Tuesday, 6 August 2013

TALKING JANE AUSTEN WITH ... DEBORAH YAFFE, AUTHOR OF "AMONG THE JANEITES: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF JANE AUSTEN FANDOM"

First of all Deborah, welcome to our online book club. I’m really glad you’re here today to introduce yourself and your new book to our readers.
Thank  you for inviting me!

Of course, my first question is:  “How did it come that you  decided to write about  Austen  fans,  the so – called Janeites” ?
I’ve been an Austen fan since I was a child, and over the years I attended a couple of the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual conferences, which I loved.  About eight years ago, I read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club and decided it would be fun to found a book club like that, dedicated to reading all the novels in order. I roped several neighbors into the group, and during our Pride and Prejudice discussion, a question came up about the entail, that legal device that’s so important to the inheritance issues in P&P. The next day, trying to research this question online, I decided to drop in on the Republic of Pemberley, the largest online Austen fan site, which I’d vaguely heard of but never visited.  I fell instantly in love with this community of fellow Austen obsessives  and started spending inordinate amounts of time there, to the point that I would get embarrassed when my husband caught me at it – after all, I was supposed to be hard at work on a book on a completely different subject.  One day, I was telling him about this wonderful community and its many quirky personalities, and he said, “You should write a book about that.” It took me a few years, but eventually I did.


Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom -- will be published this Tuesday by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  How would you invite our Janeite friend sto grab their copy and read it in about 50 words?
The book tells the stories of fascinating people who adore Jane Austen – among them a lawyer with a byzantine theory about hidden Austen subtexts and a writer of fan fiction who found her own Mr. Darcy while reimagining Pride and Prejudice.  It’s partly a chronicle of a vibrant literary community, and partly a memoir of my own lifelong Austen-love.

Can you tell us something more about the journey through writing and finally get to publish your “Among Janeites”?
When I began thinking seriously about writing the book, I became aware that Claire Harman was soon going to publish her book Jane’s Fame, the story of Austen’s literary reputation and reception through the centuries. I wasn’t sure if Harman was writing the book I envisioned, in which case there wasn’t much point in my doing so as well.  But once I read Jane’s Fame, I found that it dealt only glancingly with contemporary fandom, so the way seemed to be clear and I went ahead.
For a Jane Austen fan, researching this book was about as much fun as you can have without breaking the law. I got to attend the last four JASNA conferences and go on JASNA’s tour of Austen sites in England – and write it all off as a business expense! I got to read Jane Austen fan fiction – and call it work! I got to fly all over the country – so I could talk about Austen novels with smart people who were equally crazy about them! Life doesn’t get much better than that.

Have you discovered what is the X-factor of Janeites? Have they got any common trait?
I don’t think you can point to a single factor that explains why Janeites love Jane Austen.  One of the things I came to feel very strongly while writing the book is that we each tend to find in Jane Austen some reflection of our own preoccupations; we all like to imagine her as a version of our ideal selves.  That leads to some wildly divergent interpretatons --  you get people who are convinced she was a staunch conservative, and other people who are equally convinced she was a radical feminist.  Sometimes you wonder if they’re reading the same books.

Does your book mention the huge, enthusiastic   Janeite community which is extremely active and prolific online?
Absolutely – I’ve got a whole chapter on the development of the online Janeite community, and the importance of the Internet to the development of the fandom is a theme throughout. Although there were certainly Jane Austen fans before there was an Internet – I was one myself – I think the existence of Jane Austen fandom, an international community of people united by their love for Austen, is a creation of the digital age.

As a reader, what’s your opinion on fan fiction? Jane’s world is so down-to-earth, all sense and balance do you think fan fiction mostly  respect those features?
“Austen fan fiction” is a huge category, encompassing everything from staid sequels to zombie mashups, so it’s hard to generalize. I had read only a few of these books before I started my research; I just wasn’t that interested in other people’s reimaginings of Austen’s world. But I have to say that I had a blast reading dozens of these books as research for my own book. They vary hugely in quality, of course, but I found plenty that were very well-written and a few that I thought were fine novels in their own right. 
To answer the second part of your question: it’s definitely true that much Austen fan fiction contains a lot more melodramatic incident than Austen’s novels do (although casual readers of Austen tend to forget how much melodrama occurs offstage – adultery, elopement, even a duel). The truth is that it’s very, very hard to do what Austen does with such apparent effortlessness – tell stories in which hardly anything happens, and yet make them utterly compelling. It’s not surprising that lesser writers have to use plot twists to provide the narrative momentum that Austen manages to create with character and language alone.

If you could write a sequel  or spin-off, what novel/character would you choose?
The one thing I know for sure is that I would never dare to write an Austen sequel or spinoff. My hat is off to those authors who are brave – or foolish – enough to try.


