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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:





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 (https://jasna.org/publications-2/persuasions-online/vol38no1/mijares/). 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 (risktheatre.com). 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.