Monthly Archives: January 2023

Review of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen – Edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster

2011 (2nd edition), Cambridge UP, 297 pages

This isn’t a review of the entire volume but rather my reactions to two passages from the Companion, the first from the first essay “The Professional Woman Writer” by Jan Fergus and the second from the penultimate essay “Austen Cults and Cultures” by Claudia L. Johnson. In general, I enjoy the Cambridge Companion series. It’s a trustworthy place to turn for a synoptic view of what’s going on in the field. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen is no different, and the central trio of essays “Class” (by Juliet McMaster), “Money” (by Edward Copeland), and “Making a Living” (by David Selwyn) were illuminating and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I seem to have gotten an allergic reactions the first and penultimate essays. Here’s why.

“The Professional Woman Writer” by Jan Fergus

Fergus’ essay starts off well enough. Then this train-wreck passage happens:

All writers, known or unknown, who wished to obtain payment for a novel had four options for publishing: (a) by subscription; (b) by profit-sharing; (c) by selling copyright; and (d) on ‘commission’, a system whereby the author was responsible for paying all the expenses of publication while the publisher distributed the copies and took a commission on all sold. Austen most frequently employed this last form, also known as publishing for oneself. The closest equivalent we have to this method is to employ a ‘vanity press’–that is, to pay for printing one’s own works–or to self-publish on the Internet. Such ‘published’ works are neither reviewed by the media nor sold in shops. By contrast, in Austen’s lifetime a book published on commission was perfectly respectable, as likely as any other book to be reviewed and sold.

Jane Austen is a hero in today’s self-publishing community: she dared to get it done, and became one of the greats. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing. Austen did it. Nietzsche did it. Today, novelist Brandon Sanderson’s doing it. He’s sold over 20 million books. He could publish with any publisher. During the pandemic of 2020, however, he decided to self-publish. He launched a Kickstarter campaign promising four novels through 2023. $33 million poured into his self-publishing project, breaking the Kickstarter record. His books are reviewed. His books are loved. His books are sold in shops. He wins awards. Like Jan Fergus–who used to teach as Lehigh University–Sanderson teaches at Brigham Young University. But, according to Fergus, Sanderson isn’t a respectable writer because he self-publishes. You’ve got to be kidding.

Today we think of Austen as a classic. Same way as we think of Shakespeare as a classic. But, truth of the matter is, the nineteenth-century novel and Renaissance theatre were both, in their heydays, considered low art. Shakespeare’s theatres were located in destitute and desperate areas of town. And the novel, in Austen’s own day, wasn’t a classic. Instead, it was the opposite of classic: it was low art. Just check out Michel Foucault’s historical account of the novel in his Madness and Civilization to get a better idea of how the novel was historically perceived. But low art is great. It’s real. High art is difficult. For example, I seldom listen to Schoenberg or Cage or other practitioners of the intellectual classical music. But I enjoy the “low” modern classical style employed by composers such as Hans Zimmer in movie soundtracks. Nothing wrong with low. Low will become tomorrow’s high. Who know, maybe Sanderson will be the Austen of the 23rd century. To Fergus, Austen seems always to have been high art. From day one. I wonder if this is strictly true or whether, like Shakespeare, Austen became a classic over the long course of time. It almost seems like Fergus is justifying why Austen belongs to the scholars.

What I don’t appreciate is the shade Fergus throws on self-published authors. It was really unnecessary.  It would have been easy enough for her to say Austen self-published. Period. But she goes on to say that Austen’s self-publishing is different than today’s self-publishing. She goes on to put publishing by self-publishers in quotes to indicate that it is not real publishing. She goes on to say that self-published works aren’t reviewed or sold in stores. But that’s not true. Consider these reviews of a self-published academic title. One is by an international media outlet and the other four by peer-reviewed academic journals:

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

Click to access 2022.09.03%20Kohn%20on%20Wong.pdf

If Broadway WorldThe Journal of American Drama and TheatreTheatre History StudiesClassical Journal, and NJ: Drama Australia don’t cut it, then what does? Self-publishing has many advantages over traditional publishing. The self-published author can keep their books in print indefinitely; with traditional presses, once a book is out of print, it is done. The self-published author controls the cover art; with traditional presses, many an author has fallen into a state of shock seeming the cover art assigned to their book. The self-published author is free from the politics of academia; with traditional presses, although no one says it, everyone knows you can only say certain things.

