Thursday, April 19, 2007

She wrote too well to be pretty?

I know Jane Austen is near and dear to the hearts of many YA writers (Shannon Hale, Marilyn Sachs, et. al.) and readers, so I'm sure you'll all forgive this digression from YA themes (if it's actually a digression; let's see).

A descendant of Jane Austen is auctioning off a portrait he believes to be of Jane herself. Naturally, it's going to fetch a very large price, and thus it's a bit of a news item. NPR's Morning Edition had this report and they are hosting a photo of the portrait here. Part of the story focuses on the controversy over whther the portrait is actually of Austen.

For me, the notable part of the piece is neatly summed up with this quote: "The author of Jane Austen's novels couldn't possibly look like this, or they would be very different novels," says author, poet and critic Clive James. There's a lot more, but this is the gist.

I'm well aware that there are whole schools of literary criticism that place enormous stock in attributing large measures of a given author's artistic accomplishments to factors aside from individual creative genius. Though generally I both disagree with and dislike this line of reasoning--I prefer to give pride of place to an author's genius for "the interaction of inspiration and combination," for creating anew from all the world as he knows it-- I can generally respect that this reasoning is at least interesting and worth consideration.

But this is just too much. It goes too far in minimizing authorial ability. To my 5:30 AM, pre-coffee ear, Mr James was saying, if Jane had been this pretty, she would have been married, happier, and less inclined to write what she wrote. Essentially, if she had been pretty and thus a beneficiary of the contemporary marriage-and-money culture, she would have been less keen observer and a less talented synthesizer of that culture.

Obviously, I think this is silly--so silly that all I want to do is stick out my tongue and say "you're so wrong, Mr. James. It wouldn't have changed a thing" rather than actually martial a coherent rebuttal. But beyond my disagreement with this particular application, I think this general line of critical reasoning would cast a pretty doubtful eye on a fair number of important YA writers (I guess it's not a digression). For instance, what of Aidan Chambers' massive This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn? Chambers, a 73-year old man who looks like this, opens the book with the epigraph "All writing is memory," which is a provocative way to open book concerned largely with the sexuality of a teenage girl (I'm pretty sure Chambers' Postcards from No Man's Land has an identical epigraph--maybe all his books do). Flux author Brian Madabach has been reading a musing about Chambers' novel and musing about it on his blog and he addresses Chambers' fearless approach .

Mandabach's own novel, Or Not, which I of course think is excellent, might raise some fairly interesting questions about an author and his characters. There are plenty of pictures of Mandabach on his MySpace page (and there is no controversy in this case; it's definitely him). Can he credibly write about a thirteen-year-old girl? Should we take his novel less seriously than an author who personally remembers being a thirteen-year-old girl?

Vladimir Nabokov was a novelist who could fairly be called obsessed with memory (his autobiography is called Speak, Memory). I'll go out on a limb and say that he would agree with Chambers' epigraph, and would even apply it to his own masterpiece, Lolita, even though he certainly had no personal memory of being an American teenage girl or even of being a middle-aged Swiss man who repeatedly sexually abuses one.

For my money, all writing begins with memory and experience and ends with imagination.


Brian Mandabach said...

Well, Mr. Karre, I was interested in this blog even before I read my own name, partly becuase I have never indulged an interest in writer biography-criticism.

Memory. Colorado College professor Douglas Monroy once wrote, "Memory elides," which sent me to the dictionary and set me thinking. I think that writing is memory in that it creates memory at least as much at it arises from memory. Memory is not an accurate record the past; it is creative in that it is a reorganization of the past by the present mind. And while most of the past is forgotten, some memory--researchers tell me--is invented.

And writing is creative in the simplest sense--not as some sort of mystical so and so, but in that when one writes, one makes something. And that something is made of . . . memory. It may seem like the muse is coming through you, and though there may even be something mysical going on, memory is the clay.

In my "normal" experience, I have never been a 14 year old girl. Susan Hinton (whose books called her S.E. so boys wouldn't get put off them) was never a 14 year old boy. But she was Ponyboy. And I have been Cassie. Still am, sometimes.

But if I was as beautiful as Cassie is to me, I could never written her story--even as flawed as it is.

Andrew Karre said...

Madame Bovary c'est Flaubert.
Mademoiselle Sullivan c'est Mandabach.