SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
BUD JERMY: Good evening and welcome to the third of the summer series. Next week will be our last regularly scheduled one. But we also have Joyce Carol Oates coming the next night on August 1. So I would invite you back for that.
Please silence all electronic devices. We always have two phones going off. And we don't want to have any phones going off tonight.
I want to also thank Kathryn Boor for the use of this auditorium. She's been very gracious and generous to let us be here. My name is Bud Jermy, and I'm from the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.
In Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood remarks to her mother, "The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!" Unfortunately, Marianne never knew David Faulkner, truly a man with so much.
David has been at Cornell since the summer of 2007, when he joined the faculty as a senior lecturer in the Department of English to teach writing and literature. David currently also serves as the-- and this is the longest title in the university-- the Walter C. Teagle Director of First-Year Writing Seminars of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines and also as the writing program course director for Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. He is a frequent instructor in Cornell's adult university. I think he's taught for the last five summers, maybe six summers in a row.
DAVID FAULKNER: 11.
BUD JERMY: 11? OK, 11. David received his BA with honors in English from Northwestern University and his MA and the PhD in English from Princeton University. I began with Jane Austen's words, so I'll close with some more.
In a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, Jane Austen wrote, "To you, I shall say, as I have often said before, do not be in a hurry. The right man will come at last." With apologies to Jane Austen, for us, the right man is already here. David Faulkner, "Jane Austen Made Me Do It."
DAVID FAULKNER: Thank you all for coming. So pleased to see so many of my friends here tonight. I know you're all eagerly wondering what it was that Jane Austen made me do. That's private. But I do have some dad jokes and a talk to give, so here it is.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a diffident speaker in possession of a public occasion must be in want of an opening line. See what I did there? In fact, there seems an unwritten law that some fraction of unscholarly discussions of Austen must start by echoing her most famous beginning.
Here's a typically unfortunate example from 2011 in a British publication called The National. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that, despite their advancing years, Jane Austen's novels must continue to dominate our literary consciousness." Now, obviously, that sentence states a valid point. But stylistically, it leaves something to be desired.
Here's the real thing. I'm sure many of you know it by heart, so say it with me. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife." This sentence, with its rhetorical inversion, its balanced attentions between having and lacking, its sinuous irony in suggesting the mutual fungibility of fortunes and wives, the whole novel is in it. Such a sentence feels in its familiarity ripe for imitation and even parody.
So here's a semi-famous comic transformation of it. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains." Evidently a parable of modern consumerism.
This is, of course, the opening of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, marketed as "the classic Regency romance, now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem." Those of you who've read the book will know that it consists of about 85% Austen's text verbatim, but some swordplay and a few attacks from what the novel calls the Dreadfuls sprinkled in. I imagine it took him nearly a whole weekend to write.
I kid. It was a massive bestseller. So those of you who have read it will also know that there's only about two genuinely funny scenes in it. Catherine, sorry-- Elizabeth Bennet's defiance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh is transformed into a katana battle against Lady Catherine's private ninja death squad. And the other is that when Elizabeth Bennet goes to visit the newlywed Reverend and Mrs. Collins in Kent, her friend Charlotte is slowly turning into one of the Dreadfuls, slurring her speech, bits of flesh dropping off periodically into her soup. And Mr. Collins fails to notice.
I bring up this example as a shorthand for one unoriginal theme of my talk tonight. Why is Jane Austen so undead? I kind of wanted a reverb there. Why does she seem still to walk the earth, haunting the imagination of our popular culture, not only in the English-speaking world, but indeed around the globe?
Perhaps it's already well known to you that since about 1995, a large and accelerating industry of Austen fan fiction has emerged, rewritings and adaptations in every conceivable medium-- print, visual, digital, from Hollywood and Bollywood to YouTube and emojis, with and without vampires, werewolves, and porn, both hard and soft, both queer and straight. Even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies drove Steve Hockensmith, he of the Holmes on the Range mystery series, to pen for it both a sequel, Dreadfully Ever After, and a prequel, Dawn of the Dreadfuls.
So I start to envision a garden of forking paths. Day of the Dreadfuls. Night of the Living Dreadfuls. Return of the Living Dreadfuls. The Walking Dreadfuls. The Dreadfuls Strike Back. Planet of the Dreadfuls. Return to the Planet of the Dreadfuls. I wasn't sure if you were going to beat me to that one.
What's perhaps a little less well-known, however, is that in a sense, Austen's own writing career begins as a kind of fan fiction in which she playfully manipulates the tropes and conventions of the literary cultures of her day. Her teenage writings teem with parodies, not only of the hyper-romantic fictional discourse she mocked, but also of the epistolary form and the moral ideology of the novel she revered, Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison of 1753. And here it is in all its logorrheic glory.
Its hero and its heroine, Harriet Byron, are both paragons of rectitude. Sir Charles, especially, represents infallible, gentlemanly Christian virtue. Throughout her juvenilia, her teenage writings, Austen lampoons Harriet's penchant for fainting and Grandison's matchlessness.
For instance, in the story "Jack and Alice," at a masquerade, Sir Charles Adams, the most universally admired, apparently wears a mask representing the sun. But the description exaggerates hilariously.
"The Beams that darted from his Eyes were like those of that glorious luminary tho' infinitely superior. So strong were they that no one dared venture within half a mile of them. He had therefore the best part of the Room to himself, its size not amounting to more than 3 quarters of a mile in length & half a one in breadth. The Gentlemen at last finding the feirceness of his beams to be very inconvenient to the concourse by obliging them to croud together in one corner of the room, half shut his eyes by which means, the Company discovered him to be Charles Adams in his plain Green Coat, without any mask at all."
Austen writes this when she is about 12 years old. Misspellings and everything, it's wonderful. Even in her mature fiction, Austen comically repurposes her favorite novel. Richardson's Harriet Byron is abducted in a locked carriage by the evil rake Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. She's rescued, of course, by Grandison.
Emma Woodhouse, in Emma, faces a shorter ordeal trapped in a carriage ride home on Christmas night, forced to endure the tipsy and oleaginous proposals of the Reverend Mr. Elton, who is himself a kind of parody of Sir Charles. He's the focus of all female attention in Highbury. So Austen seems to have got there first.
Jane Austen Made Me Do It is the title of a 2011 collection of stories grounded in Austen's plots and characters. It's also the title of a Cornell first-year writing seminar that I've taught since 2017 and that will arise once more from its coffin this fall. Tonight, then, I propose to weave together some lighthearted speculation about Austen's cult status nowadays with an account of how I've experimented with teaching an introductory college writing course based on her fiction.
Now, I need to make a disclaimer here. I am not an Austen scholar. I'm not an expert, even though tonight I have to assume that you're all at least somewhat familiar with her works. I'm an enthusiast merely, approaching the subject less as a literary scholar than as a teacher of writing.