Why is self-publishing in Austen’s day great and self-publishing in this day and age so bad? That’s the question I’d like to ask Fergus. And if self-publishing was so respectable in Austen’s day, why didn’t Austen put her own name on her book, whose author credit simply appears as “By a Lady”? I really don’t appreciate the great ones in academia talking down like they’re so high and mighty to the common writer. Academics talk about how bad the class struggle was in 18th century England, yet they repeat the same thing with their notions of “aristocratic writers” (published by Cambridge University Press) and self-published “peasant-writers.” They say academia is transparent, without an agenda except pure learning. Essays like this suggest otherwise. No one like to be talked down to. They talk much about power and the abuse of power and authority in academic writing. Is this legitimate use of academic authority? An essay that takes away the common person’s hero (Austen is a hero in the self-publishing community)? No thanks. This is so much like the conservatory musician that turns up a nose at the streetcorner musician. There’s lots of talent out there in unlikely places. For years, Loreena McKennitt played on the streets before CBC invited her up to their studio, more for a story than anything (i.e. “how do you lug around that huge harp?”). But when she played in the studio, the phones lit up with people asking who that self-published artist was.

It’s disappointing when academics use their authority to say that when our heroes self-publish, it really isn’t self-publishing in the same sense that we do it. Not only disappointing, but unacceptable.

“Austen Cults and Cultures” by Claudia L. Johnson

I was still reeling from Fergus’ comments against self-published writers and then this from the essay on “Austen Cults and Cultures”:

Even though lectures by academic Austenian scholars are featured at Jane Austen Society and Jane Austen Society of North America conferences, and even though JAS’s Collected Reports and JASNA’s Persuasions often publish a tremendous amount in the way of sheer information, most academics I know take a rather dim view of these galas, where enjoyment rather than hermeneutic mastery is assumed to be the reward of reading, where reading is sociable rather than solitary, and where the stuff of erudition itself seems so different [. . .] The process by which academic critics deprecate Austenian admirers outside the academy is very similar to the way, as Henry Jenkins has shown, Trekkies, fans and mass media enthusiasts are derided and marginalized by dominant cultural institutions bent on legitimizing their own objects and protocols of expertise. But there is an important difference: unlike Star Trek, Austen’s novels hold a secure place in the canon of high as well as popular culture.

Geez. Star Trek’s been big enough and around for long enough and enough big names have participated in it that it will become a classic in a hundred years. It doesn’t take a big stretch to imagine that, to understand the 20th century properly in a hundred years, knowledge of Star Trek will be useful, not only to remember our fascination with space, but to remember how progressive low culture could be: Captain Kirk’s crew consisted of people from all sorts of different cultures and nations (and species!) working together. Why elevate Austen by bashing down Star Trek? It was really an unnecessary move that alienated rather than inspired me.

And what’s up with this bashing of the Jane Austen societies? I read a few articles in Persuasions (the JASNA journal) and they seemed okay. The articles appear to be from a combination of independent scholars and academics. For example, Jackie Mijares’ essay on jointure in Sense and Sensibility was informative and well-researched ( Sure, it is not ground-breaking hoity toity like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s scholarly masterpiece “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” that JSTOR says has been cited 299 times by eminent scholars. But when I read the Sedgwick essay, I found that her Austen is definitely not my Austen. It was just weird, like from outer space. And even some other works by proper Austen scholars (e.g. not in the Jane Austen society or self-published) are just plain bad. For example, everyone quotes John Dashwood’s income in Sense and Sensibility as £10,000 per year. When I started adding up the numbers, I was getting to £5,000 to £6,000 tops. The scholars were quoting Gene W. Ruoff, a proper academic scholar. I began second-guessing myself. So I finally got Ruoff’s book to see how he was doing the calculation. Well, it turns out he interprets a slight turn of phrase to imply that John has a grand monumental unstated income stream that is greater than all of Norland Park! And it’s quite clear why he does this: to make John into more of a bad guy. So hey, maybe it’s not just the stuff from JASNA that doesn’t meet the highest hermeneutical standards: much of the proper academic writing on Austen is just as lacking. When I dug further, I was relieved that at least one scholar, Alistair Duckworth, calculated John’s income at the £5-6,000 range.

