Jane Austen’s Thoughts on Novels

“Romance” and “Chick Lit” novels have a bad name. Not because they are inherently bad books, but because the rest of the literary world looks down on them as something lesser. We have a cultural block about accepting romance, chick lit, women’s fiction, etc. as part of the legitimate publishing world.

Think about your romance novels… Do you hide them away? Do you call them a “guilty pleasure”? Do you limit yourself on how many you check out from the library? Do you get embarrassed going to the romance section in the book store?

Despite being far and away the biggest book market in the world — estimated at $1.368 billion in sales for 2011 compared to the next biggest genre “religion/inspirational” at $715 million or HALF of the romance genre — people still feel guilty about reading romance. (Source: Romance Writers of America: Industry Statistics)

And what of writing it? After three novels, it’s clear that I embrace romance. I have actively chosen to write in the genre. But I do this with eyes wide open, knowing that many of my writing peers and even friends and family might not take me seriously as writers. I’ve even struggled over the question of whether or not to put my self-published books on my professional resume.

But here’s a bit of comfort: even the incomparable Jane Austen faced the same kind of pressures.

When novels first started to become wildly popular in the late 1700s & early 1800s, “novels” of all kinds were guilty pleasures. This was a new genre of writing that was looked down upon by the literary establishment. Sermons were frequently preached or printed about the moral decline of the youth — especially young ladies — who read novels. Danger, death, sexual encounters, illicit romance, adventure… all of these things were not “proper” for people to read about. Yet they did. In droves. Just like today.

In her own novel, Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen gives a great defense of the genre, which I think can apply to the current way that people see “women’s literature” or any marginalized “genre fiction”:

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Quite the defense, huh? 🙂 So what do you think about this subject?

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