Wishing for the Real Jane Austen

Such is the love modern readers have for Jane Austen’s witty and romantic novels that many authors have dared to write alternate Jane Austen novels, novellas, short stories, and so on. In fact, there has been in recent years a large outpouring of fiction that attempts to satisfy the fantasy (shipper) needs of Austen fans, while, sadly, ignoring the wit needs of other Austen fans.

I feel deprived on reading a romance that features Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth kissing and carrying on, yet allows him to say nothing deplorably haughty nor her to observe and possibly speak with sly irony. Even when an author describes these characters with admirable propriety and language suitable to their era and their station in life, I am dismayed at the lack of humor. Jane Austen was an acute observer of the people around her and she wrote comedy about how they behaved. Not sexy melodrama. Her comedies of manners do often include a large helping of romance, and perhaps we love Pride and Prejudice the most because deserving Elizabeth gets to marry the handsome, rich aristocrat. Even so, to remove the humor from these alternate Austen stories is to remove the best part, the part that makes Austen a literary genius rather than a genre novelist.

As an indie author, I like to think that self-published books are on a par with traditionally published books, but these Austen stories show me the error of my thinking. The Austen alternate novel I read recently is nothing more than cleaned up fan fiction. There is a duality to this: The book delivers the story elements fans want, mainlining them in a stronger dose than most traditional publishers allow, but the book doesn’t have the editorial polish of a traditionally published book. Malapropisms, outright proofreading errors, anachronistic language, and pedestrian, inappropriate descriptions all mar this level of writing. I wish it were not so, but when a character repeatedly “smirks” in a situation when such behavior would have been unseemly and out of character, I wish even more strongly for a good editor to tell the writer to do better. Yet, a large number of readers do not seem to notice or care.

I have read polished indie ebooks, but I’ve also read quite a few that aren’t, and the difference, while noticeable to me and surely to editors and literary critics, is clearly not apparent to much of the reading audience. They do not care about mundane use of  language, although repeated typos early in a story arouse their ire. They’re reading for the fan fiction elements, not for the sly wit and comedy of manners that it so delighted Jane Austen to write.

The book I recently read was missing all sense of irony, in addition to including a plot element that was a major break in tone; no good editor would have let that pass. In fact, one decent editorial pass would have raised this story to a much higher level. Because this author is selling a lot of books and making a nice living doing so, there isn’t much chance she will bother to look for such an editor. And because traditional publishers now have standard contracts that are little more than rights grabs, there’s even less chance that this author will sign with one and get the benefit of the top editorial talents who still are employed in traditional publishing despite many recent mergers and layoffs.

We’ve all read imperfect books—no, call them lousy books—published by traditional publishing, but their imperfections generally have been smoothed out quite a bit. In some cases, that still was not enough. I hold a grudge against a major publisher who allowed a virginal young lady to eat dinner alone and unchaperoned with a nobleman circa 1800. Making all the grammar correct couldn’t save that piece of malarkey. So I’m dismayed and disappointed that this recent book by a popular indie author and others of the same ilk are going down the same path of inattention to key details. Yet I’d probably be willing to forget that if only these Austen fan fictions had some Austen-like wit. For kissing and hugging in period costumes, I can read just about any Regency romance published by traditional or indie sources. What makes Austen special is her witty, ironic take on people and manners. I would love it if Jane Austen observed and commented on these would-be Austen tales, slyly describing their follies to demonstrate exactly what these stories lack. I wish.

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