Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jane Austen Noir

By Cornelia

I got to attend Left Coast Crime in Seattle last weekend, which was wonderful. Andi Shechter and all the volunteers did a fantastic job running everything, and a good time was had by all.

I took part in two panels on Saturday. The first was titled "Noir is the New Black," with Megan Abbott, Con Lehane, and Edward Wright, which was moderated by my old writing group pal Tim Wohlforth. I've been thinking a lot about the history of noir writing because of that, in conjunction with a few other things.

One of these things is a forthcoming short story anthology which Megan Abbott is editing for Busted Flush Press, and which she asked me to submit a story for. The title is A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, and the premise is that each story should center on a female character who might have been on the sidelines in a typical pulp novel.

While I working on my piece for Megan, I was reading Brian Boyd's honking big two-volume biography of Vladimir Nabokov, whose work I have long admired. A great deal of Nabokov's writing could be classified as noir--not least his most famous novel, Lolita, which is of course told from the POV of pedophile/murderer Humbert Humbert.

I have to admit being brought up short by a quotation cited on page 166 of the second volume, however (Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years).

In April of 1950, Nabokov was preparing to teach a literature course at Cornell. He sought advice from Edmund Wilson:

Next year I am teaching a course called "European Fiction" (XIX and XXc.) What English writers would you suggest? I must have at least two....

According to Boyd, Wilson "recommended Austen and Dickens as incomparably the greatest English novelists, along with the Irishman Joyce."

Nabokov's reply to this suggestion is what brought me up short:

"I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class."

I was reminded of something I'd copied into my book of collected quotations during college--an excerpt from a speech given in 1902 by Carrie Chapman Catt:

This world taught women nothing skillful and then said her work was valueless. It permitted her no opinions and said she did not know how to think. It forbade her to speak in public, and said the sex had no orators. It denied her the schools, and said the sex had no genius. It robbed her of every vestige of responsibility, and then called her weak.

It taught her that every pleasure must come as a favor from men, and when to gain it she decked herself in paint and fine feathers, as she had been taught to do, it called her vain.

This was the woman enshrined in literature.
I wonder what Nabokov would have thought of Jane Austen's writing had she been writing today--had her close observations of society and the sexes not been constrained by the gender roles of her own era.

Austen has been called the original chick lit author, but I disagree with that classification. I think her work was noir, in that it portrayed the claustrophobia of life as a woman in that time... the all-or-nothing necessity of making a good marriage, for a young woman. The lack of options, the futility of trying to buck the system, the likelihood of death during childbirth.

I think she would've been prone to the use of profanity in her fiction, if such had been allowed. I think she would've tackled the darkest topics, were she writing with the freedom of today's authors, male and female.

Raymond Chandler's famous quotation about detective fiction can also describe for me the world Jane Austen's protagonists had to navigate:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid... He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
She too was common and yet unusual, she too had "honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it."

There's been a lot of discussion recently about women writing ultra-violent crime fiction, at the moment. (Mega hat-tip to the inimitable Sarah Weinman, for discussing both of the following quotes on her Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog).

Danuta Kean, in an article for
The Independent, quoted Ian Rankin as having said:

"The people writing the most graphic violence today are women," he says when I ask what he thinks of them. "If you turn that off," he looks nervously at my tape recorder, but continues regardless, going public about one of the great unsaids among crime writers, "I will tell you that they are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting."

In what might be considered a followup commentary, Julie Bindel quoted Val McDermid as follows in The Guardian:

As one of Britain's bestselling crime writers, Val McDermid, (creator of ITV's Wire in the Blood), believes that reading and writing violent fiction is about admitting the existence of inhuman cruelty, and examining its causes and consequences. "Women are far more in tune with violence than men," she says. "As a result of 24-hour news, we are more aware than ever before of the atrocities that are happening to women all over the world, and, to make sense of what is going on, we turn to art and fiction."
All of this was moiling around my head during that noir panel, as was Ruth Jordan's response to the controversy sparked by Kean's article, on the Central Crime Zone blog back in November:

Does our sex and sexuality have something to do with what we can write and what we can’t?.... Of course it does. Men and women are different. We’re raised differently, are exposed to different options in our early development, have been given different attitudes towards sex and violence just through the cautionary tales we are given as youngsters. It is a truism that females are exposed to violence personally in middle class society at a rate of four to one over their male counterparts. We see the resulting behaviors of victims far more frequently than the men who are our contemporaries....

Not many male authors have had their door knocked upon at four in the morning by a friend, beaten and terrified, blaming themselves. Nor have they been railed upon by someone they loved in the dark, in the post coitis position. Subjected to an unfounded jealousy and slapped so hard they saw sparks. Most women have, or it’s so close they can feel it. There are different truths for boys and girls. Because, well, we’re boys and girls....

