Jane Austen – Literary or Popular?

I ran across this bit whilst reading Northanger Abbey with my budding Janeite:

“Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Stene, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

And I thought of it again at my friend Therese Walsh’s booksigning, where I found myself in an amicable debate with a stranger on the question of whether Jane Austen wrote literary or popular fiction. The other lady argued that of course Jane was literary, while I suggested that Jane was writing popular fiction of her time. Our discussion was pretty lively but we realized we didn’t have a good definition for what was literary versus popular, one that didn’t do injustice to one or the other.

I can’t remember all the ground we covered (I was drinking wine and enjoying myself) but here are some ideas I’ve seen or heard on the web and elsewhere. Please note I don’t necessarily agree with these definitions. Many are silly and I can come up with all sorts of counterexamples. Anyway, let’s see where Jane’s work fits.

The quality of writing is better in literary versus popular fiction.

I don’t necessarily agree, but by this rule Jane’s work is LITERARY.

Literary authors write for art’s sake; authors of popular fiction write for money.

I remember reading that Jane was glad that her earnings helped her family financially; on the other hand, profit wasn’t her sole motive. I’d say this test is inconclusive.

Literary novels are meant to elevate the mind; popular novels are meant to amuse.

Well, here’s another quote, from a letter Jane wrote to Mr. Clarke, librarian to the Prince Regent.

“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.

By this rule, I’d say Jane’s work is POPULAR.

Literary novels are good for you (like cod liver oil). Popular novels are what people actually want to read.

Easy answer here—Jane’s work is POPULAR.

Popular fiction is written to fit specific genre expectations, e.g. romance, horror, mystery. Literary fiction has no such constraints.

This is about the most sensible delineation I’ve seen anywhere. But back when Jane was writing, I think novels were novels and not pigeon-holed into genres the way they are now. And as the Northanger Abbey quote indicates, they weren’t as well-respected as other literary forms. So this test is inconclusive.

So much classic fiction fits well into modern genres. Novels by Jane Austen and the Brontes (romance/women’s fiction), Edgar Allen Poe (horror), Jules Verne (science fiction) are a few that come to mind. Which gets me to the next “rule”.

Literary fiction stands the test of time; popular fiction is ephemeral.

Not that I think this will be true (for instance, I think Harry Potter will endure) but in Jane’s case, this is a no-brainer. By this rule, her work is LITERARY.

So anyway, in this totally un-scholarly analysis, it comes to a tie. What do you think? Is Jane Austen’s work literary or popular? Or does her work transcend such categories?

Happy Birthday, Jane, and thanks for the hours of “extensive and unaffected pleasure”!


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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Diane Gaston
12 years ago

There is no doubt in my mind that Jane Austen thought, and her contemporaries agreed, that she was writing popular fiction. That it is still popular today tells us how well she did it.

I can’t imagine myself deciding to write a literary novel. I can only imagine having a story I want to tell in the best way I can. Maybe the best of the storytellers are called “literary” 200 years later!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
12 years ago

I agree with Diane that Jane was writing popular fiction. I’m not sure when the distinction between the two began. Certainly Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, etc. were writing popula fiction.

I couldn’t write a strictly literary novel to save my life. I want to write stories that move people, make them laugh, cry, think, the full range of human emotion.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

I think that there is no other writer that has whored out his trade and is now considered a classic than Charles Dickens. Dickens is not great….he got paid by the word. Yet people think he is great literature. I think if Dickens is great literature then JA is definitely good literature. Plus I don’t think that writing something that is popular means it is not worthy of being literature. Today people write books that are popular and yet well written and will one day be considered literature. On the other hand we will have our Dickens of our times and even though they write dribble they will become literature (Dan Brown I am looking at you and crying a horrible sad cry for humanity, but I must concur that you might be the Dickens of our times). I know some people will be angry by my comments and some will laugh. But that’s how everything is….some people agree some people disagree. Such is life…..

Elena Greene
12 years ago

Maybe the best of the storytellers are called “literary” 200 years later!

Diane, that’s what I think, too.

It seems more honest to me to try to entertain readers than to try to impress them. Although I find it works best to start selfishly, by writing what entertains me.

12 years ago

As much as I love Austen I’d have to put her in the popular category, though her writing skill and social commentary would put her near the top of that category with the likes of Dickens. I think to be “literary” a book has to go deeper and say something about basic human nature, not just about a particular society at a particular time, and it has to do so with originality and artistic mastery. Austen and Dickens no, Eliot and Hardy yes. But they’re all great to read!

12 years ago

When I think of literary novels I think of the Twain quote about classics being something everyone wants to have read but no one actually wants to read so I have to go with her writing popular fiction.

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

I have to agree with you, O Divine One. So much of what we call literature started out as the popular fiction of its day. While I love to read literature I truly don’t think I could write it. And frankly most of what they call literary fiction written since Faulkner and Capote is, not to put too fine a point on it, self-aggrandizing crap.

Jane Austen’s work was popular fiction is literary gold and will endure far beyond much of what New York is producing today.

12 years ago

I read an interesting comment somewhere this week. We often think of Jane Austen as THE author of Regency romances, and put her in the historical romance section. Unlike many authors she was not writing historical fiction. She was a contemporary romance/fiction writer. It is hard to see her that way, but she was writing about the society of her time. If she were alive today and writing, would we group her with Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, Elizabeth Phillips,Debbie Macomber? It is really hard to think of her that way. I guess that might put her into the literary catagory.

Stephanie J
12 years ago

Great post and interesting comments as well! I really agree with everyone’s comments and I really like the way you put it, Sylvia. LibraryPat, I remember reading that comment and it was like a light bulb going off!

12 years ago

Jane was writing popular fiction, which she did very well because the books are still read all over the world.