I would say that there is a lot of good (and bad) articles in the JASNA journals and also a lot of good (and bad) articles in proper peer-reviewed highbrow proper academic journals, the sort that Johnson publishes in. The view of academia I get from these essays is that it is a member-only club that owns its objects of study, which it does better than anyone else due to its superior hermeneutic techniques. But is that true? Take psychoanalytic or Freudian approaches to interpreting literature. These approaches are still prevalent in the academic literary community. In the psychiatry and the sciences, however, they’ve long abandoned and moved beyond Freud. In other fields, they’re using bronze and iron tools. But, in literary theory, stone tools are still the norm. And this is superior hermeneutics? You have got to be kidding. I don’t think English departments “own” Austen more than any other group.

I don’t know. I think I’d rather go to a JASNA convention than a serious supercilious conventions that the contributors to the Cambridge companion go to. At least the JASNA convention would be fun and inclusive rather than this egalitarian vibe I’m getting from the high and mighty scholars of Cloud-cuckoo-land.

Cambridge University Press: it’s time for a third edition, one with some humility, please. All this stuff brings to mind an old song, maybe you’ve heard of it. It goes something like this:

Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been though all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.


Review of Aristophanes’ Men and Their Horses (Knights) – Mike Lippman and Wilfred E. Major

2022, Theran Press, 124 pages
Preface by Jeffrey Henderson and Introduction by Robert Holschuh Simmons

Knights, or Men and Their Horses

Knights is a comedy written by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes. It’s a political satire lambasting the Athenian general Cleon. Translations are hard to come by. It’s not in the Meridian edition (which contains Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, and Frogs). It’s not in the Penguin edition (which contains Lysistrata, Acharnians, and Clouds). It’s not in either of the Oxford editions (which contain Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly-Women, Wealth, Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs). A new Oxford edition translated by Stephen Halliwell, however, came out this year and it does contain Knights. At the time of writing, only the hardcover is available, and Oxford would like USD $115. So it is more or less unavailable to mere mortals. I’ll check it out later when it’s available in paperback. In Aristophanes’ back catalog, Knights, perhaps along with Wasps–another play attacking Cleon–seems to get the least love. Knights is available in the Loeb edition (translated by Jeffrey Henderson, who writes the preface for the Lippman-Major translation). But the Loeb editions are geared towards scholars rather than performers (they are parallel texts with the Greek original and an English translation on facing pages). Lippman and Major’s translation is one of the few available, and the best one to stage a production around. That this was a translation made with performance in mind is made clear in the acknowledgements, where the translators thank the team that performed a staged reading at a classics conference in 2020.

To give you an idea, here’s a passage from the Henderson translation (1998) followed by the Lippman-Major:

Second Slave. Well then, our best option is to make for some god’s image and kowtow.
First Slave. What do you mean, “immmage?” Say, do you really believe in the gods?
Second Slave. Sure.
First Slave. What’s your evidence?
Second Slave. Because I’m godforsaken. Isn’t that enough?

compared with,

Nicias. Then given the situation, best option for the two of us
Is to go and get ourselves some y’olde tyme religion.
Demosthenes. Like ancient Greek religion? Do you really believe any of it?
Nicias. I surely do.
Demosthenes. What proof do you have?
Nicias. Well, the gods hate my guts. Isn’t that proof enough?

The Henderson translation preserves the repetition of “gods,” e.g. “do you really believe in the gods? (theoús)” and “Because I’m godforsaken” (hotiē theoīsin echthrós eim’, literally “Because I’m an object of hatred to the gods”). The Lippman-Major translation goes for a more direct attack. The reference to “olde tyme religion” is to Bob Seger’s 1979 song “Old Time Rock and Roll.” The reference connects the audience to the comedy in the same way as so many references in Aristophanes would have connected the comedy with the original audience. “The gods hate my guts” also carries a visceral punch. The Lippman-Major translation strives for a lively, visceral, punchy quality that is alive.

Choice of Title

As to the choice of calling Aristophanes’ play Men and Their Horses, Simmons, who writes the introduction, says:

The original play was titled Hippeis in Greek, which translates literally to Knights. The title of this translation, Men and Their Horses, is a way for the play’s translators to make the more literal translation of the play’s name more accessible to a contemporary audience, which–if it thinks of knights at all–thinks of them as wearing shining armor and jousting at Renaissance faires. The Greek word hippeis, like the English word “knights,” means, at its root, someone who operates from a horse, and typically a horse that the operator owns.