What is the appeal of Jane Austen and her world to nowadays readers? What’s the secret of her huge global success ?
I generally try to avoid answering that question, because all the answers I’ve seen leave me pretty dissatisfied. It’s easy to point to things like her happy endings, her strong heroines, her orderly 19th-century world, etc. – but plenty of other novels have those same qualities and yet haven’t spawned the global phenomenon that is Jane Austen today. I think her appeal is different for different readers, but her worldwide popularity owes a lot to the movies, especially the three or four excellent ones that came out around 1995 and 1996. Those films – the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice especially – brought a lot of readers to Austen, or back to Austen, just at the moment that the Internet was taking off, which gave all these new fans a way to share their enthusiasm with other people. The chance to build community around Austen propelled her popularity, I think.

If Jane had  lived nowadays what kind of novels would she have written?
It’s so hard to say; even though she feels intensely modern to us in her brilliant observations of family life and individual psychology, she’s also a product of her time, and if she were instead a product of ours, she’d be someone else entirely. If she were the same Jane Austen, transplanted to 2013? I think she’d still find plenty of material for funny, ironic domestic dramas.

What is it that you best love in her world and in her work?
The list is too long! I love her characters passionately; they sometimes feel more real to me than most of the people I meet in real life. And, as a writer myself, I find that every re-read increases my admiration for her brilliant use of language – how she constructs these delicious sentences that lead you happily along in one direction and then bring you up short with a sting in the tail.

What is your favourite Austen novel, hero and heroine?
Novel: I usually tell people that if I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one, it would be Persuasion, but that I’d spend most of my time on the island lamenting that I’d had to leave Emma and Pride and Prejudice behind.
Hero: I’m a Wentworth girl to the core. Anyone who can write a letter like that gets me at “You pierce my soul.”
Heroine: Oh, Elizabeth Bennet, of course. Sorry to be boring, but there’s a reason we all love her.

Let’s talk men, Deborah. In a Wentworth /Darcy challenge, who do you see as your champion?
See above: Wentworth girl. To the core.

Well, same here. Wentworth forever! And what Austen heroine are you more alike?
I identify very strongly with Elinor Dashwood, the cautious, sensible older sister with the emotive younger sister.  But in bad moments I worry that I have way too much pushy, interfering Emma Woodhouse in me.

As a lover of the Regency and a Janeite what are you next projects to spread more Austen passion?
No more Janeite projects on tap at the moment – after several years of whipping out a notebook whenever I met other Janeites, I think it will be lovely to go back to just being a fan.

That's all Deborah! Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer my questions. It was a great pleasure to talk Jane Austen with you!


 About Debora Yaffe
Freelance writer Deborah Yaffe has been a passionate Jane Austen fan since childhood.  During thirteen years as a newspaper reporter in New Jersey and California, she covered education, the law, and state government.  Her award-winning first book, Other People’s Children: The Battle for Justice and Equality in New Jersey’s Schools, tells the story of the state’s efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to rich and poor schoolchildren.
Yaffe holds a bachelor’s degree in humanities from Yale University and a master’s degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University in England. She lives in central New Jersey with her husband, her two children, and her Jane Austen Action Figure.
Find her on Twitter (@DeborahYaffe), Facebook (www.facebook.com/amongthejaneites), and the web (www.deborahyaffe.com).

9 comments:

Susan Kaye said...

HA! Frederick Fan Girls Unite!

Maria Grazia said...

FFG? Sounds good! Let's found a new association, Susan ;-)

Deborah Yaffe said...

I'm in!

dstoutholcomb said...

cool

Leo Taylor said...

I am not sure if it is true, but I seem to recall that some of the original Janeites were World War I men. They sat in trenches and read the novels to pass time. Can anyone confirm this?

Brandy said...

The term Janeite was first used by scholar George Saintsbury in his 1894 introduction to a new edition of Pride and Prejudice. Rudyard Kipling's short story "The Janeites" set in the trenches of WWI was published in 1926.

I'll have to get my hands on a copy of this book for my Master's Thesis. Right now it's proposed to be called "Austen's Heroines: Why we still love them 200 years later."

Maria Grazia said...

Thanks, Leo and Brandy, for your interesting contributions to the discussion!

Deborah Yaffe said...

Leo, you may also be thinking of how British doctors prescribed JA's novels as therapy for shell-shocked WWI veterans. The docs thought her stories would calm shattered nerves.

Claudia Johnson's recent book, Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures, has an extremely interesting chapter on how the WWI generation reacted to JA. Some people (including her great editor, R.W. Chapman) saw her as an example of the upstanding, decent Englishness the war had been fought to preserve, while others found in her astringent narrative voice and biting satire an apt companion for their despair and disillusionment in the face of senseless slaughter.

Leo Taylor said...

Thanks for the information. I can certainly see where Jane's lighthearted writing could have a soothing affect. I recall that Charlotte Bronte believed Jane's work to be too light and pointless, but I believe that, compared to the Bronte tales, Jane's work is very heartwarming.