When my 16-year-old stepson brought home a school-issued copy of Pride and Prejudice early in his sophomore year, I could barely control the superlatives that threatened to burst out of my mouth. “Best first line, ” “Favorite book ever, ” “Important perspective for changing women’s . . . “
“I can’t even understand what I’m reading, ” Nicholas told me.
“I’ll help you, ” I said. “It’s one of my favorite books.”
But try as I might to uphold Jane Austen’s masterpiece as a classic worth wrestling with, my son became despondent. When I printed out lists of characters and themes, he just shook his head. “I don’t understand it.”
I was shocked. How could someone not like Pride and Prejudice? I chalked it up to youthful ignorance and hoped he’d at least finish the book and pass the exam.
During finals week, Nicholas posted a Facebook link to Pride & Prejudice – Thug Notes Summary and Analysis, a YouTube video by a guy named Sparky Sweets, PhD, summarizing the book in modern youth slang. Dr. Sweets begins, “This book tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett and her fiiiine sisters. Now, Momma Bennett be trying to get them girls to strut their stuff in order to find some husbands.” (Editor’s note: Dr. Sweets’ language might be too much for some viewers.)
I felt a little woozy the first time I heard it. This? This is the only way for modern youth to understand Austen’s beloved work?
“Sorry Mom and Dad but this is for the good of the people, ” Nicholas posted with the link. “Don’t hate me.” He didn’t even mention me in the comment. He probably thought I wouldn’t survive it.
Thankfully, he did survive the first trimester of English. He did well, even, but not because of Jane Austen. Shakespeare saved the day, and Julius Caesar gave us a reason to celebrate.
A few weeks later, I was preparing to teach a workshop when I stumbled on another Jane Austen hater. America’s beloved Mark Twain, the “Dr. Sweets” spokesman-for-the-people of his own day, had a few harsh words of his own about Pride and Prejudice.
“I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin, ” Twain wrote in a letter to his close friend Joseph Twichell in 1898. “Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone.”
My stepson felt vindicated when I told him about Twain’s impression. “See!?!” Nicholas said, convinced that there must be no more than one or two Austen fans in the whole world. I wanted to convince him otherwise, but with someone like Mark Twain on his side, all persuasion would be useless.
It felt a little like trying to convince my father, who has never been nor likely ever will be a writer, that he wasn’t the target audience of the recent book I co-authored with Ann Kroeker, On Being a Writer. One afternoon, we were talking about the book. “I’ve read through part of chapter one, ”my dad told me over the phone, “and I have to tell you: it’s not riveting.”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure riveting was what we were going for, ” I responded.
“If I were a writer I’d probably love it, ” he said. “And there are a lot of writers out there.” I nodded, though he couldn’t see me.
“What you really need is to go viral, ” my dad coached. “Going viral will sell books.”
Jane Austen went viral—as viral as one could go in early nineteenth-century England—achieving more than a modicum of success even in her short life. Her true popularity, though, is proven by the virality she experiences generation after generation, even in twenty-first century America, including recent adaptations reaching a whole new segment of Austen fans: Emma and the Vampires of Wayne Josephon’s Jane Austen Undead Novels series and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben Winters.
But going viral doesn’t mean everyone will appreciate the style or voice or language of a book—even one written by a universally recognized writer.
Just ask my son. Or maybe Mark Twain. If you dig him up, make sure to steal a shin bone, and save Jane Austen from his vexing prejudice.
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