From this point of view, the explosion of Austen fan fiction over the past quarter century is not just intriguing but pedagogically exploitable. It can't only be the love stories and wish fulfillment, can it? What is it about Austen's writing that seems to make so many of us want to write?
Even I, dear listener, have succumbed. Later on, I'll tell you a little bit about that sequel to Emma that I'm planning. It's blessedly vampire-free.
Here's when they all have begun. It's a moment you've probably seen. In the lavish 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, a scene was invented prior to the moment when Elizabeth and Darcy re-encounter one another unexpectedly at Pemberley. I'm sorry the quality isn't a little better. But this is a clip that you probably have seen before. Oops, sorry. Here we go.
DAVID FAULKNER: Sorry the quality is not better. I call that landscape porn.
DAVID FAULKNER: OK. Thank you, Andrew Davies, we get it. Climax. A lot of ink has been spilled on this moment. Many commentators have pointed to it as touching off the Austen craze. Perhaps. Certainly it made Colin Firth's career.
Let me try to give a whirlwind and a necessarily incomplete tour of what the white shirt hath wrought. It's the very rough map of the Austen universe. And here I'm going to speak only about the print and broadcast material, not the online communities, like the Republic of Pemberley or the Derbyshire Writers Guild or SteamyDarcy.com, because I really don't know anything about those people.
I'll have to go a little quickly and just lightly illustrate the categories. I'm just barely going to be able to scratch the surface. So the simplest examples of Austen adaptation fan fiction would be dramatized adaptations of the novels. Both TV miniseries by the dozen, like the one I showed you, and feature-length films, like Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma, or Keira Knightley's Pride and Prejudice-- I'd be willing to bet that everybody in this room has seen at least two out of three of those.
Lately, Kate Hamill's stage versions of the first two novels are making the rounds of regional theaters, including our own Hangar Theatre last summer. A little bit more interestingly, there are endless attempts at sequels. I suppose I'd put prequels in that category as well. So why am I proposing to add another one to the pile?
Some are one-offs, like PD James' Death Comes to Pemberley. Others make sustained attempts at reasonably serious historical fiction, such as Rebecca Ann Collins' Pemberley Chronicles. That now extends to something like 11 volumes.
There are too many romantic sequels to count. But one typical example would be Marsha Altman's Pride and Prejudice Continues series, in the first volume of which the Darcys and the Bingleys, the two couples pass back and forth a copy of the Kama Sutra to spice things up a little. So you get the flavor.
Slightly different from sequels would be what I would call variations. And this is fan fiction in sort of the classic sense of inventing new backstories, relationships, or standalone narratives for beloved characters. It's worth noting that variations describes more or less what Austen did herself with the characters and situations she burlesqued in her own juvenilia.
In 21st-century terms, though, the franchise alone called Pride and Prejudice variations-- indeed Austen-themed erotica in general is practically its own separate industry, depending on the temperature you'd prefer, from plain vanilla Pride and Prejudice variations to sensual variations to steamy variations. I lead a sheltered life, clearly.
There are multiple young adult themed works, such as Elaine Owen's Longbourn Unexpected trilogy. There must be a comparable range of prequels, but I honestly didn't have time to look into those. But equally endless are the films, books, and digital content that somehow update the stories into the modern world, such as Clueless or the Bridget Jones movies.
Anticipating the 2017 bicentennial of Austen's death-- it was July 18, actually. So it was just about a week and 202 years ago. HarperCollins commissioned contemporary rewrites from novelists such as Joanna Trollope, Sense and Sensibility; Curtis Sittenfeld, Pride and Prejudice; Alexander McCall Smith, Emma; and Val McDermid, Northanger Abbey.
Now, I haven't read any of these. But I gather that they weren't very good. The project was abandoned. I mean in the sense of lost or mislaid. And you yourself could probably cite countless other so-called chick lit examples of such updating.
In terms of digital video, YouTube features self-produced serials set among millennials, like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved. My students love these. And then the 2018 Hallmark Channel special, Christmas at Pemberley Manor, even though it was filmed in my mother's town of Essex, Connecticut, it's quite possibly the worst movie I've ever seen in my life.
To me, the most interesting creations are those I'll call translations, eversions, and mashups. By the first, I mean resetting Austen's novels outside the Anglo-American world, such as the Bollywood movie Bride and Prejudice. It's a wonderful film.
Elsewhere in the South Asia film industry, there is apparently a Gujarati version of Emma and a Tamil Sense and Sensibility and probably many more that I've never heard of. And Laaleen Sukhera's recent book Austenistan exports the stories into contemporary Pakistan. And there are comparable examples in Turkey, Japan, Latin America, you name it.
A student of mine informed me about Ode to Joy, one of the most popular televised soap operas in China. It's loosely based on Pride and Prejudice, about five young women like the Bennet sisters living in a Shanghai apartment building. I believe it currently boasts over 3 billion-- that's billion with a B-- hits on YouTube.
So by an eversion, I don't mean an electronic version. I mean a turning inside out by reimagining the story from an alternative perspective, such as Joan Aiken's Jane Fairfax, which sort of pretells and retells Emma through the eyes of its second heroine, or Jo Baker's Longbourn, which replays Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view.
Finally, the mashup would be something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or other installments in the Jane Austen Undead series, like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Now, these are hybrids of Austen novels that are mixed with other genres of popular fiction, such as horror-- Mr. Darcy, vampire. Or crime/detection, Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries, where Jane is the sleuth, or Victoria Grossack's competing Jane Austen mystery books, where Emma Knightley is the gumshoe. Or even sci-fi like, believe it or not, Jane in Space, where our author awakes on a starship after 300 years of cryospaces.
On Wikipedia, there's a list of literary adaptations of Pride and Prejudice alone-- just Pride and Prejudice-- that names over 150, excuse me, over 150 different authors and well over 500 separate titles, the vast majority of which were published within only the past three to five years. The total number, even if it could be counted, must be in the high tens of thousands at least by now. And there's no end in sight.
What would Austen think of all this? Is she rolling in her grave? Well, here she is. And here I am. Everything seemed quiet to me in Winchester Cathedral. I'd like to think Austen would be delighted, actually. I'd also like to think that she would have taken a selfie at the grave of Samuel Richardson.
Now, I can't hope to account exhaustively for this mushrooming industry. I don't have a grand unified theory of fandom or a knockdown argument to make about any of this. But since I was so advertised, I'll speculate a bit about Austen's staying power and her generativity.
I'll preview a few topics here. And then I'll explore each one by narrating some ways in which I've tried to tap into their energies in my writing seminar. So first this is, why Austenmania? It's not sure. Romance, but it's got to be more than that.
So first, unsurprisingly I think, thinking of the richness of the social fabric and the psychological complexity that she dramatizes so succinctly yet suggestively, this is a window into Austen's deceptive artfulness. Second, I'm thinking of the ways in which Austen bridges the divide between high and popular cultural forms, attitudes, and practices. This has partly to do with Austen as a writer of fan fiction herself. Finally, what I'm going to shorthand for now is the cultural moment that scholars and theorists refer to as our postmodern condition. We'll come back to this later.
