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How literate are you? A rant.

How can someone who reads or writes romance have not read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice?

Particularly writers. Not because these books are the “first romances ever written” (questionable on so many levels, and Jane Eyre was actually the first Gothic Regency, but never mind that) but because they are part of our cultural heritage. And by our I mean the community and mindset of romance readers and writers. And by of I mean…

And no, the movies do not count. There are specific areas of the brain that deal with language and hence with reading and writing. Movies are something else entirely besides being a collaboration of people other than the author pooling their talents and vision and creating something that is (if they’re lucky) another work of art.

To play devil’s advocate to myself, does anyone actually need to read the books? Popular culture has given us all the clues. We all know what they’re about, so why is reading them so important? You read, you absorb, you stow bits and pieces away in your writer’s toolbox, and it seeps out in a good sort of way in your work. I firmly believe that reading well written books is the only way to become a writer.

And you’ll enjoy them, which is why we read what we read, isn’t it?

So what do you consider essential reading?–outside of romance as well as within the genre.

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Carolyn
12 years ago

Both Barthes and Derrida I believe talk about the meta-real and signifiers of meaning that allow us to talk about “meaning” without directly calling on the original thing in which the meaning actually resides. Thus, it’s possible to talk about P&P, for example, in terms of what we commonly agree P&P signifies without actually referencing P&P directly. Such signifers are hyper-real not real, if you will.

So, people who talk about P&P without ever having read it are talking about what we have agreed are the things that signify the original. (Mr. Darcy — there’s a packed signifier. Darcy signifies a great deal more than the mere hero of P&P. We can speak of Mr. Darcy and know we’re talking about a romantic ideal. People who have never read P&P still understand what Mr. Darcy represents — that is, what he signfies.)

There’s use in that, but it’s limited, particularly when the person speaking of the signifiers doesn’t understand that’s what they’re doing.

Personally, I think a writer who understands both the original and the things that signify the original is in a much stronger position as to his or her own writing and in any conversation that takes place about, say, P&P.

Knowledge is power. As a writer, I just believe that the more I understand about books and their meaning, the better writer I will be.

I don’t have anything, per se, against someone speaking of P&P etc in terms of what they signify, but I admit I get peeved when such people ALSO claim some deeper understanding. Without any direct knowledge of the original, such assertions are nonsense.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

I consider most of the Austen’s required reading and agree with Jane Eyre. I might add Wuthering Heights. I think that The Grand Inquisitor should be a must as well as The Sybil by Par Lagerkvist. (I actually think those two should be read consecutively). For modern day items I think that women should read Family Baggage by Monica McInerney and Seeing Me Naked by Liza Palmer. One of the following from YA The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Railway Children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Secret Garden. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett and A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
12 years ago

I hate to admit it, but the very reason that I read P&P and Jane Eyre was that I had seen the movies and I wanted to know what might have been missing. Now of course both books, particularly Jane Eyre are my favorites. Now that I have, I can’t imagine any writer, particulary one who writes historical fiction or romance, not reading the fiction that was written in that particular time period. You learn so much about the manners and morals than just reading history books. Not only that, but you are reading the books that they might have read.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I agree and disagree, Janet. I cannot imagine NOT having read Jane Eyre and Pride & Prejudice, but, on the other hand, there is much great fiction I have never read. The Great Gatsby, for instance. The Grapes of Wrath. Not romances, certainly, but one might argue that I can’t be a writer without them.

I did read popular fiction voraciously as a child. Nancy Drew. Cherry Ames. I’ve read some lovely women’s fiction, The Shell Seekers, for example. And lots and lots of Woodiwiss, Victoria Holt, Joanna Lindsey, etc. Who has honed my craft the most? I can’t tell!

I wonder if the impact of good storytelling can come in a variety of ways, some by reading the classics and some by reading what we enjoy most of popular fiction.

Leona
12 years ago

I think that any writer needs to read both classic and popular books in the genre.

Nathan Bransford recently did a post that asked what book others can’t believe you haven’t read he admitted to LOTR. Besides the obvious admonition considering my family and I are fanatical fans of the movie and my husband has worn out three sets before I got to read them, it wasn’t a problem, really. He’s an agent of current, popular books.

However, I was surprised and even a little apalled at the number of people who wrote fantasy that hadn’t read them either. Or the YA writers who haven’t read at least 2 in the Harry Potter or Twilight series. You may or may not like the style of writing, the story, what have you, but there is something there that the public obviously likes.