Girls are raised with a knowledge that the threat of violence is there. It determines how we walk down the street, where we’ll go alone, what we wear and how we behave. We are raised trying to not become victims while men are raised trying to save victims. Different realities make for different psyches. In the end the parts equal the whole.
I replied to that in the comment section:

I think you're absolutely right that men and women experience violence (and the threat of it) differently, and that it can influence the way we depict it.

You reminded me of the time I tried explaining to my husband why I didn't want to walk alone at night to a convenience store in our old scary neighborhood in Syracuse.

"Why not?" he asked. "I walk down there all the time and nobody's ever hassled me."

"Yeah," I replied, "because you're six-five and weigh 210 and you're usually wearing a motorcycle jacket."

A few weeks later, I saw Ruth Orkin's photograph "An American Girl in Italy" for the first time, when he and I were in a bookstore together.

[click on the image above to see a larger version in another window]

I dragged him over to check out the poster of it, saying, "THAT'S why I don't want to walk to the Kleen Food at night by myself, okay?"

I don't think he really understood the connection until our daughters were born. Now he gets it so profoundly he wants them to take karate lessons.
I'd love to edit an anthology myself someday, modeled on the one Megan's doing for Busted Flush. It would be called Jane Austen Noir.


  1. Wow, even more interesting than usual, Miss C ;-)

    Maybe I'm missing something; I simply don't understand why it isn't just about the writing. I know that we all read a different book - that's not the issue. If it's a good book, then who cares who or what wrote it? How can a writer's hormones and anatomy possibly dilute or improve the quality of their work? I don't get it.

  2. It's the old double standard at work. Men can get away with stuff in writing that women can't and are criticized for. In my case, it's my protagonist's use of four-letter words. I keep asking those readers who email me, upset about this, whether it would make a difference if I or my character were a man, and no one ever responds.

  3. Hearing that someone is reading a two volume tome on Nabokov makes me feel like a slacker on a number of levels.

    I thought it was Paul's job to make me feel inadequate.


  4. Hey there, Jim... I have to say that the pair of tomes were in my bookshelf for a good fifteen years before I ever cracked the cover on volume one, AND I had read everything else in the house at least twice, literally, before I gave them a shot out of sheer desperation for reading matter.

    Rae, I'm with you--a book is good or it's bad. Doesn't matter who wrote it, or what their equipment looks like. Ovaries don't trump testicles, and vice versa, to me. I'm not crazy about Norman Mailer as a writer, but it's because I think he's sloppy on the page, not because he happens to have be ovary free. I wouldn't glom onto that bit of personal taste by saying "as a matter of fact, male writers suck, now that I think about it."

    And Karen, I'm with you on the swearing. I don't know whether people give me a harder time about it because I'm of the female persuasion. Then again, I don't really care. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, etc.

  5. Ooh, an anthology! Can I play? Here's what I'm thinking:
    Twenty-two year old spinster Beatrice Ogden is at the end of her rope. Thrown off her last governess job for backtalking a five-year-old, she doesn't have a lot of options when the man from the agency comes calling. The job? Keep an eye on a boozy, nouveau riche matron while her husband is off fighting that bastard Napoleon. Sounds simple, but when the bodies start piling up, she finds herself on the mean streets of Derbyshire, taking on a brutal duchess, a corrupt magistrate and her own crushing laudanum addiction. And just when she thinks things couldn't get more complicated, Bea discovers that there's only one question that really matters:
    How fast can she reload a musket?

  6. Wonderful, thoughtful post, Ms. C.

    I agree that women approach violence and the threat of violence differently than men. We are often the victim of the latter, and the mothers of those involved in the former.

    It doesn't necessarily make us better writers, but I think it contributes to the way we experience the world around us. What we notice. What our options are. How we find a way out when we're not the biggest or the strongest.

    And that can make for some pretty fine storytelling.

  7. Wow. What a great post, Cornelia. As a writer, we have to open our empathetic selves to another's experience, and you've just given me things to chew on here. I appreciate it.

    See you in South Carolina.

  8. Daisy, EXACTLY!!!! I just think it would be cool to take scenes from those books and tell them as we'd be allowed to today, without use of wink-wink nudge-nudge, or covering up the messy bits with a veil of propriety.

    Louise, thank you. That's perfectly put--I'm interested in the ways we ALL portray things, not which gender is better or worse or WHATEVER.

    And sometimes the most powerful writing comes out of what happens after we--male and female--find there ISN'T a way out, when we're not the biggest or the strongest.

    David, you rock, and I can't wait to see you in SC....

  9. I won't be in South Carolina, and I won't be seeing anyone, but I do have testicles, and I have been known to swear, on occasion.


    Just wanted to get that on the record.

