The Austen Reboot Needs the Boot

Sense & Sensibility (Austen Project) - Joanna Trollope

NOTE: This is not a review of the book, which I haven't started yet--it's a review of the philosophy behind the entire project. 


There was a big discussion going on at Mobile Reads recently about Harper Collins’ ‘Austen Project,’ where 6 modern authors “re-imagine” Austen’s work for a contemporary audience:


The implication being that despite the universal appeal of her works, Austen could use a little primping, tucking, and updating so that our multimedia, hypertext YA audience can appreciate her.  Joanna Trollope’s reboot of Sense and Sensibility (which retains the same name as the original) features two sisters connected by earbuds, ostensibly Elinor and Marianne.  On the book jacket, Trollope writes that this is “not an emulation, but a tribute.”  I read a few pages from the preview and the result is pretty much what I expected.  It’s a YA novel using all the characters and situations from the original, but pared to the bone: social satire, reflections on class and education, and discussions of sensibility and the picturesque have been largely replaced with ‘cool’ references and sly winks at the original.  A tribute?  Or simply a postmodern way to make a buck? 


When you search for Sense and Sensibility on Amazon this work comes up first—well before any standard edition of the original.  The reviews are mostly laudatory, with the seasoned reviewers pouring scorn on those who mock Trollope’s attempt to re-imagine Austen; it’s all in good taste, she is simply helping young folks connect with the sisters, she does more with the secondary characters, adds inner monologues, etc.  All well and good, I suppose.  But what troubles me is this: a teenager might hear about Jane Austen either in class or from a friend (or after seeing one of the films) and seek out the book on Amazon...and find this.  This would be their first contact with Austen.  And while they might love it, they’re not reading Austen, they’re reading a “reboot,” which will either make them (possibly) seek the original to compare the two, or (more likely) be unable to appreciate the original since this is their first impression and anything else will seem strange, antiquated, or simply different.  Most young readers will prefer characters that look like them, speak like them, use their phrases and references; if you give them a pop version of Austen and then say, okay, here’s the original “without a translation,” you’re setting them up for disappointment. 


So this all begs the question, why does Austen need a re-imagine?  To my mind, there are 2 reasons to ‘translate’ a classic work: (1) when a work is translated from one language to another, as in the case of those who cannot read Austen in the original; (2) from one medium to another, as in a novel to a film, or a novel to a stage play; the change of genre can open up new possibilities and help us see aspects of the original we missed without substantially changing the language/characters.  In both cases, the question is how literal should the translation be?  Nabokov, in his translations of Pushkin, claimed that you had to be bone-crushingly literal, removing all poetry and interpretation to cleave to Pushkin’s literal words.  Other translators seek to capture more a sense of the piece so we can appreciate its novelty or effect in another language.  With film, for example, one can modernize Austen (as in Clueless), or keep it literal while evoking a more modern, gritty feel (as in the 1995 film adaptation of Persuasion).  I am not an advocate for either approach; both work, and both can be exciting.  I like to see a director make Austen his or her own through the film medium, since a novel cannot be a movie anymore than a poem can be a spaceship (literally, at any rate).  So why would someone feel the need to translate a novel in English into a second novel in English?  Okay, so we update the characters to modern-day girls growing up in our modern day world.  They listen to I-pods, text, Twitter, and listen to Lady Gaga.  What does this add to the “re-imagining” of Jane Austen?  How does it help us see her in a new, exciting way?  What do we come away knowing/seeing about her art that we weren’t previously aware of?  In short, why the hell should we buy this novel? 


The cover says it all: it’s simply aimed (and quite shamelessly) at the YA ‘chick-lit’ market that might have very little awareness of Jane Austen, but will see two girls with headphones on the cover and go, “cool!”  This would be fine if the modern YA genre had a dearth of books for young girls to read (as if they couldn’t read Austen themselves!), but it teems with them—and very good books—works that might truly be modern-day Jane Austens!  I mean, why do we need Trollope’s rehash of Sense and Sensibility when you have authors like Ranibow Rowell, whose two recent works, Fangirl and Eleanor & Park do Trollope one better by capturing what Jane Austen might really be writing if she were alive today?  A true “re-imagining” should be writers inspired by Austen rather than trying to make a buck of her name and legacy.  It’s shameful marketing at best, and at worst, it might ruin a young person’s budding love affair with a great writer like Austen.  I first fell in love with her around 16, knowing nothing of her status or mythos; I simply picked up Pride and Prejudice in a used bookstore for a buck and thought, “I’ve vaguely heard of this...maybe it’s like Tale of Two Cities.”  Well, it was better—and I’ve been reading—and teaching—her works ever since.  What if I had picked up Trollope’s reboot instead?  Would I have become an avid Jane Austen reader?  Would I have followed her to other writers of her time, such as the Brontes, Shelley, Gaskell, and backwards into Fanny Burney and Aphra Behn?  Would I have pursued this love all the way into the Ph.D.? 


Maybe a little hyperbolic here, but that’s how life works: one small step—even a misstep—can lead you across the world.  So for this reason I can’t stomach these kind of crass commercial re-imaginings and wish the entire project to the devil!  Young people out there, go buy all the Austen you can fit on your shelves or Kindles or Nooks and start reading!  You don’t need a translation—you read and speak English!  How lucky are you to read her in the original?  You can get all her satirical asides, her pungent wit, her cultural dissections that still resonate today (but which lose their true thrust when removed from the early 19th century).   And by the way, be sure to read Shakespeare in the original, too...but that’s another rant for another post.