So it's a cliche to celebrate Austen's convincing verisimilitude in terms of character or milieu, but students can easily slide over the surface of the text, missing the nuances and the pleasures. So here's a simple example. On the first page of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet explains that Mr. Bingley has arrived to survey Netherfield Park in the chaise and four.
Now, very few readers-- none of my students-- very few readers will know exactly what that is, much less grasp it immediately as an ostentatious sign of wealth. If he'd driven up in a GT-class Mercedes, they'd know it instinctively. More significant would be a Prius.
On virtually every page, Austen makes such coded references to things and ideas, saturated with unspoken cultural or thematic significance. So out of this, I make an early assignment designed not only to enhance students' appreciation of such subtleties, but also to let them follow their own diverse interests-- not mine-- introduce library resources, and to practice transdisciplinary skills of analysis, research, and synthesis.
So I announce that we will collaborate to produce a Reader's Companion to Pride and Prejudice and Emma, a compilation of glossary-like entries, mini essays, or extended footnotes aimed at a curious 21st-century reader. Each student chooses a single moment or allusion, like the moment I just showed you. After a session with a librarian and an eye-popping visit to the Kroch Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, they conduct a modest research project, perhaps two or three sources, to show how restoring the detail's context throws additional interpretive light.
So suddenly, they're in the stacks, finding monographs on transportation, fashion, cuisine, the clergy, social dance history, you name it. And they're writing for what they see as a real-world audience, not me, the teacher. I almost wept when one of them blurted out ingenuously, Dr. Faulkner, the library is so cool. You wouldn't believe how many books they have there.
I haven't time for many examples, but students sometimes reach remarkable insights. Take, for instance, Jane Bennet's extended stay at Netherfield due to illness, engineered by her matchmaking mother. When you learn more about the social distinctions between doctors and apothecaries in the medical division of labor around 1800, and how the latter earn their fees by dispensing drugs or drafts, then you can see more deeply Austen's sly, silent irony at the expense of the Bingley sisters, who recommend an express to town for one of the most eminent physicians not because they care about Jane, but because they scorn the countrified Mr. Jones and want to display their wealth.
Moreover, we chuckle at Mr. Jones and Mrs. Bennet being in agreement that Jane needs more medicine and should not risk being moved from Netherfield, because his economic interests coincide with her matrimonial ones. When you learn the actual rules of the 18th-century card game Lottery Tickets, which is based purely on luck and no strategy at all, then the fact that it's Lydia Bennet's favorite game and draws her attention away even from the attractions of Wickham makes it clearer just how brainless and pathologically acquisitive she is. And so forth.
Another way I try to get my first-year students to savor Austen's psychological artfulness is a genre I've invented, I think, called the one-sentence essay. And no, that's not an essay one sentence long. It's grounded in a kind of reading that feels to them, I hope, less academic, more ordinary and pleasure-driven. And I do this because in a seminar populated by engineers, plant biologists, and policy analysts, it's pointless and no fun at all to teach literary criticism as it's taught to English majors.
Nevertheless, they can all benefit from rehearsing a close attention to language, unfolding implications of that language, recognizing patterns and patiently arguing from textual evidence. It could be daunting to contemplate a paper that tries to tackle the whole book all at once. And we can't afford to delay the writing work until we've finished discussing the book thoroughly.
So I ask them to write a four- or five-page paper on a single pregnant sentence-- the opening sentence is an example-- exploring its rhetorical situation, its style, its anticipations or echoes of other passages. Especially in Pride and Prejudice, apparently innocent individual lines often resonate with deep implications of motive and countermotive, layers of dramatic irony, hints of a larger thematic design. And again, I only have time for one or two examples to suggest the complexity awaiting my students' unfolding.
But remember that I'm also trying to account for the Austen boom in part by pointing to her subtextual abundance. So for instance, early on in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet laments her husband's neglect in seeking the acquaintance of Bingley, since etiquette will otherwise prevent her from introducing her daughters to him. Although Mr. Bennet has, in fact, paid the visit, he maliciously withholds this information, suggesting that she will be able to introduce Bingley to others at the upcoming Assembly Ball in two weeks' time.
Here's her response. "Impossible, Mr. Bennet, impossible, when I am not acquainted with him myself; how can you be so teasing?"
"I honor your circumspection. A fortnight's acquaintance is certainly very little. One cannot know what a man really is by the end of a fortnight."
The complications of motive and context here take a lot of explaining. His literal and his intended meanings conflict. He pretends to interpret his wife's words in a way she couldn't possibly have meant them. He honors nothing about her.
So the speech thus dramatizes perfectly the spikiness of his psychology and of the marital atmosphere that has shaped the Bennet daughters and actually threatens their happiness. And yet his words, reverberating throughout the novel, have a resonance even he can't access, because the shaping artist hovers over his shoulder and ours. After all, in this scene, Lizzie, sitting nearby trimming a hat, is herself on the verge of meeting two men about whose relative trustworthiness she will quickly leap to a confident but disastrously mistaken judgment.
Lizzie unwittingly echoes and sort of rebrands her father's satirical speech when she rejects-- sorry. Sorry about that. When she rejects Darcy's first proposal, she echoes her father's speech. "I had not known you a month," she says, "before I had felt you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry."
So to know what a man really is emblematizes a central dilemma in the novel in a single sentence. So just two more quick and unglossed examples of one-sentence epitomizes that are models of style as well as crystallizations of the fundamental drives of Pride and Prejudice.
Lizzie's aunt Mrs. Gardner is sort of warning her about not getting too involved with Wickham because he has no money. And she responds, Lizzie responds to her aunt, "Pray, my dear aunt, what is the difference in matrimonial affairs between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?" And this is the absolute double bind that every respectable woman in the novel faces. How do they find themselves a husband without being either too avaricious or too diffident?
Just one more quick example. I'm not going to gloss these too much, as I say. When Lydia Bennet comes back after Wickham has been bribed into marrying her, Mrs. Bennet and Lydia are the only ones who are not ashamed. Everybody else is just covered with shame.
Mrs. Bennet holds a number of parties to celebrate Lydia's return. But the narrator is sort of ventriloquizing Elizabeth's thoughts here. "These parties were acceptable to all; to avoid a family circle was even more desirable to such as did think, than such as did not."
It's a wonderful sentence. And the drive to avoid a family circle, to get married so you can get the hell away from your family, is one of the fundamental drives and in Pride and Prejudice. And my students love hearing about that one.
So when my students write intensively about a single sentence, when they unfold the corner of a layered design of the book as an artistic whole, they're beginning to read like literary critics. But they're also enhancing for themselves the sheer enjoyment of reading beyond merely following the plot. So I think that one driver of the Austen industry must be the sense we get while reading of the bottomless fictive potential of her imagined world. The closer we look, the deeper the complexity, the richer the resources we can exploit to transform that fictional world for our own pleasure.
