Why Does Jane Get All the Fan Fiction?

Jane PictureRecently I was lucky enough to attend a two day workshop with romance author Eloisa James.  She was talking about female novelists a little after Jane Austen’s time (and often inspired by Austen) who wrote “silver fork” novels and supported themselves by writing.  We tend to think of Austen as being unique and alone, but it’s empowering to think that there were women writing and selling their work–even if those novels haven’t stood the test of time.

Jane Austen’s work obviously has endured, however.  Austen was a great writer whose books have literary value and give us insight into the human condition, so it’s no wonder she’s consider one of the greats of English literature.  But I always wonder why she attracts so much fan fiction while other literary greats are only admired from afar?

In other words, why don’t we have Charles Dickens Fan Fiction or what-if versions of Moby Dick or sequels to Hamlet or modern adaptations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and (heaven forbid!) Pilgrim’s Progress?  There is a lot of literature out there that doesn’t attract a hoard of avid fan fiction writers or readers.  Why is Austen different?

Of course the answer is multi-faceted and complex, and different people find Austen appealing for different reasons.  But the answer is also tied up in the question of why Jane Austen is so popular today.   For the past 20 years we have experienced a stunning Austen renaissance that encompasses conferences, plays, artwork, children’s editions of her books, and a vast array of movies based on her books, her life, or Austen fandom.  But, again I return to the question of “why Jane?” Why is it Austen in particular that we are so fascinated with at this moment in history?  Why aren’t we treated to “David Copperfield and Zombies” or “Lost in Milton” or “ShakespeareLand” or “The James Fennimore Cooper Book Club”?

Obviously one part of the answer has to do with the popularity of romance; the marriage plots in her novels make them particularly accessible and appealing to a modern audience.  Just about everyone has struggled with finding the right person to love, so we can all relate.  The Regency time period is also popular in romance novels, in part because of Jane herself, but also because of Georgette Heyer and the novelists who came after her.  But why aren’t we reading lots of fan fiction based on Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?  They both have romance, historical settings, and literary value.

One of the things that Eloisa James said actually gave me a clue here.  She talked about how the writing style for romances had changed and how readers no longer want books with long descriptive passages.  They want things to happen.  They want dialogue.  Shorter paragraphs.  And humor.

Who does that sound like?  I think one of the reasons for Austen’s popularity now is that her writing style is particularly in tune with modern sensibilities.  Her humorous characters and somewhat sarcastic narrative voice can be appreciated by modern readers.  Much of the action happens—and character is revealed through—dialogue, rather than in lengthy paragraphs of description.  The plots move along for the most part, not getting bogged down in unnecessary digressions or minutiae.  And, of course, her heroines exhibit independence that modern women find appealing.

You don’t find this combination in other writers in the past.  Jane Eyre has an appealing story, but things really only start to happen once Jane meets Lord Rochester.  Before that point the reader needs to slog through chapters about Jane’s miserable childhood in an orphanage.  And Wuthering Heights has a plot that meanders as well as several characters of questionable morals that modern readers might not identify with.  And don’t get me started on Dickens or Hardy. 🙂  By comparison, Jane Austen is short and snappy.

I also think that some of her popularity has to do with the search for role models.  As a girl growing up I avidly read biographies of historical women—anything I could find in my local library. (Unfortunately they didn’t have one about Jane Austen.)  I realize now I was looking for role models.  When you’re a girl, it’s easy to believe that people like you got left out of history.

As a girl, reading biographies of historical women could show me that women could participate in history—that women had accomplished important things too.  There aren’t a lot of women to point to who unquestionably belong in the English literary canon before 1900, but Jane Austen is one of them.  And that makes me want to embrace her writing.  Of course that is also probably one of the reasons her writing holds so much appeal for me.

In addition to her modern sensibility, I believe that this is one of the reasons for her success.  Not as some sort of academic or popular cultural tokenism, but because English-speaking women have embraced her as theirs—as someone they can admire and use as a role model.  Before 1900, female writers didn’t get a lot of turns at bat, but at least Jane hit a home run.  Yes, I know Austen’s work has a lot of male admirers, which is fabulous.  Great writers should be able to speak to anyone, regardless of gender.  But I think the Jane Austen phenomenon – the conferences, book clubs, mugs, t-shirts, audiences for her movies, and (of course) JAFF—is driven primarily by women.  And that’s something to be proud of. Look what we did!   Doesn’t she deserve it?

