Archive | January 2011

My response to some Jane Austen criticism

When I read a post recently from another blog criticizing the mandated study of Jane Austen novels in so many lit classrooms, I thought, again?

This type of thing comes up a lot. I think I was a bit bitchy in my response in the comments section. Sorry for that. But, I’ve reproduced the comment – decided not to edit; showing my warts – because I’d like to emphasize the value of Austen’s work on my own blog. This really is a response to that criticism in general that Austen’s writing is merely pretty and romantic and has little literary value. On the contrary, Austen’s work has great social, literary and historical value. Her writing helps us discuss questions like:

What social pressures did women (and men) face when women had limited financial independence?

How do you write realistic dialogue that vaults the reader forward in the story?

What were the customs of the Regency period?

So, here’s my comment, albeit out of the context of the post that it responds to (That post is linked to above.) :

One of the best things about Austen is that she lays a foundation for women to understand the insidious and almost pretty-looking repression that their forebears endured. Why are women always accused of being manipulative? Perhaps because there have necessarily been Mrs. Bennets and Miss Bingleys in the past.

But, arguably, the ugly truth is: how else was a person who was considered the property of a man and ineligible for a profession to survive? Depend on the goodness of male (and female) chauvinists? Perhaps you didn’t have very good teachers or simply didn’t understand what you were reading.

-These are not romance novels. –

Perhaps you should have paired your reading of Austen with a Women’s Studies class. In any case, this ignorant position that students receive nothing from reading an incisive fictional story of the dynamics of relationships and power plays is baloney. At the very least, appreciate the writing. Not beautiful? Austen spoke truthfully and with insight while using an elegant economy of words.

I suggest a re-read.


Literary Quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”        – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I found this quote attributed to Emerson while sifting through the notebook I keep of quotations that strike me in some favorable. way. This one has obvious general appeal. Though, it certainly can be debated.

Trying to be yourself is, and probably always has been, a hardship for most people. We all know that being the odd man out is difficult, and when you dance to the music of your own orchestra, you often find yourself being the odd man out. 

When I was in high school, that period of life notorious for pressure to fit in, a very strange hairstyle became popular. I remember being in a bathroom, a girl would dash inside in some intense, often frenetic, state looking as one might imagine Alice’s worried rabbit looking as he hustled to his “very important date.”  She’d throw her big book bag conveniently in a sink, pull out a gargantuan can of hairspray, start blabbering something meaningless and judgemental about someone else, throw her head down as though attempting to touch her toes, and proceed to spray her bangs straight so that when she once again stood erect said bangs would be vertical.

But, there was one girl who made an art of this style. She had long jet black hair, perhaps reaching down to the middle of her back. And, her hair reached upwards, too. Up, up, up or so it seemed because those bangs did not seem merely hairsprayed, they seemed tarred into standing at attention. 

We’d watch her on the stairs between classes going about her day and we’d stare. Well, I know I’d stare.  Once, I heard another student remark with to a friend on the oddity of the hairdo, but “I kind of like that she does her own thing. You know?”

I can’t imagine what the family of my classmate with the crown of raven-colored bangs on her head must have said to her. Were they unusual like her and, thus, perhaps, supportive? Did her mother or father say things like, Just don’t walk with your head down; you’ll put someone’s eye out. Did they get angry?

I must say that my classmates never seemed to be snarky about her. Score one for teenage acceptance. Whatever the case, she walked straight ahead, as though she cared not a whit about others’ opinions. I guess it was her teenage way of saying I care about my own opinions; yours, not so much.

Obviously, she was being herself – or, at least, some incarnation of it she was trying out at the moment as teens are wont and, arguably, need to do. Was anyone trying to make her something different? If so, she seemed to be holding up fine.

But that is a rather superficial example that I give merely because the memory tickles me; it is not the reason why Emerson’s quotation speaks to me and, no doubt, to many others. 

