Thursday, 28 April 2011

TALKING JANE AUSTEN WITH ... WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ, AUSTEN SCHOLAR AND AUTHOR OF A JANE AUSTEN EDUCATION + DOUBLE GIVEAWAY


Today his A Jane Austen Education, How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter,  comes out, published by  The Penguin Press.
William Deresiewicz was an associate professor of English at Yale University until 2008 and is a widely published literary critic who writes for a popular audience. His reviews and criticism regularly appear in The New Republic, The Nation, The American Scholar, the London Review of Books, and The New York Times. In 2008 he was nominated for a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.  Today I'm very pleased to have him as my guest for our "Talking Jane Austen with..."  and to present his new release to all of you. The Penguin Press have granted to lucky commenters free copy of A Jane Austen Education. Read at the end of the interview how to enter the giveaway.   

Out today!

So, professor Deresiewicz, first of all welcome in my little Austen - dedicated corner of the Net. Then here's my first question. I can't believe you've always liked Jane Austen! I've got a hard job at convincing my own male teenage students to read just one or two pages. How does that happen? did you like reading Jane Austen as a young student?

 No, like a lot of men, I thought Austen was chick lit: soap-opera romance, fluffy and boring.
When a friend of mine heard I was writing this book, he said “I expect a lot of sex and dating advice.” It was an understandable assumption, and my friend’s, no doubt, was based on all those movies—the ones with the beautiful gowns, and the beautiful homes, and the beautiful actresses. The ones with all the swoony music and the lush, romantic lighting, the ones that leave out everything that Austen had to say to us except the love—and then, don’t even get the love part right.


What most surprised you about yourself once you discovered Austen's novels and started examining your own life?
 If you had told me, when I was eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, that the most important writer I would ever come across would be Jane Austen, I would have said you were crazy.  Why should half a dozen novels about provincial young English ladies, published in the 1810s, make any difference whatsoever to a Jewish kid in New York in the 1990s? But I learned that books aren’t written by groups, and they don’t belong to groups. They’re written by individuals, speaking to individuals, and they belong to anyone who loves them.

What was Austen saying to me? Well, first of all, what an idiot I had been about so many things--about pretty much everything to do with relationships. And that I had so much to learn from seeing things from a woman's point of view. But most of all, finally, I think, that I didn't have to be afraid to learn things about myself--didn't have to be afraid, in other words, to be wrong. Aside from all the specific lessons, I think the largest message was simply that I no longer had to be so armored, so defended, so defensive. And that's made it easier to admit mistakes and be vulnerable and keep on growing.


This is why your book’s subtitle is “How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter”, isn't is?
 Well, a while ago, I was interviewing for a job as an English professor. At the very end, the head of the hiring committee posed a question that she must have been dying to ask me the whole time. Glancing down at my resume—I had written my doctoral dissertation on The Novel of Community from Austen to Modernism, published a book entitled Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, and was planning a study called Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston—she asked, “So what’s with you and Jane Austen?”

I wanted to give her a good answer. But how do you explain your deepest attachments? I tried to muster an intellectually sophisticated response, something about the purity of Austen’s prose or the brilliance of her satire, but it didn’t feel right, and besides, I’d already given enough answers like that. Finally, I just blurted something that I’d already been telling myself for a long time. “Well,” I said, “sometimes I feel like everything I know about life I learned by reading Jane Austen.”


And how did you come to write this book, A Jane Austen Education?
 I've been writing about literature for a general audience for a long time, as a book critic.  Actually, the fact that I was more interested in doing that than in pursuing scholarly work is the reason I decided to leave academia. The memoir part is new for me, though, and it's been an interesting challenge: a technical challenge to blend the two and a personal challenge to be so candid in such a public way. The second part is a little frightening. As for why I decided to write the book this way, well, the idea was to convey the lessons I learned by reading Jane Austen, and I realized pretty quickly that the best way to do that would be to actually talk about how I learned them, not just explain them in some kind of abstract and impersonal way.


So, what is there in her books which can be useful to contemporary men and women in want of a relationship?
 Ha! Great question. The first thing I think she would say is, don't settle. Then, marry for the right reasons: for love, not for money or appearances or expectations. But most importantly--and this is what I talk about in the love chapter, the last chapter--don't fall for all the romantic clichés about Romeo and Juliet and love at first sight. For Austen, love came from the mind as well as the heart. She didn't believe you could fall in love with someone until you knew them, and then what you fell in love with was their character more than anything else--whether they were a good person and also an interesting one. So I guess that means, date someone for a while before you commit, and don't get so carried away by your feelings that you forget to give a good hard look at who they are. As for sex, it's not so clear she would have disapproved of sleeping together before marriage. I think she maybe even would've liked it, as a chance to learn something very important before it's too late.