Reason number two. I hinted a few minutes ago at Austen's border crossing between high and low culture. I would argue that her writing negotiates between erudite and popular genres. It's an elusive quality. But I think I can best illustrated by offering a kind of abstract of her books to reveal underlying patterns.
Now, I urge students to play this pattern recognition game all the time. It seems to me the single most important critical thinking skill they can develop, no matter what their major. Before I do that, just a quick aside.
It helps to remember that the high versus low distinction in the late 18th century was, crudely speaking, gender-coded. Learned forms, like history, epic, or poetry imitating classical originals were the province of educated men, whereas women, the young, and servants were relegated to vernacular kinds of narrative, like the testimonial or the novel.
So this is the audience participation portion of the evening. I'll summarize some features of Persuasion and Mansfield Park, and you tell me what you recognize. Please wait to buzz in until I finish reading the question. Here's a bare bones synthesis-- sorry, a bare bones synopsis or abstract of Persuasion and its heroine, Anne Elliot.
A young, beautiful woman who's lost a fond mother seems trapped, isolated from the world of light and life, controlled by a cold, distant male figure of authority. The blighting of her youth and beauty, a kind of symbolic death, seems connected with the autumnal fading of the year. The prospect of her return to vitality and connection seems equally associated with a vegetative rebirth of spring. What story is this?
DAVID FAULKNER: It's Persephone. With Sir Walter Elliot as Hades, I suppose. OK, here's a different abstract of the same novel.
During an extended period of war and its aftermath, a clever and resourceful sailor-warrior wanders among distant islands, braving danger and adventure. Meanwhile, his beloved remains on her home island passively waiting, resisting the advances of other suitors. What story is this?
AUDIENCE: The Odyssey.
DAVID FAULKNER: To project-- thank you, it's yeah, The Odyssey, right? We are in Ithaca, after all. To project Captain Wentworth as an Odysseus and Anne as a Penelope or Persephone is to shrink the distance between epic and novel, between dominant and marginalized forms of culture. Isn't this, after all, one of the impulses behind fan fiction, to participate in literary culture, to identify oneself with the iconic artwork, the venerated author, and the honored activity of artistic creation?
Let's try a descriptive abstract of Mansfield Park to gauge the scope of its literary ambition, even within the bounds of a humble courtship novel. But this one operates at a pretty high level of abstraction concerning the premise as well as the plot of the novel.
A small commonwealth that supposedly was once prosperous is now faced with threats to its stability due to some unnameable problem in its economic functioning. The sovereign of this commonwealth seems to have been neglectful, absent, and in a sense has virtually abdicated his power. Those who act in his name are bad managers of his property and the people over whom he claims dominion.
Such an abdication has rendered this commonwealth strangely vulnerable to the demoralizing influence of foreign ideas, mostly about liberty, imported by outsiders. Rebellion is potentially brewing. Firm repressive measures, clothed in the drapery of benevolence, must be taken to cleanse and restore his authority over his domain.
Now, I'm describing the condition of which estate? Is it Mansfield Park or Sir Thomas' Antiguan sugar plantation or the island kingdom, indeed the island empire, of England itself? OK, one more abstract of Mansfield Park. Buzzers at the ready. This is a description of the plot of Mansfield Park.
A well-meaning but flawed patriarch has unwisely stepped away from personal supervision of his own affairs, even though he expects still to enjoy the same obedience. Two of his daughters, previously favorites, seize the opportunity and flout his authority, revealing their contempt for him all along. The third daughter has been ignored, misunderstood, and banished as ungrateful, though inwardly she remains staunchly faithful. Through the suffering that flows from his mistakes, the patriarch learns the third daughter's true value. What story am I telling?
DAVID FAULKNER: King Lear. Austen is never not stepping into her rightful place alongside the Bard. I haven't yet rested my case, though, about Austen's elevation of the popular and how that might feed the fan fiction machine. So similarly to the juvenilia in her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey-- it was the last published but first completed-- even as she satirizes them, she openly celebrates the female-authored novels into which Catherine Morland projects herself, testing her imaginative powers.
So I have my students read a few typical criticisms, circa 1800, of the popular Gothic novel. It's accused by some conservative male writers of inducing in young readers everything from a softening of the brain to secret masturbation to a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to.
So my point, to repeat myself a little, is that Austen's own writing career begins in the species of fan fiction that critiques the patriarchal establishment that would relegate it to the subliterary. Austen's defense of the novel, in chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey, is worth quoting at length. The budding friendship between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe is cemented by the fact that the two girls shut themselves up to read novels together. Yes, novels, the narrator soliloquizes, appealing to the sisterhood of novelists that throw off the chains of obligatory self-deprecation.
"Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans." Sound familiar? "Let us not desert one another. We are an injured body.
"Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. While the abilities of the nine hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who selects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, -- there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them, works in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliness effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."
I think I would give the last two fingers of my left hand to be able to write like that. I try to keep this passage in mind whenever I hear of the Austen fanfic industry or chick lit dismissed by some highfalutin journalist or critic, usually male. But I want you to note something else here.
Austen appeals also to a practice of reading. The girls retired together. The practice of reading that is social and mutually affirming, instead of solitary and competitive. She appeals to a form of knowledgeable discussion of such reading that's based not so much on academic rigor that needs to be demonstrated to an authority figure for a grade, but rather on the communitarian values of connoisseurship and pleasure. And this is preeminently the mutually supportive ethos of fan fiction communities.
Historically, whenever the relatively powerless, such as women or servants or students, have engaged in expert discussion of what they know about and relish, it's been dismissed as the narrowness of gossip or just nerdy obsessiveness about trivialities. When powerful men have done so, it's been valorized as the specificity of table talk or the gravitas of political punditry.
I found that 21st-century students most like to talk about their reading and writing, about their intellectual development in general, to others like them, in terms of building on what they already know, what they already care about, already enjoy doing, rather than from the deficit model of what they don't know about compared to their instructor's expertise. So, not always successfully, I attempt to respect/exploit these preferences in my teaching and in my assignments to draw upon the energy of pleasure-driven or amateur impulses for reading, as opposed to academic ones. Reading just to find out and enjoy and respond to other enthusiasts, rather than to be tested on the material or to have their performances ranked.
So one of my running assignments-- it's not really an essay, but more like an exercise to encourage a certain kind of engagement with the text-- involves contributing to a shared gossip blog about Pride and Prejudice. After all, when we gossip, we try to read people's motives. And we can do so sympathetically as well as maliciously. We scrutinize the details and meanings of words and gestures, filling gaps in our evidence by reasonable speculation based on what we know, what we know from other experience or reading.
