Friday, June 3, 2011

Jane's Fame, How Jane Austen Conquered the World




I like to read author biographies and this is a fascinating book about a fascinating author. The first quarter is biographical, and then Claire Harman explains how Jane Austen's fame grew through the decades and centuries.

Is fame important for an author? Mass market writers aim for a huge audience, but literary authors are frequently content with select readers that can appreciate their art. Austen was undoubtedly a literary genius, but as Raymond Chandler wrote, “It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.”

Jane knew the secret of great writing—revision. Perhaps she had no choice. Fifteen years or so elapsed between the writing of her first novel and publication. In the meantime, she honed Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibilities to perfection.

During an earlier time in my life, I spent a lot of time in Concord, Massachusetts. The biographical portion of Jane's Fame reminded me of Louisa May Alcott. They were each encouraged to write by their families, grew up surrounded by literary people and artists, and both read their stories aloud to family and friends.

Speaking of similarities, another one struck me while writing this post: Austen, Chandler, and Twain wrote contemporary fiction, but we now read their books as period fiction. Viewing their work as historical novels makes them timeless.

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