Since 1979, The Jane Austen Society of North America has held one large meeting each year to celebrate and talk about Austen’s works. In the early years of this event, there were about 100 attendees in formal wear who gathered to dine and discuss for one night, but over the years this has grown into a three day celebration with lectures, toasts, promenades throughout town, hours of English country dancing and all attendees in full period costumes. The 2012 JASNA event, which took place in downtown Brooklyn last week, was attended by over 700 Austen buffs in coat tails and petticoats. Though the entire weekend was a memorable experience for all, the highlight was undoubtedly the keynote address by novelist Anna Quindlen, who spoke of her distaste with the centuries of male condescension towards Austen’s novels, especially the trend of pigeon-holing Austen as “chick-lit.”
Though these novels are clearly more of a celebration of women than men, I am so glad that somebody has publicly addressed the annoying stigma that many men seem to have towards Austen. The term “Janeite”, referring to lovers of Austen’s literature, used to be a complimentary term coined and claimed by women and men alike, including Rudyard Kipling. However, over the past century or so the term has been warped to refer to those who read gushy, emotional stories. These readers are usually female.
Obviously Jane was a woman, and her protagonists were women, but it’s an insult to the quality of her work and the value of female protagonists to call these books “chick-lit”. When I hear chick-lit I think Sex and the City, not Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s stories are universal tales of family, love, class, convictions and growing up, despite their seemingly quaint chit-chat. Writer William Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter, explains in his book that though he wasn’t immediately drawn to Austen’s domestic, subtle story-telling, but soon realized that he could learn a lot from these books about friendship and humility among other things. He believes, and I agree, that through reading Austen, men prove that they are not afraid of love. strong female protagonists or male-female friendships. These are themes that men should aim to better understand, rather than scoff at.