We engage in such discourse because we are inherently curious about other people's minds and about how the world works. We listen closely for dropped hints and unspoken implications. We consider patterns of speech or behavior. We solve puzzles and revise our views as new evidence emerges.
When we look back, we sometimes see the clues were there all along. We share our views with other interested and grateful parties, who sometimes have a different interpretation and challenge us to defend ourselves. Consider how much time and energy Austen's characters expend doing exactly these things.
All of this seems to me a close analog for what literary critics do. So I try to cajole students into reading more actively by asking them to indulge in natural taste for gossip about Austen's characters and plots. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, I want them to read a little more adventurously the subtexts of the early episodes at Netherfield Park, when Jane Bennet is rather ostentatiously in bed in the house of a young man romantically interested in her and all the young, energetic but unmarried adults are thrown together in idleness 24/7 without any restraining parental presence.
To read such sequences productively, students need to get outside of Elizabeth's observance of limited perspective. So I might ask them to write about a scenario like this. I'm sorry it was up there distracting you all the time I was talking.
I say, imagine you're one of the necessarily many servants at Netherfield Park. And they've all seen Downton Abbey, so they know what that's like. Even though you're constantly present, these idle privileged people you work for barely even notice you. So you can overhear and judge all their words and actions.
What kinds of thoughts or desires are likely to preoccupy young, healthy, prosperous people who have nothing else to do? So back in the servants' quarters, what do you gossip about? How do you interpret these people's comments and comparisons and so on? Well, you can read it for yourself.
So I ask them to choose a short passage or an episode from these chapters in Netherfield Park and write a transcript, at least page or so, of their commentary or dialogue with the other servants about the conversations or actions that they witness. Whatever a student might write about the men's blatant ogling of Elizabeth's energetic body or Caroline Bingley's louche offer to mend Darcy's pens-- I mend pens remarkably well, she insinuates-- or about his leering invitation to Elizabeth to seize the opportunity of dancing a reel, my point is that in doing so, students are not feeling the pressure of writing an essay. But instead, they're using informal and low stakes and playful writing to enhance reading skills in the discipline of literary study.
So here's the underlying structure of the activity I want them to pursue. To step back from the natural identification with the heroine's perspective, to put different scenes into dialogue with one another instead of simply comprehending the plot in unidirectional and linear fashion, to track patterns of language, to think about implications and offer evidence and reasoning for an interpretation, to join an ongoing conversation about the meaning of a text. In order to encourage them to do what fan fictionists do and immerse themselves imaginatively in the text, I try to come up with as many scenarios like this as I can think of, such as Charlotte Lucas coolly reviewing in her diary Elizabeth's behavior at the Netherfield ball, or Maria Lucas snooping through Elizabeth's suitcase in Kent and coming across the letter from Mr. Darcy.
Here's another one that I won't really comment on. But it's also designed to have students sort of break their identification with Elizabeth's viewpoint and to consider the author's shaping hands, when I ask them to pretend that they're Jane Austen and then start pointing out how clever they were in planting all the clues in the previous chapter.
Running through all of these prompts is the idea that amateur or non-expert approaches to reading and talking about texts can foster the more rigorous kinds of critical reading and academic writing skills students will be asked to pursue later on. But it's possible, taking a cue from Austen herself, to ground these approaches in a curious, pleasurable, and creative approach, like that of the fan, rather than the more forbidding one of the critic.
I know I'm making myself sound like Sir Charles Grandison here, like I do all these wonderful things. And my students are so wonderful. And they make so much progress. Would that it were so. About half the things I do work half the time with half the students. I just never know which half it's going to be.
And writing is hard. I struggle. They struggle. So I don't mean to give a false impression of what I do here, despite what Bud so kindly said earlier. So as I lurch toward a conclusion, I have one more potential reason for Austenmania, which I want to introduce through two more clips revisiting the white shirt.
So the first one is from the 2016 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is actually quite different from and much better than the book. Actually a quite entertaining movie. But this time, rather than being about to re-encounter Elizabeth at Pemberley, our hero Darcy is feeling the sting of her first rejection.
DAVID FAULKNER: OK. Let's pause a moment. In a film adaptation of a prose adaptation of an original novel, a totally gratuitous parody is inserted at a different point in the plot of a gratuitously invented scene from a different film adaptation 30 years earlier of the original novel. So you start to see the Russian doll complexity. It's an ironic quotation. It's a nod to the cult of Austen, a self-referential wink at the mythical origin of the very phenomenon of which it's a part.
One final clip. This one is from a 2008 British miniseries entitled Lost in Austen. Its heroine, Amanda Price, is a single, cynical, modern urbanite. Imagine Austen crossed with Woody Allen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
One night, Amanda awakens to find Elizabeth Bennet has wandered into her bathroom in a nightgown. Through a magic portal in her bathroom, she follows Lizzie back into the world of Pride and Prejudice, installing herself in the Bennet household. In interacting with its characters, especially Darcy, she struggles to keep from interfering with the novel's plot. So here's a key encounter.
- Will you do something for me? I'm having a bit of a strange postmodern moment here.
- Is that agreeable?
- Oh, yes. Yes.
DAVID FAULKNER: That's the title of this portion of my talk, I'm having a bit of a strange postmodern moment here. Perhaps the most compelling reason why Austen fan fiction has exploded, apart from, obviously, the development of the internet, born at just about the moment when Colin Firth took the plunge, is the fact that it practically epitomizes the general cultural moment of postmodernism in which we're so often said to be living.
This is a vexed term with many disputed definitions. And I'm necessarily simplifying and synthesizing ideas from different theorists rather than advancing a rigorous claim about it. But there is some consensus on the expressive characteristics of postmodern culture.
So, in a postmodernism culture, productions are marked by hybridity or mixing of genres, by a breakdown of the distinctions between high and mass art. A hyperconscious awareness of our thorough saturation by media imagery, including images of the past, leads to an ironic reflexive sense that somehow everything has already been said.
Everything exists in quotation marks, so to speak, as much artistic activity consists of recombining existing images through juxtaposition, bricolage, parody, and pastiche. Think about how much-- well, think of an example. Andy Warhol's soup cans, for instance, or The Simpsons quoting the genre of the family sitcom. It's an endless machine for recycling self-reflexive pop culture references.
Think about how much cultural production today proceeds through sampling, remix, mashup, retro nostalgia, repackaging of older forms. So in this context, the Austen industry makes perfect sense. And Austen's fiction seems almost purpose-built for it.
So given that this is the world in which my students' tastes and perceptual apparatus have taken shape, I set a final project of either reflecting on or creating their own adaptation of an Austen fiction. So I ask them to think about this throughout the semester, think about this project at the semester and report briefly on their latest idea as we go. I distribute a call for papers from a totally fictitious organization called the Jane Austen Society of Cornell University, or JASCU, to call for papers for its annual symposium, whose topic this year is "Jane Austen, Immortal or Just Undead?"