22 Responses to Why Does Jane Get All the Fan Fiction?

  1. Love this article, even if I am reading it long after it was posted (I am way behind in reading e-mails/too many books draw me away). I am going to save this to show my friends and relatives who scoff at me for reading hundreds of JAFF books of P&P.

  2. Victoria, it was so awesome to see your name in the list of Austen Authors. I want to add my welcome to the others. I hope you enjoy your time with us. We love our Austen Authors and I look forward to reading your work. The cover you posted at the front of your post is in my TBR pile and am anxious to read it. Again, welcome to our madness. JWG

  3. Great post! I really like your word “snappy” as applied to Jane’s writing. That’s a good description, as well as recognizing the independent streak shown in characters like Elizabeth Bennet. That appeals to modern readers, as well as the elimination of long, long, descriptive passages. I don’t think we aren’t intelligent enough to “slog through” such passages nowadays, but we are indeed attracted to more action. Our 21st century lives revolve around sound bites and 30 second commercials, and lots and lots of independent women. Seeing that reflected in timeless works from long ago strikes a responsive chord. I really enjoyed your thoughts!

  4. I read this book early this year called What Matters In Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Problems Solved by John Mullan and it was really interesting.One of the ‘problems’ was How Experimental an Author was Jane Austen. I believe though her characters are bigger than life and you just want more and more of them. I mean what girl doesn’t want a Mr. Darcy. So the chance to live the tales again is too irresistible to us and with fanfiction we get to enjoy our favorite characters but still have a brand new story to ready.

  5. Welcome, Victoria! I quite agree with your assessment! I think we can take it further too. Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s most popular work and it’s the snappiest. I’m posting later this week about Austen’s endurance in recent decades too and also think it relates to the independent women.

    • Hi Rose, Thank you for your welcome! I agree that P&P is the snappiest and that a reason for its popularity. I thought about putting that in the post, but it was long enough as it was!

  6. Great post Victoria. I agree that Jane Austen is unique in this. In my opinion it is because she injects humour into her books and has such great characters. I read P&P first as a young teenager and loved it. I have never been tempted by Jane Eyre etc. And would certainly not be interested in variations based on them. Keep up the good work. ?

  7. Welcome to Austen Authors, Victoria! We are so happy to have you on our team! Great things are ahead, I am sure of it!!

    This is indeed the million dollar question. I actually gave several speeches on this topic, one of which I recorded and it can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/50qBuJrOpi8

    There are so many reasons why Jane Austen versus the many other great authors and novels of the past, and the opinions vary. My favorite quote is by Amanda Vickery: “Austen leaves room for the reader’s intelligence and fantasies, which has the uncanny effect of allowing each new generation to see themselves reflected back from her pages. And in another 200 years, I am sure readers still will.”

    Great opening post! One of many more to come. 🙂

    • Hi Sharon, Thank you for your kind welcome! I’m excited to be part of this great group. I’m not surprised others have been addressing this question. I’ll have to check it out.

  8. Welcome to Austen Authors, Victoria. We are pleased to feature you among us. I gave up analyzing why we all love Austen. If a person doesn’t like Austen (or never heard of her), a person just does not get our shared obsession. Maybe that is the key… it’s a “shared” experience.
    BTW, just by chance (for you know I am on a short vaca [meaning a long weekend] with the grandkids), I scheduled a post on my blog that is an overview of Austen and the Bronte sisters. I was brainstorming for a recent presentation to a group of high school AP students who read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. You can find it here: https://reginajeffers.wordpress.com/2016/06/21/tory-daughters-jane-austen-and-the-brontes-an-overview/

    • Hi Regina, Thank you for your welcome! I’m so happy to be an Austen Author. I agree that sharing a passion for Austen is one of the great benefits of loving her work. I’m intrigued by a comparison of the Brontes and Austen. I’ll take a look.

  9. Lovely post. I think another reason Austen is so popular is because her heroines (and several heroes) are so wonderfully flawed. The don’t come out as ‘larger than life’ or ‘better than me’; they’re just normal-ish people going along who learn and grow. Love Jane!

  10. Congrats on a great debut post, Victoria, what a wonderful way to put it! For all the sometimes unusual phrase construction and different mores, Jane Austen’s prose is so in tune with what a modern audience wants. Snappy – happening – humour. And heroines with an independent streak. And dark handsome heroes. How can that not stand the test of time?

    • Hi Joana, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I find so appealing about Austen’s writing — and by extension what others like about it. I’m glad you thought I got at least some of it right!

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