Reading the critic William Deresiewicz’s takedowns of Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, Richard Powers (the list goes on) is like watching a big-game hunter wield an elephant gun against snorting, charging beasts. You may not approve -- sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t -- but the nerve and expertise are dazzling.
So the snarkless charm of Deresiewicz’s new book, “A Jane Austen Education,” is about the last thing I would have expected from a whiz who spent most of the past decade teaching at Yale. When Deresiewicz writes that literary study is “about getting back in touch with the ways we used to read -- the ways people read when they’re reading for fun,” he sounds less like Harold Bloom than like Pauline Kael.
And when he says, “Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun -- an effort, not just another precious feeling,” he sounds less like Kael than like John Ruskin. His overall approach is, of all things, homiletic. The book is half memoir, structured to show how reading Austen guided him from callowness to maturity; its subtitle is “How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter.”
Scholarly life must not have been a happy experience for Deresiewicz, since his website reports that his “separation from academia was a mutual decision.” “A Jane Austen Education” is so defiantly innocent of theoretical jargon that at times it feels like a study guide written for young adults.
This effort at accessibility (highly honorable, in my view) sometimes shorts his subject’s complexity. The author keeps telling us what a nice lady Jane Austen was, and though the biographical evidence certainly supports him, it’s also true that she was a bigger-clawed beast than any of the big game he’s brought down so far.
Back in 1940 a scholar named D.W. Harding wrote an essay called “Regulated Hatred” which addressed the controlled viciousness that Austen’s sex and social status forced her to keep under the surface. Though Harding admitted that his argument was “deliberately lopsided,” since then no one has been able to read Austen in quite the same way.
Where I really part company with Deresiewicz is over “Emma,” her masterpiece. The book’s pivotal moment comes when the “handsome, clever and rich” title character makes a cruel (but witty) crack about the dullness of a social inferior, a chattering spinster named Miss Bates.
Emma isn’t a monster; she feels mortified over the hurt she has caused a creature who’s harmless and good. But Deresiewicz goes further, raising Miss Bates to the status of moral hero:
“If her speech bubbled and flowed in an endless stream of little matters, that was only because, like Austen herself, she found everything around her so very interesting.”
Mm-hm. I’d love to see Deresiewicz spend an evening in the company of Miss Bates. At the end of it, I promise you, there would be blood on the floor. She is indeed sweet and kind, and also, as Austen never forgets -- though Deresiewicz does -- a colossal bore.
Yet Deresiewicz seems to have glommed onto Austen’s underhanded methods himself as he keeps applying her “lessons” (I wince at that word) to his own life. Reading “Emma” led him to break up with a girlfriend whose job as a waitress he found “depressingly unambitious.” “Pride and Prejudice” sent him fleeing from under the thumb of his ogreish father.
“Mansfield Park” made him see a group of rich friends as feckless, cruel and shallow, and he dropped them. The simplicity of his tone as he’s telling these unflattering stories may allow you to forget that their subjects are very likely to read them. That’s beyond snarky. Maybe Deresiewicz’s own hatred could stand a little regulating.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)