So I devote the last several class sessions to a kind of mini-conference, where a panel of three or four students each day presents and discusses their transformations. Now, they do have to say what their adaptation taught them about Austen and about writing. But mostly it's just hilarious and affirming, particularly at the end of a very stressful first semester of college.
So I want to sketch a few examples anonymously of their remarkably insightful and creative work in many genres. One created a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous website hosted by Jane Bennet Bingley in the vein of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop lifestyle brand. Another one devised an elaborate drinking game based on recognizing recurrent tropes in Austen books or films. Still another re-created the Netherfield ball scene in Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of Fitz Darcy, private eye, spoken in the idiom of hard-boiled detective fiction.
Another one literally filmed a trailer starring all her friends for an episode of The Bachelor, where all the other women in the book said catty things about Elizabeth. Perhaps my favorite involved the moment where Darcy and Wickham meet in the street of Meryton as silent enemies, which my student reimagined as a Hamilton style rap battle, actually writing and recording the music and lyrics. I could go on. I can't celebrate enough the exuberance and focus that goes into many of these projects.
Finally, as promised or threatened, I'll sketch my own projected sequel to Emma, one of the "its" that Jane Austen has apparently made me do. Before I do, though, I have to implore you please not to poach my story. Litigation and/or fisticuffs might ensue. Everyone here tonight will be on the witness list. I'll be collecting your contact information as you leave the hall.
Who knows? Maybe somebody's already beat me to it. Forgive me if I spoil anything for you about the actual plot of Austen's original if you haven't read it. But honestly, what else could you have expected? Emma and Mr. Knightley will marry in the end. No kidding. And Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are covertly engaged all along, which in retrospect seems almost obvious.
Sorry. In a way, what could be more predictable than an Austen novel? The real pleasures of reading Emma come after you already know the secret. So anyway, my novel will be called Anna Weston, named after the baby girl evidently conceived on the night of the wedding that begins Austen's novel between Mr. Weston and Emma's former governess, Miss Taylor. This is the baby girl who gestates throughout the novel's development and is born near its end.
OK, so the time is 1831. The place, Highbury in Sussex. England is convulsed by the debate over the first reform bill that would extend limited democracy to a rising middle class. And a transformative new technology called the railroad is on the horizon. Think Middlemarch, right?
As a detective, Anna will gradually uncover a hidden scandal from the previous generation, the true story of what lies behind the plot of Emma. It's this. Desperate to prevent Jane Fairfax from breaking their clandestine engagement and selling herself as a governess, Frank Churchill murdered his aunt Mrs. Churchill with laced arrowroot, using poison that he bribed with the apothecary, Mr. Perry, to obtain. I kind of want a reverb there, too.
Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, Anna will discover old letters in a Gothic mansion. She will decipher cryptic clues dropped unwittingly by old servants, by the gossipy Miss Bates, still alive, and by Harriet Smith Martin, now a passionate abolitionist. She will foil the ruthless men who seek to control her marital destiny. She'll meet real-world historical figures and play an unheralded role in the stirring events of her time.
Sounds like I'm writing my own jacket blurb. I can massage many details from the host narrative, more than I have time to cite here to support my parasitic manipulations of it. Arrowroot is a medicinal starch derived from plants grown in the West Indies. This suggests a source for the otherwise unspecified wealth in the Yorkshire estate of Enscombe. It's owned by the Churchills. That source is a Caribbean sugar plantation, as in Mansfield Park.
Now, the word poison actually surfaces in connection with arrowroot in the original. Sorry. Let's see. The word poison surfaces in connection with arrowroot in the original when Emma recalls how her belated gestures of support for Jane must have been received. In Jane's eyes, she had been a rival, and well might anything she could offer of assistance or regard be repulsed. An airing in the Hartfield carriage must have been the rack. And arrowroot from the Hartfield storeroom must have been poisoned.
Moreover, Mr. Perry is associated with the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, who dispenses the deadly drafts to the star-crossed lovers. Emma misquotes slightly from the play. Finding in Jane's constrained situation an excuse for having kept secret her engagement to Frank, Emma says, "Of such one may almost say, 'The world is not theirs, nor the world's law.'"
But in the real context of Shakespeare's tragedy, the words in Emma's quotes are Romeo's at the very moment when he is paying the apothecary for the deadly poison. So I'm imagining a set piece scene where the entire company gathers to read the play aloud, with Frank playing Romeo and Emma as Juliet. I haven't cast the whole play yet. It's the play within the play that shames a murderer. I gather there's a precedent for that.
And if you remember, the whole crisis in Emma is precipitated by Frank's blunder about Mr. Perry's setting up his carriage and the word scramble game that follows. And the tries to cover it up, where Frank is covertly in public communicating with Jane, is deliciously suggestive.
Frank's final word, posed to Jane but unseen by Mr. Knightley, is a mystery. The novel says that another collection of letters is anxiously pushed towards Jane and resolutely swept away by her unexamined. We never find out what it is.
I would exploit this to suggest that the word is poison. The jumbled letters, glimpsed but misinterpreted by Harriet Smith, as Anna later finds out, as the word orison, or prayer. Or maybe Harriet's poor education causes her not to notice that the word she thinks is spelled S-I-N-C-E-A-R is actually an anagram for, do you see it? Arsenic. Or maybe some other, more clever but still damning anagram or wordplay that I haven't managed to concoct yet.
So I made a little family tree-- in fact, a big one-- to help make my plot clear. As my sequel opens, Frank Churchill, Anna's increasingly morose, mysterious, and Byronic half brother, is expected any day to return to Highbury to claim his inherited property and assume guardianship over Anna. On past visits to Yorkshire, Anna has watched Jane Fairfax Churchill herself grow increasingly reclusive and neurotic, hammering out angry concertos on the grand pianoforte, pacing the rooftop battlements, muttering darkly about revenge for crimes unspecified.
Frank has periodically abandoned her at Enscombe for long stretches, visiting his Caribbean estate and restlessly wandering Europe. Jane has long suspected Frank's guilt, and he has vaguely threatened to confine her to an asylum to keep her quiet. Back at home in Highbury, Anna also has witnessed the slowly deteriorating marriage of her favorite aunt.
Now, you'll recall that at the end of Emma, Mr. Knightley magnanimously agrees to live at Hartfield until Mr. Woodhouse's death so as not to part father and daughter. Well, Emma and Knightley are still living at Hartfield 15 years later. Mr. Woodhouse is still alive, as infantile and treacherous as ever. Let's just say Mr. Knightley's patience has undergone some trials.
You won't be surprised to learn that Emma and Knightley have not managed to produce a male heir. So their nephew, little Henry, still looks likely to inherit Donwell Abbey. Henry himself-- he'd be about 21 by now-- dreads the life of a country squire, interested instead in engineering and the railroad.
Indeed, through his connections, Anna will have experienced the first trials of steam-driven locomotives and the opening of the first intercity railway in England, between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. She may have been even one of the first passengers, witnessing the first railway death in history, the politician William Huskisson crushed by the locomotive after falling from the platform. These are true stories.
