Monday, August 04, 2008

From Austen to Dowd

The most recent Maureen Dowd column is called "Mr. Darcy Comes Courting." It employs Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as the pattern into which Obama's election campaign is to be fitted. Yes, you guessed it: Barack Obama is Mr. Darcy. Who is Elizabeth Bennet, then? That's a tad unclear.

Dowd ends up arguing that the United States is Elizabeth, but most of the column is spent on berating Hillary Clinton, the women who voted for her, working class women and American women in general. That's Dowd's usual m.o. and somehow based on the idea that she might, after all, not be a woman herself. Good luck with getting the guys to accept her honorary guyness.

I shouldn't be writing about Dowd's misuse of Jane Austen's book. Molly Ivors has put together an excellent literary response, but I would still like to say a few small words about this bit from Dowd:

The odd thing is that Obama bears a distinct resemblance to the most cherished hero in chick-lit history. The senator is a modern incarnation of the clever, haughty, reserved and fastidious Mr. Darcy.

Jane Austen belongs to the history of chick-lit? Only if you are willing to see Rembrandt or da Vinci or Rubens as the forerunner of your family snapshots. Note, by the way, that this is not in any sense intended to demean the writers of chick-lit (if such a genre really exists in the first place); only to point out that Jane Austen was one of the few great geniuses of the English language and that her books are not about love-and-marriage anymore than Rembrandt's paintings are about trying to take photographs before photography was invented.

Here's an interesting question: Does Maureen Dowd herself write the kind of chick-lit she deplores? I rather suspect so, given her obsession of turning everything about politics into a teenage drama, replete with cheerleaders and burly guys playing football and rather nasty geeks who shouldn't get the girls. All this made me Google what else she may have said about Jane Austen and chick-list. This is what I found in a 2007 column titled "Heels Over Hemingway", a piece deploring the omnipresence of chick-lit, its pink covers turning bookstores into a sea of pink in which the testicle-driven Important Classics are drowning:

Suddenly I was swimming in pink. I turned frantically from display table to display table, but I couldn't find a novel without a pink cover. I was accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.

Was it a Valentine's Day special?

No, I realized with growing alarm, chick lit was no longer a niche. It had staged a coup of the literature shelves. Hot babes had shimmied into the grizzled old boys' club, the land of Conrad, Faulkner and Maugham. The store was possessed with the devil spawn of "The Devil Wears Prada." The blood-red high heel ending in a devil's pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.

I even found Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" with chick-lit pretty-in-pink lettering.

"Penis lit versus Venus lit," said my friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, who was with me. "An unacceptable choice."

"Looking for Mr. Goodbunny" by Kathleen O'Reilly sits atop George Orwell's "1984." "Mine Are Spectacular!" by Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger hovers over "Ulysses." Sophie Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series cuddles up to Rudyard Kipling.

Even Will Shakespeare is buffeted by rampaging 30-year-old heroines, each one frantically trying to get their guy or figure out if he's the right guy, or if he meant what he said, or if he should be with them instead of their BFF or cousin, or if he'll come back, or if she'll end up stuck home alone eating Häagen-Dazs and watching "CSI" and "Sex and the City" reruns.

Weirdly enough, Dowd in that column warns us all from confusing chick-lit with Jane Austen's love-and-marriage stories. I guess she has changed her mind about that.

But do you spot something else fascinating about those paragraphs I quoted? Do you spot one of the oldest tricks in the tool kits of us propagandists? Suppose that I wanted to make the reverse argument from Dowd's point. How would I accomplish that?

I'd pile the books in a bookstore into two imaginary piles, one consisting of Lady Murasake's The Tale of Genji, the books by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and so on and the other consisting of potboilers written by guys: books all about killing other guys and about having sex with lots of women, with a few military cartoons and Superman stories thrown in. Then I'd compare what's in the two piles and conclude that bookstores are drowning all the important classics written by women in this horrible sea of testosterone, whatever its color might be. And that's the trick Dowd uses except in reverse: She compares the best of male authors with female authors from a genre that she dislikes.

Time now for a very different literary metaphor, one having to do with Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. For those of you not familiar with this cartoon, Lucy repeatedly holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, but every time she lifts the ball up at the last moment, causing poor Charlie to fall back after kicking into air.

Charlie never learns the lesson not to kick. Now replace Lucy with Maureen Dowd and Charlie with me and what do you get? A setup where every stupid column written by Dowd elicits an angry response from me, and that's exactly what the New York Times wants from their opinion columnists: The loonier the better! Bring them all in: Brooks, Kristol and Dowd! They can always be trusted to say something vile and nasty about womankind and that's how we like it here at the Gray Lady.

No wonder that Maureen Dowd as Lucy is one of their favorite girls. Just see how many people e-mail Dowd's columns to each other. Sadly, most of them probably feel like Charlie Brown, wishing that they could stop reading the dratted thing.

Sigh. Let's return to the idea of applying Pride and Prejudice to this election campaign, if we must. Who in the book is John McCain? Dowd suggests the wily Wickham, but I think a much closer model would be Mr. Collins, the boring and calculating clergyman with friends in high places. He was even quite a maverick, easily switching to a different woman when Elizabeth Bennet refused his courting.