For that, I am tempted to do a bit of a tribute to a newsperson/commentator whom I have over the years been fairly besotted with and, also, disappointed in. Keith Olbermann, formerly of MSNBC,  had a rather in-your-face style of “special comments” on his show Countdown which ended its run abruptly last Friday. As generally I found myself on the same political page as he was, and as his way with words was kind of unmatched in television news, and as he genuinely seemed to believe in and care about what he was saying I watched him with my family rather faithfully. I think that for many liberals he was like a progressive knight in shining armour that helped pull them through those crazy Bush years when we all needed moral support. It’s no wonder people are a bit bent out of shape at his departure from MSNBC. Or his ouster?? Who knows.

So, we all know that in today’s political climate, when you can be called a socialist just because you want everyone to have access to the same good healthcare – shudders! – that getting up on TV, even cable TV, and saying some of the stuff he said would cause waves that could potentially wipe out a program and do damage to the network itself. Still, there were times when I nearly sat agog in front of the screen and thought, He just said what?

But he did. And, frankly, there were times when I thought he went overboard. Those were irritating times. Like, for instance, when he once called Roger Ailes “fat-ass.” That was a long time ago, but I tend to think Roger Ailes’s fat-ass has had nothing more to do with Roger Ailes’s politics than Keith’s has to do with his or mine with my own beliefs.  Say what you will – and I’ve complained plenty about his Twitter zingers to others in the Twittersphere (if that’s what you call it) – at least he seems to have been himself.

And, so, it’s interesting, isn’t it? On the one hand, we can look at Emerson’s great quote and see where it falls short, as so many perfectly great quotes do. That is, if being yourself means being rude, perhaps you should actually change. But, presenting even your worst side to the public is admirable in a way. No hiding your mess in the closet when company comes. It’s honest. And, perhaps most importantly, standing for your principles is an age-old act of honor, and certainly not always an easy one. It is possibly “the greatest accomplishment.”

So, I guess I should congratulate belatedly the girl with the spiky, upward pointed bangs. And, I should thank God that there are people in the world who take stands on important issues the rest of us just wish we could yell from a bully-pulpit.

I thought I’d put literary quotes up every few days or so. Here’s the first…

This is attributed to Thornton Wilder in his – as I remember it from high school – beautiful play, Our Town.

“People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome.”

Gorgeous, isn’t it? I love the way the voice of the speaker comes through with the use of the vernacular ‘Taint and the simple language expressing this rather profound, and certainly true, thought. The humanity of the statement is raw and hits you pretty hard, even isolated from the rest of the text.

Will people ever learn this? We think we know it, don’t we? But we don’t. We make it seem conditional. Only certain people need to be “two by two.” This is what we think, really, because this is how we act.

Case in point: Politics and punishment. Bradley Manning is being held in solitary confinement in conditions many of us believe to be barbaric, cruel, unusual. Solitary, no permission to exercise, no blankets, half naked, being given anti-depressants to combat the effect that this arguably torturous treatment will have on him. (Isn’t it interesting how it’s okay to cause a disease as long as you give meds for it simultaneously? No preventative care here. No way.)

So, today The Guardian has an excellent article by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella contemplating this particular feature of the American penal system. “Where’s the outrage?” it asks. Where, indeed? Check out the sub-head. Is this really the headline Americans want to accurately represent them? Because, right now, at least for Manning, it does.

So, there’s the Manning confinement, but there’s the huge issue of when is this treatment ever, ever okay?

I’d say never. Because, as Wilder so beautifully pointed out in this play that high schoolers all over America read, “‘Tain’t natural to be lonesome.” No, it isn’t. And it isn’t civilized to enforce it on anyone. It’s torture.

PBS’s Masterpiece – throwing us crumbs

The brouhaha that’s been happening over the altered Downton Abbey that PBS will show (altered from the UK version) is just one more frustration that I’ve come to expect from – as many others have – when the former Masterpiece Theatre airs costume dramas.

In virtually every adaptation of any novel that they cut material. In this one, they have cut a little, apparently, and added a little. PBS acts like the additions are a good thing. Of course. They want to sell the idea of altering for purposes of scheduling (one of their claims) and clarity (another claim).