I have several subplots that I don't have time to tell you about, involving the Gypsies and Roma people and the novels of George Borrow. The world's first purpose-built prisoner of war camp at Norman Cross. The reform of the British postal system. OK. I'm such a nerd. I know.
Political rivalry over the reform bill between Frank and Knightley is fueled by old jealousies. Frank still flirts outrageously with Emma, who is still only in her mid-30s, after all, while Mr. Knightley is now a slightly paunchy and balding 53.
And there are intimations of his mortality. So he's anxious to secure the future. Frank is also scheming to marry his half sister Anna to Henry Knightley so he can control indirectly the land rights that Henry might soon inherit, namely both Donwell Abbey and Hartfield.
Frank wants to determine where the coming railroad will be built to usurp the Knightley mantle and found his own family dynasty. Perhaps Frank has paid for Henry's education and offered to adopt him as his heir, provided Henry will take the name Churchill, as Frank himself had done in the previous generation.
Knightley wants his nephew Henry to marry his own daughter, whom I've given the good Gothic name of Adeline, to maintain his influence and keep the railroad out. Anna comes gradually to understand all these emotional tangles and power struggles in a more adult way as she unravels the underlying mystery whodunit from the past.
Different characters will recount to Anna their recollection of key events and backstories in Austen's Emma 15 years earlier, such as the expedition to Donwell Abbey, the games of wordplay, the disastrous episode at Box Hill. I haven't worked out my full plot, but Anna Weston will not end with Anna's marriage. Rather, having discovered Frank's guilt, Anna pursues him back to Yorkshire.
During his latest sojourn in Highbury, Frank has had Jane confined as a lunatic to the upper floor at Enscombe to stop her accusations. A final confrontation brings together Anna, Frank, and Jane. Enraged, Jane sets fire to the house, and both she and Frank perish in the flames.
Knightley and Emma, having discovered Anna's absence and followed her north, rescue her from the inferno at the last moment. This heroic deliverance rekindles their faded romance. Rejuvenated, Knightley will finally father a male heir to Donwell. Talk about wish fulfillment.
Thus, Anna has released herself from the dead hand of the marriage plot. The income from her father's estate, guaranteed her for life-- let's call it 500 a year and a room of her own. Anna will be free to live and create. I'd like to think she eventually moves to London and becomes a painter.
No, instead of a marriage, my novel ends with Anna injured, exhausted, haunted by the lurid story of a gloomy absentee landlord, West Indian plantations, a mansion engulfed in flames, a madwoman in an attic. The names Jane and Fairfax and the image of a woman who went to advertise herself as a governess echo in her mind.
She heads off to convalesce at the quiet home of a retired family servant who has moved to a small Yorkshire town, near the dwelling of a very strange but becoming family that Anna had come to know during her childhood visits to Yorkshire. The father is rector of the parish, a widower with three daughters and a son. I'll leave it to you to guess their name.
This was really fun. Thanks very much.
I was asked before, if anybody wanted to ask me questions, if I'd take some. I don't know if there's any questions of yours that you might have that I'd be able to answer. And I've kept you here long enough tonight already.
AUDIENCE: I've read Longbourn.
DAVID FAULKNER: Longbourn?
AUDIENCE: I just want to say it's a really good novel. It's dark, and it's sad. And it makes you look at-- it makes me rethink my whole enjoyment and delight in Jane Austen's fiction. Not to condemn it, but it throws a completely different perspective. And it's--
DAVID FAULKNER: We ignore the servants, too, as readers. One of my favorite delusions that my students have about Pride and Prejudice-- and it comes from the Keira Knightley film in 2005-- is that they believe that the Bennet family is poor because there's laundry hanging in the backyard and mud and farm animals and stuff. The Bennet family, Mr. Bennet makes 2,000 pounds a year from the properties. That puts him well within the top 1%. So that they think that the Bennets are poor.
And they think that Lizzie is a great reader, because they see Keira Knightley walking through the first part of the novel, reading the book. So I think that our perceptions of that world are often either shaped by the movies, or a transformation of the book brings a different perspective on it than we've seen before. That's one of the reasons why I said that those eversions, those turning things inside out, are among the most interesting kinds of transformations that are being written nowadays.
AUDIENCE: Can you say more about the process that you encourage your students to follow when they write the one-sentence essays?
DAVID FAULKNER: Just, as I say, to write about the context in which the speech is made. What are the intentions of the speaker? Does it matter whether the person on the other end of that speech understands what's being said or not? I mean, the whole rhetorical situation is often extraordinarily complicated. Whether it's ironic or an innuendo or an insult, I mean, that takes a lot of explaining. So it takes a really patient attention to language.
I ask them to think about what terms or ideas or words in that sentence might be echoed elsewhere in the novel. The PowerPoint got a little bit messed up at that point. But I tried to show how like a later speech brings back those words from Mr. Bennet. And that happens all the time in Austen. There's many, many sentences that seem like little crystallized kind of epitomes of the book as a whole.
So it's really just trying to get students to perceive that, not just to read in a linear way and just to follow the surface of it, but to really think about every detail in the book as being sort of saturated by, bathed in the context of every other detail simultaneously, which is a hard thing to do. But again, to focus on that one sentence in that way is one way to at least encourage, like I said, a more engaged way of reading than just comprehension in the sense of following the plot. Did I say anything different from what I said before? I'm sorry.
AUDIENCE: I like what you said about saturating the specific sentence and how it is bathed in the other sentences.
DAVID FAULKNER: Yeah, and it's partly because this is in the context of a first-year writing seminar. It's not like an English Department class or English majors, where we don't have time to read the whole novel and then write a big paper at the end. We have to be doing some writing all along the way. So before we even finish the novel, they start to do this kind of work. So it's partly a solution to the problem of just maintaining the care and feeding of a first-year writing seminar, where we've got a lot of writing to do.
AUDIENCE: How surprised are your students to encounter this [INAUDIBLE], which you've outlined in wonderful detail during this talk? And how surprised are they to discover at the same time the subtextual [INAUDIBLE]? I'm talking about good surprises--
DAVID FAULKNER: No, I understand. I understand.
AUDIENCE: And possibly bad surprises.
DAVID FAULKNER: Again, I think I don't mean to give a picture that somehow everything is wonderful all the time. And I have these brilliant ideas, and they perform brilliantly, and so on. I think the idea that there's more going on behind the scenes, under the surface, is kind of a revelation, partly because for many of them, for many of us nowadays, our first encounter with Austen is through the films, where everything's already been imagined for us.
So that's part of it. How surprised are they to encounter the [INAUDIBLE]? They're very grateful that I try to base it on fun and pleasure, instead of rigor. And that last week or so, when they're all sharing their work with us, we just laugh. I mean, the whole-- it's absolutely hilarious. I can't believe I get paid to do it.
