Imitations of styles past

Would Jane Austen have flourished in our own times?

A bit of a pointless question in many respects, since, as we all know or are supposed to know, Austen, like anyone else, was a product merely of her own times, and that it is but sentimental mush to imagine that the yawning gaps of culture, knowledge, and understanding that lie between our times and hers could be transcended merely by what we vaguely term “literary quality”. Yes, yes, I know. But those of us who are sentimental enough, despite various learned professors having proved otherwise, to cling on to those chimeras of literary quality transcending barriers, and of the ability of human minds, both of authors and of readers, to look beyond the cultural mores of their own times, the question is not perhaps entirely irrelevant. If Austen had never written Emma, say, or Persuasion, and if some contemporary writer of comparable stature were to pen these novels, how would these novels be regarded? Would we be able to recognise their merits?

A few years ago, writer David Lassman, struggling to get his own novels into print, carried out an experiment: he sent to publishers excerpts from Austen’s novels, with the names changed. Out of eighteen publishers, one spotted the ruse: others sent him rejection slips. Proof, some might say, were proof to be necessary, of the blindness of publishers to literary quality.

But is it?  If I were a publisher, and someone sent me an Austen novel with the names changed, I don’t think I’d even bother reading it. I’d flick through it, sample some passages, and – assuming I didn’t recognise what it was from these passages – I’d say: ”Not another modern author writing a bleeding pastiche!” and reach for the rejection slip immediately. It’s not a question of Austen being old-fashioned, and neither is it a question of my personally not liking Austen as much as I know I should given her undoubted qualities: it’s more that a writer with something serious to communicate should employ his or her own voice, and not take piggy-backs on established works. In other words, it’s not that one must not write in archaic styles if one want to be a serious author: it’s the other way round – serious authors don’t see the point of writing in archaic styles.

(Unless, of course, the pastiche itself is an aspect of the author’s artistic vision, as it is, say, in certain sections of Ulysses. But even here, pastiche is but one of many different aspects of Joyce’s artistic vision, and by no means its entirety.)

So Lassman’s experiment, amusing though it is, proves little. Writers write in the style of their times, or, if they are original enough, develop their own individual style, and help redefine what we understand by “style of their times”. What they tend not to do is to imitate styles past, as that is mere pastiche. All that the experiment indicates is that publishers tend not to favour pastiche, and that seems to me to redound to their credit rather than otherwise.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on October 15, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Interesting; I agree with you. Mind you Jane Austen has never been a favorite of mine. Her world is too circumscribed and also small minded. Another author who comes to mind is Barbara Pym. I can understand why her publisher began tor refuse her novels, well written though they are. I went back to her for a third time last year and found them so tedious, with 2 or 3 of them frankly bad, with the exception of “Excellent Women” where the quite humor carries it along.


  2. The proper, impossible test is to submit not the 200 year old text, but the text that today’s Austen would have written. I’m with you – those publishers made the right call.


  3. I was thinking exactly what Amateur Reader did: I’m convinced that a modern Austen would ultimately have the same impact. Probably her settings/characters wouldn’t change much, since the appeal of her novels have much to do with how they are recognizable, no matter when they are read.

    Interesting topic!


    • Hello Alex,

      How Austen might have written had she been alive now, and how her writings would have been received, remain, of course, mere conjecture. But given her literary gifts and her keen intelligence, I imagine she would have written novels of a very high literary quality, and in an elegant and expressive prose – but an elegant and expressive modern prose, not the prose of the 1810s. And I imagine they would be masterpieces.

      I have said often enough that I personally have difficulties with Austen, but, having made an effort to get to know her works a bit better, I do find myself liking them more than I used to, and I also find myself admiring them immensely. I agree with Erika that she depicted a world that was circumscribed, but if this world itself is “small-minded”, Austen herself, I think, isn’t. Indeed, it is a measure of Austen’s achievement that she found so much in, apparently, so little. If I may draw an analogy of sorts with composers, virtually all of Chopin’s work is written for a single solo instrument – the piano: and yet, he found at least as much depth with this single instrument as Mahler did with an entire orchestra.

      I need to re-read Austen. The more I read of her, the more I am coming round to her. Her sensibilities may be very alien to my own, but I am increasingly finding it unsatisfactory to read literature only in pursuit of what is congenial to one’s own temperament. But I digress.


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