This is all well. I wonder, however, how easy it would be for someone looking for the play to find it? The easiest way of searching for something is to type the words into a Google search. But how many people looking for Aristophanes’ Knights know to type into Google “Men and Their Horses”? And would a Google search of Knights bring up Men and Their Horses? I tried and it doesn’t show up in any of the eleven pages of results that Google found. Googling “men and their horses” directly brought up many pages about horses, but wasn’t able to find the book. Perhaps this is due to the newness of the book, which came out earlier this year. The distribution appears limited, again, perhaps due to its newness. I found it on B&N, but couldn’t find it on Amazon. As I’m in Canada, it’s easier to order from Amazon (which ships domestically) than B&N (where it’s coming from the States). If B&N stocks it, why not Amazon?

The Comedy Wordmill

In line with giving the audience a taste of what it was like to have experienced an Aristophanes play, the language and characters have been updated. Paphlagon, the barbaric tanner from Paphlagonia, who is the comic representation of the real-life Athenian politician Cleon, is called “The Drumpf,” who, in turn, stands in for American politician Donald Trump. The Sausage Seller, in turn, has been updated into Hot Dog Man.

The songs sung by the chorus are also updated to be sung along to modern songs such as “The Halls of Montezuma,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Beer for My Horses,” and others. For example, one of the choral songs can be sung to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” It runs:

The Muses know when to tell you,
Know when to scold you,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to pun.
You never count on Muses
When you’re writing for the scholars,
Only some who write are funny,
When the scripts are done.

The playful and inventive language is truly one of the gems in this translation. To me, one of the great things about comedy is how, in laughter, comic poets play with language in unexpected ways. This translation has fun with the language with Drumpf, for example, saying: “It should make all those haters shut up for good. As long as we remember my unpresidented election win.” This is comic gold.

The Evolution of Comedy

Reading Men and Their Horses got me reflecting on comedy, and the evolution of comedy. In Aristophanes’ time, the dramatic art form of comedy was still developing. I would argue that comedy didn’t achieve what it was meant to be until the times of Plautus. For example, Shakespeare and other writers can emulate Plautine comedy with great fanfare (e.g. The Comedy of Errors). Emulators of Aristophanes are less common. And, even Aristophanes, after Knights and Wasps, seems to have moved away from these biting and brutal satires for other types of comedy. I wonder why that is?

I also wonder if Cleon was personally in attendance. And I wonder if Men and Their Horses were staged, how Donald Trump would react, if he were in the audience. I guess it is one thing to be roasted, but another to be viciously lampooned. Reading this play brings to mind Molière’s Those Learned Ladies (Les femmes savantes). Like Knights, it is a work by a comic genius. In Those Learned Ladies, Molière savagely attacks preciosity (an affected manner of speaking popular at that time) and satirizes pedantry. But, unlike, say The Would-Be Gentleman, another play he wrote where he pokes fun at human nature, I always thought Molière was too strong in his attacks in Those Learned Ladies. While the “villain” in The Would-Be Gentleman is a likeable doofus, there is the sense that the “villains” in Those Learned Ladies are idiots, plain and simple. What is more, it is quite apparent that Molière really does not like the antagonists in Those Learned Ladies. I think the degree of animosity detracts from the humour. In the same way, because it is so clear that Aristophanes really doesn’t like Cleon (who is the butt of the jokes), it takes away from what the play might have been, if the anger did not seem so personal. Perhaps it is for this reason that Aristophanes shifted gears shortly after Knights.

There seems to be a line between being mean-spirited and being funny. Perhaps I didn’t put that right. One can be mean-spirited and be funny. Or one can be funny without being mean-spirited. Think of live, stand-up comedy. A stand-up comic can say hurtful things to the person in the front row, and this could be funny to the audience. Or a stand-up comic can say funny things, but with a kind-hearted approach. Both are funny. But I think some audiences would prefer the comic who is funny and kind-hearted at the same time. Perhaps for this reason Aristophanes changed gears shortly after Knights. But this remains a conjecture, if an interesting one.

The Hot Dog Stand is Open for Business

In Men and Their Horses, Lippman and Major have translated the experience of what the original audience felt into contemporary English. To recapture the verve of the original is a fantastic achievement,  a new benchmark in the translation of comedy. After 2,500 years, the hot dog stand is back in business. This is the type of translation that will make comedy great again.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.