Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Jane Austen: The Mother of All Chick Lit

As promised, here's an entry on my Jane Austen workshop.

I originally came up with my idea of doing a workshop on Jane Austen and chick lit as a way of explaining chick lit to my local Romance Writers of America group. The more traditional romance writers have had a hard time with the chick lit genre. They don't seem to understand the appeal of books where a happily ever after isn't necessarily guaranteed, where the heroine may date multiple men on the way to Mr. Right, and where that hot guy who shows up in the first chapter might not turn out to be the hero -- all of which go totally counter to most of the romance "rules."

Jane Austen is generally credited with starting the Regency romance subgenre, but she wasn't writing Regencies. She was writing contemporary novels. And while her books do have romantic plots in them, the romance isn't the main story. The main story in Austen's novels has more to do with a woman's place in the world -- how she copes with society's expectations of what she should do with her life. And that is chick lit in a nutshell. Those expectations have changed in the past 200 years (thank God!!!!!), but women do still have similar struggles, and those struggles are what dear Jane wrote about. They're also what the best chick lit novels are about.

But when I did this workshop last week with Kristin (my agent), we ended up taking a slightly different approach. It wasn't so much about how chick lit differs from romance but rather how we can learn from Jane's example to find ways to make modern books timeless classics.

One big element is the heroine and her central conflict. The central story conflict in a romance novel is the romantic conflict with the hero, but in a chick lit book, as in Jane Austen's books, the central conflict is between the heroine and some aspect of her world. It may be her family (as in Pride and Prejudice), societal expectations (Sense and Sensibility), or even herself (Emma). One recurring theme in Austen's work is the precarious nature of a woman's position in society. She's utterly dependent on either male family members or her husband. Because of inheritance laws, even a comfortably well-off woman may find herself suddenly poverty-stricken if the male relative who inherits her family's property doesn't take proper care of her. The only way to be secure is to marry well.

We may not have the same circumstances today, but the age range usually covered by chick lit is equally precarious in its own way. That's when you're working your way up the corporate ladder, dependent on your boss for your next paycheck, and few young women are secure enough to be able to just quit on the spot if their boss is mean or if they hate their job. There are bills to pay, and not everyone has the luxury of being able to call Daddy for help when things get tight. And not everyone who has the ability is willing to. Women today may not be quite as dependent on a husband to secure their place in the world, but what about the woman in the crowded and expensive New York real estate market who's been living with a boyfriend and can't afford to break up with him, no matter how awful things are, because she can't afford to move out, even if she could find a place? If you think in terms of a young woman's place in society, you automatically add more depth, conflict and interest to the standard "bad boss/bad boyfriend" stories. Then there are the situations like we see in Emma, where the heroine is fairly secure with no worries, but she's incapable of seeing how precarious her friend's position in life is. Today, that's the friend with the great job who insists on eating at expensive places and then suggests just splitting the check down the middle to make things easier, even though she had a salad, an entree, a dessert and a couple of drinks while you had a salad and drank water because that was the only thing on the menu you could afford.

Austen's heroines have believable flaws -- Lizzie and her quickness to judge and mock others, Emma and her obliviousness to the way the world works, Marianne and her emphasis on emotion over reason. All of them have strong voices and strong attitudes that grow out of their characters. As Kristin said in our workshop, it's not enough to have a heroine who has a snarky, sarcastic voice. Where does that voice come from? In Lizzie's case, you have to look at her relationship with her father and the way he sees the world. That's reflected in her, and it means she has an almost masculine approach, which is pretty radical in her time and automatically affects the way she interacts with both men and women. These are all three-dimensional characters, not simply mouthpieces for witty remarks.

Then there are the guys, who are not your standard-issue romance heroes. In fact, if they look like standard-issue romance heroes, they're probably the bad guys, or at the very least they're jerks (Willoughby, Wickham, Frank Churchill). The guys who get the girl in these books are a little different. They're shy and antisocial, and you don't realize what a great guy they are until you get into their comfort zone (Mr. Darcy). They're the boy next door, with whom you've never had a spark of sexual tension until someone else notices him (Mr. Knightley). Or they're meek, awkward and ultimately penniless (Edward in S&S). She pulls the switcheroo on us, so we are never quite sure who is the right guy until the end.

But the guys actually play a minor role. If you start counting pages and scenes, there are more scenes of the heroine's interactions with her sisters or female friends than there are of the heroine's interactions with the romantic leads. Female friendships and all their permutations and implications are emphasized. The central conflict in Sense and Sensibility that drives the plot and the character growth is between the sisters. The men are mostly offstage. Emma was largely about Emma's efforts to make Harriet into her ideal friend. Then there's the dark side of female friendship. It's not just brunch and gabbing about men while being best friends forever. Women can be awful to each other, and Austen shows this, with the antics of Lizzie's sisters, the cattiness of Caroline Bingley, the duplicity of Lucy Steele, all the persuaders in Persuasion. Lizzie's friend Charlotte isn't necessarily as bad as all these, but her decision to marry someone she doesn't respect in order to get security has a strong impact on her friendship with Lizzie. How do you maintain a friendship when you can't stand your friend's husband?

Austen also makes some kind of statement about society in each book. I first read Pride and Prejudice in a college course on satire, and it works from that angle. In her books, Austen goes off on the emphasis on marriage, inheritance laws, gossip, marrying for money, propriety, and various social customs of her time. Her heroines may be utterly believable, but like a good satirist, she populates her books with secondary characters who are just a little bit exaggerated to better illustrate her points. Thus we have memorable people like Mr. Collins and all of the Dashwoods' neighbors.

And now this is getting long. Tomorrow I'll look at some modern chick lit books to show how some authors are taking a good cue from Jane.


Erin said...

Great post! Jane Austen is so wonderful.

Vicky said...

Awesome post. I am a great fan of Jane Austen and an avid reader of historical romances, still chicklit romance and the ususal Mills & Boons romance always become the best past time of mine.

Is there any new Austen workshop your gonna give again in your blog. If yes, count me in.