I like Chick Literature. Rather, let me qualify, I like Jane Austen as read under the auspices of Chick Lit. This doesn’t mean I like Colin Firth or Hugh Grant-in fact I distinctly dislike both. I haven’t seen Hugh’s performance in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility or the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with Firth and I have no intention of doing so. I particularly dislike post-adolescent girls tittering over Colin Firth.
I do, however, enjoy the thought of Hugh Grant sitting in the back of a police car, rousted for soliciting a prostitute, and considering his career ruined for having so thoroughly dashed the mantle of Jane Austen. I like to think Professor Claudia Johnson does, too. I can’t lie: I enrolled in her ENG 327 course, “Jane Austen in Context,” knowing I’d be one of five guys in the class-typical. In the end, I received the equal-though-vicarious pleasure of witnessing Professor Johnson corrupt more eighteen-year-old girls at once than I ever thought possible. Anyway, the fact that Hugh Grant immediately went on with his career after the Divine Brown debacle is a testament to the legs with which Chick Lit still carries Jane Austen. There is a reason Hugh Grant wasn’t out on his ass looking for work while Charlie Sheen spent twice as long chasing auditions after his hooker fiasco, only to wind up replacing Michael J. Fox on Spin City. Sheen didn’t have the behemoth that Chick Lit has become on his side and Sheen does not benefit by association with the canon of Austen.
The power and sway of Chick Lit still amazes me. It seems bizarre that it derives its power from creating a hierarchy that isn’t there. Millions of readers perceive themselves as part of the elect few who truly understand Austen, yet there exists a paradoxical understanding in the universality of this individual sense of the elect. Austen mesmerizes readers with her “dazzling bitchiness,” a favorite quote of Professor Johnson, and the readers indulge in the fairy tale endings and antiquated social mores of the novels, seeing Austen as their ally. This putative reading of Austen as unadulterated and of the conservative English tradition drives its popularity within the genre of Chick Lit and serves as the starting point for Johnson’s dismantling of the virginal Austen novel. Johnson makes a good case that the world of Austen is a lot more fucked up than most Austen readers would have it. All the heroines’ parents are either dead or incompetent: Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse shows no interest in men or women and prattles on about quail eggs like a befuddled eunuch; Mr. Bennet seems an impotent shadow of his former self unable to intercede in his daughter’s affairs let alone get it up; and Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Lady Bertram, obsesses over her pug as a grotesque reflection of her own inability to mother. Fanny marries her cousin and half the time her discomfort with bodiliness and heterosexual courtship make it seems as though Austen should save her the anxiety and get Fanny some pussy – and Johnson doesn’t mince words in risking to say so. The incest and homosexuality don’t stop there. The point is, if anything, Austen seems to emphasize the disorder of family life and implicate gender and sexuality. Now that I’ve dropped that bomb, it’s clear that a paradox exists in reading Austen: the unaware reader becomes the target for that “dazzling bitchiness” of Austen and the astute reader can no longer willingly suspend their belief in Austen and enjoy it guilt-free.
Elizabeth Bennet’s deferred courtship to Darcy and Willoughby’s betrayal of Marianne cut too close to the bone, ceasing to be illusory and becoming too perfect reflections of reality. Even worse, once the floor is ripped out from under the now-in-the-know reader, they must suffer the embarrassment of having so long indulged in now tainted waters. It’s as though the reader has discovered porn spliced into their favorite Disney movie and has to question which part of the film got them off. This creates more problems than it solves. On the surface Chick Lit seems democratizing, all pure and sparkling, something to read by the fire on a rainy day, something anyone can and should enjoy. In reality though, Austen asserts a hierarchy of intelligence within the genre by duping her readers into a subjective limbo where they can only concede defeat. Accepting the complexity of Austen’s novels and the urgency and dignity of the relationships therein leads to humiliation for previously thinking them a superficial wash, and not doing so simply makes you an ignorant asshole, as inhumiliable as Lydia or Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. This makes the popularity of the novel seem strange at first, but I think most readers like Austen for the reason the class so adored Johnson: these lashes and barbs at once humiliate and titillate. No one admits it, but these intellectual bruises suffered explain the ardor of millions; Austen has become a dominatrix for the masses, untouchable and brilliant and only too willing to make us aware of our own flaws. Johnson laughs aloud when she mentions the possibility of homosexuality and incest in the characters of Austen, because her innocent audience’s identification with those once saintly characters immediately opens the door to their own human deficiencies. And they always come crawling back for more. Just as with “faith busters,” people sign up for Johnson’s course with some knowledge that she plans to whip and lash them and drag them through the mud, and she does so without managing to splash any on herself. When Johnson hits her stride in a lecture, her voice takes on an intense cadence and she repeatedly sweeps the same few strands of hair out of her face unawares, as though in a trance. In these moments of channeling Austen, I could never help but think Johnson’s own performance as lecturer took advantage of Austen’s authorial backing to trick, maim and scold her all-too-willing audience.
It would be wrong to argue Austen is all deviant sexuality, betrayal and masochism, yet it would be equally wrong to fail to acknowledge the interplay of these components with the bright and dazzling world of Austen and Chick Lit. Johnson wouldn’t teach the course if the intellectual bruise suffered at her hands didn’t ultimately heal into something better. Chick Lit, it seems, has become a modern variation on the Gothic. Where the Gothic fascinates us by distorting reality into a world of dark castles, hidden attics and brooding patriarchs, Austen and Chick Lit distort reality into a conservative, sparkling utopia. Austen’s novels and Gothic novels share that a close reading of either cause the pretense of the authorial manipulations to fall apart to reveal a surprisingly accurate mirror of reality. Austen implicates the gender and society not of her characters but of her readers. In making her reader suffer the private humiliations of her heroines she encodes within her writing the reader’s moral and intellectual education. Perhaps then, I shouldn’t so strongly dislike Colin Firth, because without his impeccable, Hollywood ideal of Mr. Darcy, the true value of Chick Lit, as intellectually engaging and morally informative but without immediately yielding its merits, would not be possible.