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The Lessons of Jane Austen, Life Coach

By Jessanne Collins
Thursday, May 12th, 2011
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Out of the 30 or so southern Californians that gathered Monday night at a Pasadena bookstore for a reading by literary critic William Deresiewicz, exactly two were men. “And one of them was there because he knew me,” admitted Deresiewicz, the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, which came out this month from Penguin.

Which isn’t to say the former Yale literature professor and National Magazine Award-nominated critic was surprised by the demographics of his audience. Indeed, it’s his status as the rare male Jane Austen diehard — if “diehard” is the right word for a foremost scholar on the 19th-century icon — that gave rise to the book.

A multifaceted work that tightly weaves his own memoir with Austen’s biography and a literary analysis of her novels with a dissection of the spiritual and ethical lessons he finds embedded in them, the book took form after a dean, upon review of Deresiewicz’s CV, asked “What’s with you and Jane Austen?”

“I think that really meant, ‘You’re a guy — what’s up with that?’” Deresiewicz told Bookish Tuesday by phone from San Francisco (the third stop on his book tour), where he was sitting in his car parked on a hill overlooking the sparkling bay. “I just answered honestly with a phrase I’d been saying to myself for a long time which was, ‘I don’t know — sometimes I feel like everything I know in life I learned by reading Jane Austen.’ ”

William Deresiewicz

It was a crystallizing moment — as much as he’d already written about Austen in a scholarly capacity, Deresiewicz saw he still had more to say. “I realized that if I was going to talk about what she had taught me, I needed to talk about how she had taught me,” he says. “It needed not only to be literary criticism but also memoir, and it also needed to be literary criticism in a very specific way — something that was very personal and accessible, that really spoke directly to Jane Austen as an ethical teacher.”

Even from his book’s title, it’s obvious that Deresiewicz considers Austen something of a guru, and in chapter one, we learn that he credits his reluctant introduction to Austen in a graduate seminar with his salvation — from himself. At the time he cut the not-unfamiliar figure of a young and arrogant avowed modernist whose Bible was Ulysses, and who had a hard time biting his cynical, intellectual tongue. “Like the modernists, I was hot to change the world, even if I wasn’t sure exactly how,” he writes. “At the very least, I knew I wasn’t going to let the world change me.”

Enter Emma. At first unbearably banal in its exposition of the everyday and the “minute particulars,” the novel eventually revealed itself to Deresiewicz to be not just “a revolutionary artistic choice” on Austen’s part, but downright illuminating about his own condition: “Emma, who had it all, was forever discontented with the world around her — just like me, in my perpetual fog of resentful gloom.”

Recognizing his own image in such a character is an epiphany, and it would be followed, as Deresiewicz tells it, by others just as powerful. He finds no shortage of parallels to draw between the particularities of provincial life for Austen’s myriad heroines and his own insular upbringing, first in an Orthodox Jewish household in New Jersey where family life was “a knife fight with words” and then in the sheltered universe of Columbia University, where he spent both his undergrad and graduate years.

Now at work on a book-length expansion of an article he wrote for The Nation about the crisis in higher education, Deresiewicz has left academia, and the East Coast, settling in Portland, Ore., with (spoiler alert!) the wife he credits Austen with helping him find. But he hasn’t given up the spirited defense of Austen he honed in the classroom. There, despite her canonization — and perhaps because of her enduring influence on pop culture (“Clueless is a really good Jane Austen movie,” he allows, though he’s not a fan of how most adaptations strip out the life lessons and overblow the rose-tinted romance) — Pride and Prejudice’s appearance on the syllabus often met with groans of skepticism, especially from male students.

Using the same techniques he perfects in the book, Deresiewicz says he would break down classroom resistance by dissecting Austen’s merits as a writer — “She was not paid by the word. She chose every word very carefully”— and as an apt chronicler of the social condition, which is to say, of the way gossip shapes our world.

And as a last resort? “I’d make the girls exert social pressure and just tell the guys to shut up.”

William Deresiewicz reads at Barnes & Noble on 86th Street and Lexington, Monday May 16 at 7:00 p.m.