What do you hope your book will bring to people who aren't Austen fans?
 Well, first of all, if they aren't already Austen fans because they have the kinds of preconceptions I did, I hope it helps persuade them to give her a chance. I've imagined the book, in part, as a kind of introduction to her  novels. It's not exhaustive or anything--and I think that people who are already Austen fans will find new ways to think about her novels--but it does lay out the basic situations in each book and some of the most important ideas she was getting at. No spoilers, just enough to whet people's appetites. And finally, of course, I want people to see that she isn't just for women. I would love it if the book helped introduce more guys to her work.

Which is your favourite Austen novel?
 I knew people would ask me this. The weaseling answer is that I love them all, though it's also true. Certainly whenever I'm reading one, that's my favorite. But if I had to pick just one, desert-island style, it would have to be Emma. Not just because it was my first and will always have a special place in my heart, but because I really do think it's the best, the one where she put it all together: the brilliant sparkle of Pride and Prejudice, the emotional depth of Persuasion, the fun, the humor, the superhuman cleverness. There really is nothing else like it.

I love Emma too, though the one I find more deeply emotionally touching is just Persuasion. Well, thank you. That's all for now. It's been a great pleasure and honour to host this Q/A exchange with you, Professor Deresievicz. Best wishes for your career and for the success of your A Jane Austen Education. And thanks for this book! I'll suggest it to my male students and hope I'll win their prejudiced attitude over.

Giveaway time!

Readers of My Jane Austen Book Club can win two copies of this new book, leaving their comments here and adding an e-mail address where I can contact them in case they win. This double giveaway is open to US readers only and offered by The Penguin Press. The name of the winners will be announced on Tuesday 3rd May.


Prof. William Deresiewicz has also published Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets  (Columbia UP, 2005)

16 comments:

Linda said...

This is such an interesting interview, and I love the cover. I liked his answer to the interview committee as to how/why he was committed to Jane Austen. Thanks for the giveaway.
lcbrower40(at)gmail(dot)com

mbreakfield said...

Great interview! Please enter me in the giveaway.
marlenebreakfield(at)yahoo(dot)com

Anne said...

Great interview and I also love the cover! Thanks for the giveaway.
annesbookgarden@gmail.com

Elegant Female said...

Thank you for the very interesting interview. I'm very excited about this book, can't wait to read it.

Felicia
felicialso@gmail.com

lynnquiltsalot said...

Thanks for a great interview. I love how he admits to being prejudiced against the Austen novels until he read them.

Lynn M
mathers(dot)lynn(at)gmail(dot)com

Jen said...

Always love hearing a man's perspective of Jane's novels. Would love a chance to win! :)

jenkmiller75@gmail.com

onemorelurker1 said...

It's very interesting to read a man's opinion on Jane Austen's work and I enjoyed it a lot. I say it truthfully because when I go to the end I thought 'that's all? Is too short' and then I go up to make sure it was a short interview and I'm surprised that it is not.

Thanks both for this interview.

OML :)

Debbie Brown said...

I really enjoyed this interview! I have often thought that if men wanted to understand what a woman needs in a relationship, he should read Austen. It is nice to hear a man say that it helped his understanding. I would really love to win this book!

Cait said...

I love reading a man's perspective on Jane's novels :) Maybe this will help convince my husband to change his mind about Ms. Austen!

cait.lore@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

It is wonderful to have a man's view of Jane. Long ago I read (an academic's pronouncement) that you either love the Brontes, OR you love Jane Austen. Um. How very pigeon-holing...are readers pigeons? (Perhaps THAT academic was feathered - just add tar). This gentleman is not. :)

fitzg

loveforbooks said...

I'd love to read this book. Thanks for the giveaway. kraftyhorselover@hotmail.com

Rita Watts said...

I wish my husband would read this book. Even though he has Mr. Darcy's good heart and love for me he is not a man that understands the role of Jane Austen in this world...I would love to read this book. Thanks for the giveaway.

ritalacerdawatts@aol.com

Rita Watts said...

I forgot to tell you my favorite card. ALL OF THEM. Congratulations to Katherine Cox for a wonderful art. The sentences were absolute perfection. Colin will always win my heart though. On the other hand...Ciarán will always be my Wentworth and Jeremy Northam will always be my Mr. Knightly. Thanks again!

ritalacerdawatts@aol.com

Flavia O. Lima said...

Thank Jane.I'd love to read this book too.
flavia.olima@hotmail.com

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by this comment from the interview: "As for sex, it's not so clear she would have disapproved of sleeping together before marriage. I think she maybe even would've liked it, as a chance to learn something very important before it's too late."

Before it's too late? You mean, after marriage, sex never happens? Maybe in Mr. D's dysfunctional family that was true. I'm sure JA didn't see it that way. Her heroines ended up married to men who treated them well - not with men who were angry passive-aggressives like the author's father.

I think this comment reflects more of the author's personal baggage than any kind of truth about Jane Austen.

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