective. On the one hand, Austen is hugely popular — among readers. But how many people are really readers, and how many people do we think SHOULD be readers?

    Litlove — I’m not disagreeing! Not at all 🙂


  8. I will say once again: there always have been and always will be Pretenious Coffee Shop Boys. (you know, reading pynchon, writing faux-beat poetry furiously with pained expressions, often expounding loudly on novels they have never read. You know they have never read them because they often just mumble about something being postmodern.) Yup. They are apparently an actual species.


  9. I think contemporary writers write about writing and such just as much as in the 18c. They just do it a bit differently I think, more from the perspective of what it’s like to be a writer rather than what the novel should be or how one should read. That’s my impression anyway.


  10. Dorothy, if you find the time, you might want to finish off Sanditon by reading the completed version by “Jane Austen and Another Lady.” The anonymous author finishes Austen’s tale very creditably, and the scene wherein Sir Edward actually attempts what Austen told us at the beginning he intended to do is extremely funny–maybe more comic than Jane Austen herself would have written, but carried off with very similar panache and style.


  11. Thanks for the suggestion Karen!


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