Most agents, publishers, editors, say to read in the genre you are writing. I happen to think that should include the classics and the current. my 2 cents 🙂

Jane Holland
12 years ago

It’s a tricky one. For those who haven’t read particular classics of the genre, they may well seem irrelevant. And they could usefully claim, as Carolyn suggests with her comment on signifiers and the signified, that by reading modern classics they are somehow absorbing the lessons of those older writers without reading the actual texts involved, since the newer writers they are reading HAVE read them.

However, I personally feel that a reasonable acquaintance with the classics of each genre must be indispensable to a writer wishing to make a true contribution to that genre. If you have no ambition to contribute to the genre, but merely to publish within it, it won’t matter if you’ve only seen the films and never read the original texts of, say, Jane Austen.

I’ve been lucky enough to study Austen and the Romantics at university level, plus later authors such as the Brontes, Gaskell, Dickens, George Eliot, etc. My personal take on reading and studying the original texts is that there can be no real substitute for atmosphere, at least. You can get the essence of a plot from a good film version, but you lose out on the experience of reading, part of which involves the atmosphere generated by reading a text, reading being such an intimate act, a writer whispering directly into a reader’s ear and triggering the use of the imagination. When you watch a film, you absorb the story too passively for that intimacy to work its magic. So if you try to work in the same genre yourself on a diet of film rather than original text, you end up with something diluted, an imposed visual impression of a genre rather than a ‘felt’, first-hand experience of its truths.

So basically, yes, you need to read the classics of romance if you want to write with a full understanding of that genre. But the chances are that many won’t bother. Luckily for them, of course, the majority of their readers will be none the wiser, since they too won’t have bothered to read Austen.

Stephanie Draven
12 years ago

Alright, here’s the sad truth. I read Jane Eyre. I also read Pride and Prejudice. I remember being very bored and frustrated by Jane, and though you’re going to shoot spitballs at me for saying this, I found Pride & Prejudice to be entirely forgettable. Truly, utterly, forgettable.

Heresy! I know. It might have been the time of my life that I read these books, or it might have been my peculiar psychological make-up, but they did not move me or stay with me for very long.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy fiction that builds off either of these books. I do. I really do. But there are other inspirations for me when I’m writing romance.

Take Wuthering Heights. Now that book made me cry. It touched something in me. My copy is highlighted and underlined. Maybe that’s why I write paranormal romance. I dunno.

Cara King
12 years ago

To play devil’s advocate here myself, I would point out that Jane Eyre is really not a Regency of any sort… 🙂

I’m never one myself to urge people not to read the classics (I was lucky enough to read Jane Eyre and P&P when I was thirteen, and loved them both), but I’ve always been leery of absolutes in this area.

Perhaps it came from my mother being shocked that I hadn’t read A Tale of Two Cities. “Well, I’ve read Great Expectations,” I argued. “And Oliver Twist. And Hard Times.”

“Oh, but they aren’t supposed to be as good,” she would argue.

“My lit books seem to think that GP and HT are more highly respected today than Two Cities.”

She was horrified. She was also horrified when I told her that her beloved Man Without A Country was read more nowadays as an example of propaganda fiction than great literature.

And when I was reading early twentieth-century books about great British literature, I would often find they had a whole chapter on Thackeray, a whole chapter on Scott, and just a paragraph on Austen. How times have changed!

So I try not to get hung up on what is mandatory reading….

Cara

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

I’d add Wives & Daughters by Mrs Gaskell to the list, a book I rave about from time to time. And I love Villette by C Bronte much more than JE–it’s a maddening, ambiguous, writer screwing you around type book.

Cara, there are two references within JE that place it either in about 1807 (a reference to Walter Scott, I think) or in the early 1820s. It’s very much a time and landscape of the imagination, but quite definitely within the pre-1832 period (like so many novels written later in the century).

Jane Austen
12 years ago

Janet,
I forgot Wives & Daughters. I do love that book, but must sheepishly admit that it was the mini-series that made me want to read the book. And I do actually like the ending of the mini-series better, but to be honest I believe Ms. Gaskell died before she finished the book. I just bought a book of Ms. Gaskell’s letters because I wanted to know more about her. If you know of a good bio or something about her I’d love the recommendation.

