William Deresiewicz writes up a nice encomium on the novel for The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog:
Austen is inscrutable. As with Shakespeare, the magnitude of the achievement is incommensurate with the life that produced it. But in Shakespeare’s case, there is a lot we do not know. In Austen’s, there just isn’t very much to know. She grew up in a large and literate family; shared a bedroom with her sister her entire life; never went abroad, caused a scandal, sought to enter high society, corresponded with illustrious peers, got rich, went broke, or took a lover; and she died a spinster (and without question, a virgin) at the age of forty-one.
The prodigy’s genius tends to be all overflowing passion—think of Keats or Shelley, Austen’s near contemporaries. The autodidact’s tends to be all rough edges and loose ends—think of Melville or D. H. Lawrence. When we turn to Austen—and above all, to “Pride and Prejudice”—the qualities that come to mind are confidence, mastery, serenity, and tact. Especially tact. She spares us knowledge of herself, leaves us free to read the story through the window of her perfectly transparent prose. She doesn’t tax us with her personality. She keeps her feelings out of it—not her judgments, her feelings, and she never confuses the two.
“Pride and Prejudice” discredits one of our most deeply held beliefs: the idea that emotions have an absolute validity. Feelings are not right or wrong, we say; they just are. Or rather, feelings are always right, because they are—and we always have a right to them. It is a notion that was promulgated by the same feminism that helped to elevate Austen to her current eminence. So much of the feminist struggle involved asserting the legitimacy of women’s feelings. Emotions—the reality of female discontent within the patriarchal system—were the bedrock, in a sense, of the feminist argument.
When you decide to write a novel—your first—the initial process may feel eccentric and exciting and individual. But it turns out you’re also entering a network.
Of course, it’s an uneasy business, reading a friend’s book. That’s true regardless of the book’s genre, whether nonfiction or poetry or short stories. But I think it’s especially true of novels. “I can’t wait to read it,” you declare. Meanwhile, a private voice—speaking in that tone of wry resignation so common to inner voices prohibited from public utterance—is reasonably asking, “Hey, hold on a minute, what if I hate it?” The stage is all set for poignancy. What if you take no pleasure in a book written by somebody in that circle formed specifically to bring you pleasure, your friends? Aren’t novels all about pleasure? And so the deeper the friendship the harder you may find it to begin your friend’s book—the potential for disappointment enhanced by each heightening degree of affection. That stifled inner voice makes another declaration: “I’ll prove how much I like you by never reading your book.”
A welcome raising-of-the-curtain about one of the bigger literary dust-ups of 2012.
We spoke to each other, by phone or e-mail, once every two or three weeks. And, as we asserted our own opinions and listened to those of the others, our general predilections began to make themselves apparent.
Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story. She did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.
Susan was a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book. She always had reasons for her devotions, as an astute reader would, but she was, to her credit, probably the most emotional one among us. Susan could fall in love with a book in more or less the way one falls in love with a person. Yes, you can provide, if asked, a list of your loved one’s lovable qualities: he’s kind and funny and smart and generous and he knows the names of trees.
But he’s also more than amalgamation of qualities. You love him, the entirety of him, which can’t be wholly explained by even the most exhaustive explication of his virtues. And you love him no less for his failings. O.K., he’s bad with money, he can be moody sometimes, and he snores. His marvels so outshine the little complaints as to render them ridiculous.
I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines, but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.
This is not to say that any of us was obdurate or inflexible about our inclinations, but rather that it was good for all three of us to know what our inclinations were, so as to allow for them, in ourselves and one another, as we continued to talk and talk and talk about the books. I might say, of a particular book, “Maybe I’m being too easily seduced by the language.” Or Susan might say, “Maybe I’m a little bit blinded by love.” That, it seemed, was one way to move toward relative objectivity. We declared ourselves. We wanted to be called out by the other two, if calling-out proved necessary.
Once we’d read all three hundred and some books, we found ourselves with a list of thirty or more. We fairly quickly crossed off a number of them. This book had seemed more impressive before we read the next two hundred. That book was greatly admired by one of us but not all that much by either of the others.
The disagreements (always civil, we truly did respect one another) started when we’d finally pared the list down to six or seven candidates.
Each of them was remarkable in certain ways. Each of them inspired doubts, in one or more of the three of us.
It was time, then, to get into judgment mode.