So how surprised? I mean, they kind of take it in stride in some ways. Like I said, I think it's-- especially that adaptation assignment, because it's so much of the culture that they live in. They take to it like fish.
I mean, I gave only a tiny snippet of the really incredible range of different sort of genres that students create. They make Twitter feeds. They make Snapchat stories. They make all kinds of things adapting the novel. So that part of it, I think, actually feels really natural to them in some ways.
AUDIENCE: It feels natural, but I mean-- sorry to continue, but I'm thinking of the shock value of their encountering a new structure through [INAUDIBLE]. And I don't mean that personally.
DAVID FAULKNER: I understand.
AUDIENCE: I do mean the shock value of encountering the structure through [INAUDIBLE] in your relation to the text. And its, again, subtextual [? violence ?] and [INAUDIBLE].
DAVID FAULKNER: I think I'm having too much fun myself to notice. I don't know. I mean, I hadn't thought about it before. But they don't seem too fazed by it.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much.
DAVID FAULKNER: Thank you.
DAVID FAULKNER: [? Brad ?] is my co-facilitator in Writing 7100. He's my loyal sidekick [INAUDIBLE].
AUDIENCE: My favorite Austen novel is Persuasion.
DAVID FAULKNER: Persuasion, yeah. It's the one I didn't really talk about all that much.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, and perhaps because I love romantic poetry. And that novel just seems to me to be made up of romantic poetry. And I'm wondering if you teach it.
DAVID FAULKNER: I have, not in first year. Not in first-year writing.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] why that novel is so different from all the other ones in these strange ways.
DAVID FAULKNER: It's late.
DAVID FAULKNER: I mean, a lot of the novels, like Pride and Prejudice and so on, the early, that reaches back to some of her really youthful writings. I mean, that's one that had been in her quiver for a long time. Persuasion comes so late, I think by that time she has a more sober vision of the world. It's very much a wartime novel too. So I think it's somewhat more somber.
I did a whole thing that I cut out about how I think Anne is a female Byron, right? I mean, the best-selling author on the planet at the time when Austen publishes Persuasion is Byron. And I think that her sort of-- the sense that she suffered a deep but hidden wound and that she moves through the world stoically. She's interested in other people's pain, but she holds herself back from it.
I think that that's actually Austen trying to imagine the kind of female Byronic figure. So that's what came to mind when you said about its relationship to romantic poetry. And after all, Louisa Musgrove and Captain-- what's his name? No, no. No. Louisa Musgrove falls in love with a guy over Byron's poetry, right? After she hits her head and she convalesces, they fall in love over the poetry of Byron.
AUDIENCE: So how do students react to Persuasion?
DAVID FAULKNER: Again, I haven't really taught it to-- I mean, I taught it once in an upper-level Austen course. This was many years ago. And actually, we had sort of a guest lecturer at that time, when I was sort of team-teaching the course with other people. So why haven't I actually myself taught it to undergraduates?
Some of my CAU students from my Austen class are here. Do you remember that long ago what I said about Persuasion? I don't.
I think, again, that's a very much-- that's a book for middle-age people in a way. Because it's about having a second chance in life, which is something I identify with really strongly.
AUDIENCE: Extremely sad.
DAVID FAULKNER: Yeah, very sad.
DAVID FAULKNER: But a wonderful outcome. But so I think that for undergraduates, I mean, to imagine the idea that one has suffered disappointment and it looks like it's going to last forever, and then miraculously, right? I mean, that's not a life experience they can identify with. So I've never really taught that book to undergraduates. But I don't have an answer [INAUDIBLE].
But I would do that thing, where that idea in abstract, just to kind of subtract all the details to see the underlying pattern. Like I said, that's a game I ask students to play all the time, because I think it's a really useful way to think about literary texts. It's a really useful-- I mean, pattern recognition is at the heart of every single higher-order intellectual activity that we know.
And if they want to be a medical-- if they want to be a doctor, a medical diagnosis, stock analysis, baseball statistics, grandmaster chess, you name it, that kind of pattern recognition is at the heart of it. So I ask them to play all the time, because I think literary study is a really fun and practical way to study exactly that or to practice that skill.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, so I just graduated an English major from Cornell. And I really hate Jane Austen. How do I get myself to like Jane Austen?
DAVID FAULKNER: You could try reading some of the adaptations. I mean, they're hilariously funny, many of them. I don't know. I can't convince you. Let me try it another way.
The most popular genres of popular fiction nowadays are dystopian teens in peril novels, right?
DAVID FAULKNER: The Hunger Games and so on, where--
AUDIENCE: Can you say that again?
DAVID FAULKNER: Sorry. The most popular fiction nowadays, it's teen dystopian novels, The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, all those. And so I think of Austen as, in some ways, the world's first teens in peril novels, where the parents' generation is so morally bankrupt and has messed up the world so badly that the teenagers have to save the world. And they're so much better at life than their parents are.
And that there's a sense in which those teenagers have to-- they're forced to kind of replay symbolically all of the terrible things that are at the heart of their society. So that, like, the world is divided into 13 districts, and a tribute has to be chosen from each one, where they are going to fight out this battle that is going to ratify the society that they live in.
Well, isn't that just a courtship? I mean, I had a whole list of mashups that I sometimes give my students. So like, instead of The Hunger Games, The Marriage Games. I could imagine a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice as mashed up with The Hunger Games. Or The Scorch Trials, right? The Courtship Trials. Game of Estates.
Fifty Shades of Tilney.
Catherine Morland and the Chamber of Secrets. So I would maybe try approaching it-- and again, this is the kind of stuff that people just love. They love to read. They're deeply invested in it. And so through contemporary popular fiction might be a way to read back and think of Austen as aimed at the same audience, with a lot of the-- sort of the same audience, anyway; the same age group, more or less-- with a lot of the same kind of fictional purposes in mind.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
DAVID FAULKNER: So not Elizabeth Bennet, but Katniss Everdeen. Thank you, everybody. I kept you here a long time. You've been really wonderful. Thank you.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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David Faulkner from Cornell's John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines examines why Jane Austen's work continues to influence global popular culture today. Austen’s cult status can't be explained by any single cause, but her writing career essentially began as fan fiction, parodying and paying tribute to the popular culture of her day. Examples are her wildly subversive “Juvenilia” short story collection and her first completed novel, "Northanger Abbey," which mocks yet celebrates the vogue for Gothic horror fiction in the revolutionary 1790s.
As an Austen enthusiast, Faulkner speculates that her continued popularity might be related not only to social and historical factors linking the late eighteenth century to our own era, but also to what makes her fiction a delightful and productive basis for his First-Year Writing Seminar: the fruitful interaction between academic and amateur ways of thinking about narrative, the way that imaginative writing engenders more imaginative writing, and the pleasure and power of rewriting a beloved story.The lecture was a part of Cornell University's 2019 Summer Events Series.