Jane Holland
12 years ago

Yes, Jane Eyre may not obviously qualify as a Regency romance, but it does minutely describe the life of a nineteenth century governess, in the same way that the truly excellent Villette describes the closeted, claustrophic existence of females of that kind around the mid-century, teachers and governesses, not truly visible in society, and yet constantly watched as well as being in a position to watch others unobserved. It was Villette that I was thinking of when I wrote above of ‘atmosphere’ in these novels, and how useful it can be for a writer wishing to recreate those peripheral female roles in their own novels.

Jane George
12 years ago

Ooh I love a Janet rant. So invigorating.

Heather Snow
12 years ago

“I firmly believe that reading well written books is the only way to become a writer.”

This, I completely agree with. While we might quibble over what books we should or shouldn’t have to read, I attribute any talent I might possess as a historical writer to the many years and years of books I’ve absorbed, stories I’ve loved, heroes I’ve fallen in love with, etc. Yes, I’ve had to find my own voice, but much of the craft of storytelling I’ve learned by reading. Certainly I’ve had to hone that craft, and most definitely I will always have a long way to go, but if you want to write, read. Read. Read. Read.

Thanks for the though provoking post.

Alison
12 years ago

Totally left field – The First hundred Thousand by Ian hay, about the Great War. By the way, I hate war books, but this is not your average war book. Very well written and about characters, though the war does come in towards the end. Go on, read it – you will thank me for the recommendation, I promise.

Elizabeth
12 years ago

Jane Austen, Gaskell did die before finishing Wives and Daughters, though she left an outline/notes of the final chapters.

Jenny Uglow wrote a biography of Gaskell; I can’t remember if I’ve read it, but I like Uglow as a biographer. And Gaskell herself wrote a biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Austen
12 years ago

Elizabeth,

Thanks. I actually have Uglow’s bio on George Elliot. I think I will pick up her one on Gaskell as well. I didn’t know that she left notes on how she wanted it to end, but I enjoyed Roger taking Molly to Africa with him even if it wasn’t accurate.

Jane O
Jane O
12 years ago

There are many books that one ought to have read not simply as a romance writer (or reader) but simply to be a literate adult. Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are among them, but so are such works as War and Peace and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I will not order you to be taken out and shot if you fall short of my criteria. However, I will not take your views very seriously if you have not read the originals and can only talk about the criticism or the signifiers.

But then, there is no requirement for you to take me seriously either.

Janet Mullany
12 years ago

Well said, Jane O!

Pour of Tor
12 years ago

Hmm. This is a fascinating question: something that strikes me all the time in reading romances that purport to be Austenian is how little they attend to the actual romantic tropes and structures that are so delightful in an Austen novel: economic concerns that turn a woman’s early 20s into a terrifying social gamble, an underlying distrust of those who seem like conventional (charming, swashbuckling) romantic heroes, the nitty-gritty of what it means to live as an ethical member of a community (family, village, etc.). And I love nothing more than a modern romance that shows a nuanced attention (even if its a rejection) to its intertexts and influences.

But at the same time, even as (especially as?) a literature teacher, I am always wary of implying that a certain set of texts are a requirement for writing in a field or genre. Certainly they can enrich writing, but innovation can sometimes come from writing in total ignorance of the models everyone else is deferring to.

I am also quite conscious of the futility of trying to “master the canon” of great literature. I was just blogging about the fact that after a dozen years devoted entirely to the advanced study of literature, I have still only read about 16-17% of several 1000 Books You Must Read lists. Do I consider myself a fairly literate person? (Tentatively) yes. Have I read “War and Peace” or Proust? Wish I had. But I haven’t had time yet: I was busy reading “The Faerie Queene”, “Moby Dick,” “The Canterbury Tales,” the complete works of Aeschylus and Judith Ivory, “Ulysses,” “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” Ursula K. Le Guin, Tom Stoppard, etc. Everyone has their (blush-inducing) gaps. What is delightful about list-making and canonizing is 1) that it gets a great debate like the one here started, and 2) the striving is all.

Thanks for posing such a marvelous question!

(P.S. One of my favorite modern reworkings of “Jane Eyre” is Margaret Drabble’s “The Waterfall,” which asks whether Rochester *has* to be injured for Jane’s development as a character to be achieved. Is he in effect a sort of narrative sacrifice or scapegoat for the achievement of feminine power or romantic closure?)

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