The handling of this once-great program has for several years been, in my opinion, atrocious. There are smaller problems:

1- The ridiculous and inelegant re-do and abridgement of the classic opening.

2- Combining two fine shows – Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery – into one.

3- Changing the title to “Masterpiece,” which just seemed done for appearances – if it was meant to improve appearances, it failed as there was nothing to improve – and ostentatious

4- Shortening the intros.

That whole re-haul of MT was an example of fixing something that wasn’t broken.

But these are the big problems:

1- Many of MT’s programs include at the credits a reference to having been produced, in part, by WGBH Boston. And yet, when Bostonians and other Americans – who have been beseached to donate money to make and buy these programs – finally get the product, they get a modified version of it.

Do you think people would be willing to give so much money so often if the poor individuals who beg for it during pledge breaks said something like this: Your money makes it possible for us to bring you an altered version of films shown in the United Kingdom?

Of course not. That doesn’t sell. But that’s what Americans get. Apparently, Canadian, too, which really seems unfair.

If this isn’t bait-and-switch, it’s nearly there. Because many times we don’t get even additional scenes. We get a butchered show. Look at Northanger Abbey from a couple of years ago. Delightful clips were cut out. I have to think the director can’t be terribly happy. After all, he/she is going for a work of art, no? You don’t strip off the bottom piece of the Mona Lisa just because it’s only her dress, do you? Da Vinci wanted it there or he wouldn’t have painted it.

Obviously, MT does not think of its offerings as art. It’s only merchandise to be altered into a salable and profitable form.

2- Rebecca Eaton, the producer of MT, is said to have stated that Americans need shows at a “different speed” than the British, that the changes were made to to clarify the storyline involving an entailed estate.

Viewers who have watched other PBS shows know what an entailment is, and if they don’t, they can learn since it will supposedly be explained by the host before the program begins.

This idea that all MT viewers suffer from some kind of attention deficit is worrisome. The idea that viewers might be so slow on the uptake that they cannot apply newly acquired knowledge to a television show (DA is not based on a book) is insulting. And we should be insulted.

But the PBS apologists out there are quick to defend MT and pounce on The Daily Mail for its exaggerated article about the DA cuts. Why? The fact remains that the version is MODIFIED. It is not the original. And, for this, and for the reasons it has been changed consumers who give money to PBS -and every other viewer, too – have multiple reasons to be annoyed.

The fact is that much less is being cut than The Daily Mail stated, and scenes are being added. So what? Give us the original film. Can’t I just see for myself if I can understand or do I need a pedantic overseer to simplify it for me?

If it’s true that Americans would have a hard time with the pace and the story, do PBS or its sycophantic defenders actually believe that simplifying the program is going to edify our people? We still read novels in their original form. When they are simplified or shortened, they are labelled as abridged. So, anyone who wants to tackle Bronte or Austen can challenge themselves.

How sad if they finish a shortened edition and say to themselves Yes! I always wanted to read Jane Eyre and now I have! – which is a fine and worthy goal – without realizing that it is, indeed, shortened because the cover failed to mention that little fact! There’s a pathos in that. And if any of us care at all about combatting the stupidity- vulgarity-fest that network televion often is, we should care about this analogy. Because it’s what we are doing to our supposedly good programming.

No doubt, DA will be superior the often pathetic offerings of network and cable TV; I am not saying that cutting a few minutes changes the quality much or at all. But if we accept less now, we will accept less in the future when or if PBS decides to cut more in the future, or to change programs more dramatically.

And the principle is this: PBS should deliver what it claims to. That is because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s also because many who look forward to its shows have helped make those shows happen.

So, PBS, will you be placing an ‘abridged’ notice under the title of Downton Abbey? Or, at the very least, a note that it has been modified from its original form?

No, it’s true that the viewers are not getting crumbs. We still can enjoy a good show. But that’s not it. If you buy a wool sweater imported from and woven in Ireland, you generally expect the same product that you’d buy on vacation there.

PBS doesn’t give us that sweater. We have to fly there to get it ourselves.