Reading Backwards

Science fiction leads to... a love of Jane Austen?I’ve always known that my reading habits are a bit odd. That was confirmed by the way I came across The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler. Most people heard of it by word of mouth or because it was on bestseller lists — the book had a lot of buzz. I found out about it because Fowler has stayed loyal to her scifi-writing friends, newfound success and all, and continues to write blurbs for the types of books I read.

Jane Austen and science fiction? As Fowler mentions in the book, the fans aren’t necessarily that different.

Fowler herself was always more on the literary side of science fiction, but it wasn’t inevitable that she achieved mainstream success. It doesn’t happen for everyone who tries it, and it’s been a lot of heartbreak for all those who have failed. I liked her collection of short stories, Black Glass, and she subsequently wrote a few novels that I didn’t have the chance to read. By all accounts, her books got less overtly science fiction but still remained unclassifiable, as far as such things go or are worth pondering.

Then I ran into Fowler’s comments for Bodies in Motion by Maryanne Mohanraj and for Maureen McHugh’s new collection of short stories, Mother and Other Monsters, two excellent books that deserve all the extra notice they can get. And that was not the first time I had noticed Fowler’s blurbs, because “Author of The Jane Austen Book Club” gets blazoned in big letters on the front cover while other blurbs get relegated to the back. Sometimes when writers hit it big they get overwhelmed and stop doing all the things that make a community work. Of course it’s also true that a lot of non-reclusive writers have given up on the time-intensive task of writing blurbs for friends.

I get the opposite vibe from Fowler. She seems thrilled with the chance to direct fans of her book to other good stuff. And her blurbs, while suffering from the same cherrypicked feeling as any bit of publisher’s hype, have been for genuinely superb fiction. If someone who has read and enjoyed Fowler’s Austen novel discovers Mohanraj and McHugh, then it’s a good day for everyone.

So here I am, a scifi fan, reading backwards, or, as it might be perceived, up the food chain (relative merits of McHugh and Mohanraj aside). What did I make of this book?

Science fiction leads to... a love of Jane Austen?Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but The Jane Austen Book Club has a lot of talk about Jane Austen! This isn’t as intimidating as it seems at first. Since Austen only wrote 6 novels, it’s a manageable field of expertise, and there have been recent movie versions of all of the books (and of course a zillion variations on the essential story of Pride and Prejudice, including Bridget Jones’s Diary). Since Austen permeates the culture to such a degree, most readers won’t feel left out. If you don’t like Austen, though, the title of Fowler’s book puts it as plainly as possible: the main characters form a book club that talks about Jane Austen. Fair warning.

What’s the story? Over the course of half a year, six characters get together to talk about one Austen novel at a time. The book switches focus in each chapter (if not necessarily viewpoint — Fowler is a bit tricky on that one), and we learn more about each of the six main characters. I got the feeling that there was less talk of Austen as the book went on.

I particularly enjoyed the funny bits in the book, of which there are many. Grigg, the sole man in the club, and a — gasp! — science fiction fan, has some great moments at a science fiction convention, which another character Jocelyn has wandered into because her dogshow convention is in the same hotel. Also, just like the movies with a gag at the end of the credits, be sure to read up to the Questions for Discussions that close the book. They are written in character, and are funnier when you’ve become familiar with the people. Here’s one example, from the character Allegra’s questions:

In The Jane Austen Book Club, I take two falls and visit two hospitals. Did you stop to wonder how a woman who supports herself making jewelry affords health insurance? Do you think we will ever have universal health coverage in this country?

As I said, probably funnier in context.

Another thing I liked about this book: Fowler ponders why Austen has remained so popular. Two of Austen’s novels were published posthumously, and she didn’t pick up anything like current levels of popularity for about forty years after her death (she died in 1817). Was an Austen novel just something that subsequent generations could project current issues onto? And just how does a story stay relevant?

There’s no absolute answer to these questions; Fowler knows that, and smartly focuses on one particular instance of a storyteller whose stories have persisted for so long.

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