Q: Can you describe your initial resistance, as a young graduate student, to reading Jane Austen?
A: Like a lot of men, I thought Austen was chick lit: soap-opera romance, fluffy and boring. When a friend of mine heard I was writing this book, he said “I expect a lot of sex and dating advice.” It was an understandable assumption, and my friend’s, no doubt, was based on all those movies—the ones with the beautiful gowns, and the beautiful homes, and the beautiful actresses. The ones with all the swoony music and the lush, romantic lighting, the ones that leave out everything that Austen had to say to us except the love—and then, don’t even get the love part right.
Q: What most surprised you about yourself once you discovered Austen’s novels and started examining your own life?
A: If you had told me, when I was eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, that the most important writer I would ever come across would be Jane Austen, I would have said you were crazy. Why should half a dozen novels about provincial young English ladies, published in the 1810s, make any difference whatsoever to a Jewish kid in New York in the 1990s? But I learned that books aren’t written by groups, and they don’t belong to groups. They’re written by individuals, speaking to individuals, and they belong to anyone who loves them.
What was Austen saying to me? Well, first of all, what an idiot I had been about so many things–about pretty much everything to do with relationships. And that I had so much to learn from seeing things from a woman’s point of view. But most of all, finally, I think, that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn things about myself–didn’t have to be afraid, in other words, to be wrong. Aside from all the specific lessons, I think the largest message was simply that I no longer had to be so armored, so defended, so defensive. And that’s made it easier to admit mistakes and be vulnerable and keep on growing.
Q: Is that when you came up with the book’s subtitle, How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter?
A: Well, a while ago, I was interviewing for a job as an English professor. At the very end, the head of the hiring committee posed a question that she must have been dying to ask me the whole time. Glancing down at my resume—I had written my doctoral dissertation on The Novel of Community from Austen to Modernism, published a book entitled Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, and was planning a study called Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston—she asked, “So what’s with you and Jane Austen?”
I wanted to give [the dean] her a good answer. But how do you explain your deepest attachments? I tried to muster an intellectually sophisticated response, something about the purity of Austen’s prose or the brilliance of her satire, but it didn’t feel right, and besides, I’d already given enough answers like that. Finally, I just blurted something that I’d already been telling myself for a long time. “Well,” I said, “sometimes I feel like everything I know about life I learned by reading Jane Austen.”
Q: What drew you to write this hybrid of memoir and literary criticism?
A: I’ve been writing about literature for a general audience for a long time, as a book critic. Actually, the fact that I was more interested in doing that than in pursuing scholarly work is the reason I decided to leave academia. The memoir part is new for me, though, and it’s been an interesting challenge: a technical challenge to blend the two and a personal challenge to be so candid in such a public way. The second part is a little frightening. As for why I decided to write the book this way, well, the idea was to convey the lessons I learned by reading Jane Austen, and I realized pretty quickly that the best way to do that would be to actually talk about how I learned them, not just explain them in some kind of abstract and impersonal way.
Q: What do you think her books have to say to contemporary men and women in want of a relationship?
A: Ha! Great question. The first thing I think she would say is, don’t settle. Then, marry for the right reasons: for love, not for money or appearances or expectations. But most importantly–and this is what I talk about in the love chapter, the last chapter–don’t fall for all the romantic clichés about Romeo and Juliet and love at first sight. For Austen, love came from the mind as well as the heart. She didn’t believe you could fall in love with someone until you knew them, and then what you fell in love with was their character more than anything else–whether they were a good person and also an interesting one. So I guess that means, date someone for a while before you commit, and don’t get so carried away by your feelings that you forget to give a good hard look at who they are. As for sex, it’s not so clear she would have disapproved of sleeping together before marriage. I think she maybe even would’ve liked it, as a chance to learn something very important before it’s too late.
Q: What do you hope your book will bring to people who aren’t already Austen fans?
A: Well, first of all, if they aren’t already Austen fans because they have the kinds of preconceptions I did, I hope it helps persuade them to give her a chance. I’ve imagined the book, in part, as a kind of introduction to her [books] novels. It’s not exhaustive or anything–and I think that people who are already Austen fans will find new ways to think about her novels–but it does lay out the basic situations in each book and some of the most important ideas she was getting at. No spoilers, just enough to whet people’s appetites. And finally, of course, I want people to see that she isn’t just for women. I would love it if the book helped introduce more guys to her work.
Q: What is your favorite Austen novel?
A: I knew people would ask me this. The weaseling answer is that I love them all, though it’s also true. Certainly whenever I’m reading one, that’s my favorite. But if I had to pick just one, desert-island style, it would have to be Emma. Not just because it was my first and will always have a special place in my heart, but because I really do think it’s the best, the one where she put it all together: the brilliant sparkle of Pride and Prejudice, the emotional depth of Persuasion, the fun, the humor, the superhuman cleverness. There really is nothing else like it.