11 November 2011

Jane Austen and the All-Access Pass

N.: Doctor, the blogger patient shows renewed signs of topical clumping. He wants to get out 500 words or less about Jane Austen's apparent 'accessibility', but if we're not careful we'll have a whole novel (you should pardon the expression!) on our hands, about the early history of the US paperback, and the role of cinema and TV adaptations, and Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier--

D.: And I know you'd just hate that part.

Your 'classic' Persuasion
N.: I think we can leave the stereotypes aside, Doctor. Besides, you'll only encourage him. As I was saying: Colin Firth, Laurence Olivier; purists versus popularizers; the history of the UK publisher Hodder, Eric Ambler, the Hachette publishing empire, Le Livre de Poche; 'romance' fiction--

D.: Nurse novels?

N. (ignoring him): --genre fiction bias, gender fiction bias--

D.: Gender fiction bias? You mean 'chick lit'? Can we talk about chick flicks for a minute? How many chick flicks do you think I'd watch in a lifetime if I didn't need to get--

The patient regains consciousness and attempts to regain control. Obviously, it's not easy. Some radical surgery is called for--if possible, before 'great books'/'the canon'/'DWEMs' find their way into the mix.

Hodder Headline's Austen (2006)
Let's scroll back to 2006, the year in which UK publisher Hodder Headline, newly under the Hachette umbrella, issued new (and, to the best of my knowledge, its first) paperback editions of Jane Austen's principal six novels and set about getting them onto retailers' shelves--'wherever paperbacks are sold', as the advertising copy for just about any other popular paperback might read. (We're not talking about the 'classics' section, and we're including stores where nary a Penguin Classic is to be found.) There were discussions in the press about whether Hodder (more readily associated, historically, with the Saint, Eric Ambler and John le Carré) was trying to market Austen as 'chick lit', 'Regency romance', 'guilty pleasure'--and the expression 'dumbing down' came up more than once.

A different Persuasion ?
Penguin 'red' cover
It was also in 2006 that Penguin included the six principal Austens in the much more extensive 'red' reissue (of that era)--new editions of what in competing Penguin editions were called 'classics' but here, in the 'red' series, appeared with no historical introductions, no annotations or other 'classics' cues, often a more generous typeface and better paper... and late-20th-century photographs or line drawings as cover illustrations. (Fairly or not, the Penguin 'red' Austen line, and indeed the entire red series, seemed not to get the same often-chilly reception that commentators reserved for the Hodder Austens.)

But whatever else one might say about the Hodder (and Penguin 'red') Austens, no one doubted that the public would buy them--and read them. (For the record, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admired but did not buy any of the Hodder six; I bought the Penguin 'red' Austens and inhaled the 'red' Northanger Abbey on my way back from the UK to Florida that year.) The Hodder six and the Penguin reds sold well, and, over five years later, are still in print--alongside their Penguin Classics counterparts.

In the case of Austen (and, I suspect, also of Dickens and Gibbon), the secret's in the marketing--but in the broadest sense of both terms. The real 'secret', to put it bluntly, is that we already have abundant access (and not just market access) to the 'classics' (whether we call them that or not). And the 'marketing' includes everything we do or witness every day that labels a text, or genre, or work of art--or anything or anyone else--as, let's say, 'our sort' or 'not quite our sort'.

Of course, it's easier to make the argument about Jane Austen, not only because of her--I would say her 'greatness', but I don't want to impose that judgement on you--but also because her accessibility has been tested and established. Not in every case is it so clear. But it's always worth exploring.

Still to come, on other days: Thomas Paine, the Bible, and why we might want access to the 'classics'.

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