  10. Dolling, as usual a highly provocative post. Jane is my favorite author of all time and I have long harbored a fantasy of entering a parallel universe where she lived till 108, leaving behind at least 20 books for me to gloat over.

    But I don't think Jane is noir. She's sarcastic, mordant and scoffs at pretense but she is not much interested in the sordid underbelly. I don't think it was because she wasn't exposed to tawdry life, it just wasn't her cup of tea (irony intended).

    Virginia Woolf made a similar argument about the Bronte gals in A Room of One's Own, saying that they (and their novels) were stunted and frustrated by their limited experience of the world. But she compared Jane to Shakespeare in the untrammeled freedom of her mind, freedom from resentment.

    I wish we could sit on the quad again and chew the fat about Austen. But failing that, it's great to have your blog to read every week.

    Your many beeg fan, Ariel

  11. I agree with you that as written, she is not much interested in the sordid underbelly, dearest Ari. But could she have indulged an interest in it even if she were? I don't think she could have gotten away with tackling the kind of topics Dickens would later take on, because she was a woman.

    I just always get the sense that the sordid underbelly is the subtext of everything she observed in all those drawing rooms and at all those balls and country dances. Nice girls wear certain things and do NOT wear others... nice girls are not too forward, or too funny, or too challenging... *poor* nice girls are expected to suck up whatever those relatives who can afford to put them on display in the marriage market feel like dishing out.

    Gives me noirish willies just thinking about it...

    She dealt with life and its constraints archly and sarcastically and wonderfully, you're absolutely right, but I wonder what she'd have been writing about if she were alive now.

  12. whoops, I cut out a sentence and then didn't paste it back, there-- basically the nice girls have to do all those things because if they don't, the sordid underbelly will chew them up and spit them out...

  13. Hey Cornelia - you're one fuck of a god-damned great essay writer. (Notice I didn't capitalized "god" because I'm a lady, and a properly churchified one at that).

    I'm reading Stephaie Barron's Jane Austen mystery series as we speak. Not really what you had in mind. And I was going to say something about Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure being noir, and it is, I think, but then, Thomas is one of those testicle names, so he don't count.

    Austen does seem to be pointing out the unavoidable wrongs in her world, and she certainly doesn't come across as thinking those wrongs will be righted any time soon. If noir is to showcase how sordid the world is and how, even though it's pointless to try to make some little thing right in it, that little thing should be done...well, I think that's what she did in writing the books. They were her little thing.

    As far as the whole division of the sexes writer thing, you just pull a Roseanne Barr if they ever tell you to ramp up your "femininity." Tell them "Suck my dick."

    Man, wish I could write like you...

  14. Oh Heidi, you just made me LAUGH....

    I would say "suck my dick," except now it reminds me of Demi Moore in GI Jane so it's not really as much fun to say any more.


    Guess I've got to go read Jude the Obscure now though, huh?

  15. I'm chiming in a day late with this. I've been a lurker here for awhile, but thought I'd come out of the closet for this.

    Julie Bindel's article was great. It impressed me so much that I wrote a post on it on a group blog (Working Stiffs) and on my own blog. On my blog, I had a rather interesting rant from some unknown person (male) who had googled "male-bashing" and somehow ended up on my blog! His rant was along the same lines as the comments on Sarah Weinman's blog. It seems like many males viewed the article as male-bashing, when it was nothing of the kind.

  16. Great, great post Cornelia. It crystalizes so much of what I've felt for a long time. I'd far rather read women authors on violence than men, because in general women have far more experience living with violence. Men fetishize it - women live it, and you are so right that that photo shows it all in that one shot.

    I don't know how Jane would have written today... but she understood rough, that's for sure. No matter how hard we think we have it, it was worse for her.


  17. Once again, C, you have stirred the boiling cauldron. I recently inherited an antique needlework item that may me wonder what the woman who crafted it over many long hours, probably with inadequate illumination, might have achieved, had she been encouraged to spend the same time with pen, paper, and the original thoughts of a mind not only compassionate but also admirable. Research shows the words from God to Joshua (the warrior who "fit the battle of Jericho") were meant to console him after the death of Moses -- "Be strong and of a good courage/Be not afraid/Neither be thou dismayed/for the/Lord thou God/is with thee/whithersoever thou goest" -- I rarely wax poetic or theological, but do wonder about women through the ages, and what they may not have had the opportunity to say or write.

  18. Re: Joyce's commenter:
    That just made me think; it must take a special kind of person to use a Google search to find people to be mad at.

  19. Thank you Joyce, and Alexandra, and Liz... I'm so glad you guys got what I meant here. NOT male-bashing, just sadness at female bashing.

    And Liz, I love "be strong and of a good courage..." what a wonderful quotation.

    You remind me of my high school motto:

    "Whatsover thy hand findest to do, do it with thy might."

  20. And Daisy (once again) YEAH, EXACTLY!!!