Farce, Feuds, & Fandom: A Conversation with ‘Camp Austen’ Author Ted Scheinman
Author Ted Scheinman talks Jane Austen, surrealism, family, diversifying lit, viral essays, the Brontë feud, & what’s next.
Leah Angstman: I’m sitting down today with author, editor, musician, scholar, and “failed Janeite,” Ted Scheinman, whose debut Janeoir/ literary criticism/ all-around-funbag of charm, wit, cosplay, and analysis of the works of Jane Austen, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, is available now in paperback, audiobook, and ebook from FSG Originals and Macmillan Audio. I’m thrilled to welcome the inimitable Mr. Scheinman and to have him introduce his new book, for those who don’t know about it yet, by briefly describing what it is and his relationship to the source material.
Ted Scheinman: Jane Austen was a sort of family inheritance in my household, as she is in many others. My mother is a professor of literature at a small college, and Austen was always a favorite with her, so my little sister and I grew up in a house full of books by and about Austen, where Austen adaptations played on the television, and where Mom’s students would often come by to discuss their essays about, say, the influence of Samuel Johnson in Mansfield Park. As a child, though, I was much more interested in the dark comedy of Austen’s juvenilia than in the more staid-seeming comedies of manners that one finds in her adult novels. I used to be much more excited about experimental theater and weird Russian surrealists like Daniil Kharms, so Austen’s juvenilia just made total sense to me when I was young — more so than something like Sense and Sensibility.
As an editor, I always tell writers, ‘You don’t get to pick your genre; someone else will always pick it for you.’ Your book, however, falls into many categories. It’s billed as literary criticism, and yet it also combines parts of your own life that read as memoir, a dissection of superfandom in general, and brief glimpses of biography into the life of Jane Austen, herself. Where do you think your book fits into the literary world, and who would be its best audience?
I think of the book as a portrait of a subculture, and I’ve tried to use family reflections to help illuminate the territory for non-initiates. It surprised me a bit when I saw the book had been catalogued as literary criticism, though in the broad sense of that term I have no quibbles: in order to paint the subculture, I had to animate and dramatize what that subculture is concerned with, and what the Janeites are concerned with is absolutely a kind of literary criticism, broadly construed. That said, if my book partakes of criticism and biography, they’re both in service to telling the full story of this world, and that’s what matters to me most: telling a story.
I don’t think a reader needs to know or care very much at all about literary criticism, or about Jane Austen, to enjoy Camp Austen. I just got back from promoting the book in a few cities on the East Coast, and was really pleased to meet a number of readers who said they had never read Austen but were moved by Camp Austen because they could relate to the same sort of giddy, almost embarrassing love for an author or a band or what have you. One reader said the Janeites reminded him of his friends who did an annual re-staging of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another said that some of the internal politics of Austenworld reminded her of similar jockeying among the Renaissance reenactment community. People are always creating tribes around shared cultural manias; Austen’s just happens to be both frillier and more durable than most.
I am one of those embarrassing-love people one-thousand percent, who often loves the *idea* of loving something maybe more than actually loving it, so I concur with your assessment; I’ve been in every reenactment that would have me, and I admit that it wasn’t the Austen subject that struck me about your book, but rather the ode to Superfandom with the capital ‘S.’ It’s definitely one of the most compelling aspects of your book. Yet, come for the superfandom, stay for the Austen — I can’t say I didn’t walk away from the pages learning a tremendous amount about her, too, and gaining a new appreciation for her work and legacy. You managed the rather rare accomplishment of achieving both, and in a very personal, intimate manner.
Most people know about her six novels that are everywhere, but in Camp Austen, you begin with the juvenilia and a discussion about Austen’s early works prior to the novels. At what point in your life did you encounter the juvenilia? When did you decide that the six novels just weren’t enough, and to whom would you recommend the early works?
It’s funny, I actually encountered the juvenilia before I’d really read the novels, though at that point (I was around nine) I had seen at least one adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I believe the Laurence Olivier/ Greer Garson version. The juvenilia are crazy fun, and I would recommend them to anyone who likes dry surrealism, vicious comedy, and literary parody. Monty Python is a decent benchmark: if you’re tickled by the combination of mock-heroic with implausible violence and snapshots of aristocrats behaving like madmen, then you’ll probably dig the juvenilia. It’s also very Oscar Wilde; lovers of Wilde will definitely find plenty to love in the juvenilia.
You mention that during the wars, men carried copies of her books in their knapsacks and weren’t ashamed to say they liked her work; nowadays, mentioning Austen to men often garners snickers and smirks. What do you think has changed? Why does Austen seem less appealing to men today?
It’s a complicated question! Of course Austen’s protagonists are all women and the novels are full of rich and complicated friendships between women, but that didn’t really stop Sir Walter Scott and Kipling and R. W. Chapman from taking Austen as seriously as any of the male classics. Indeed, in collating his editions of her novels, Chapman famously treated Austen as seriously as his Oxonian colleagues and he had treated Aeschylus. In the Edwardian period, there was a lot of deference toward her precision and mastery of technique, and to what many English writers saw as her valorization of timeless English virtues. You can understand why that valorization might be appealing to stuffy Englishmen, especially in periods of national stress when the Empire is slipping out of your grasp and accelerating industrialization is alienating you from whatever imagined British idyll existed before the war. Nowadays, as you say, that’s all different. Women are still more likely than men to read novels, and the film adaptations since the 1990s have been marketed so successfully as upper-middlebrow romantic comedies that a lot of men tend, unfairly, to roll their eyes because they think the novels are all about How to Find Your Darcy. Of course they’re impossibly wrong, but I’m not much of a social engineer when it comes to Austenworld; I’m much more interested in understanding that world as it exists than I am in trying to win converts.
I think viewing the world of Austen through the eyes of a modern man is one of the neatest aspects of your book because so much of the contemporary criticism and fandom out there is from the viewpoint of women; did you feel that you had to do any service to the viewpoints of women while writing the book, or that you had to be careful how you tread? Did it enter your mind that you might view Austen differently from a woman? Or do you think there’s little difference? You say you’re not trying to win converts, but did you feel compelled at all to try to bring more men into this perceived-as-feminine world, one man to another?
Yes, I tried to be quite careful on this score. While a devotion to Austen is shared by all Janeites, every Janeite’s experience of Austen is obviously going to be different. By the same token, while I was sure not to universalize my own experience of Austen, I also never assumed too flatly or glibly that all women read Austen in the same way, or that their experiences of Austen were somehow mystically and irrevocably closed to me. That’d just be an excuse for not trying to understand those experiences! So, yes, I did try to do service to women’s viewpoints, and where possible I did so by quoting them — a lot of the people I was lucky to meet were eloquent and funny, which tends to help move the stories forward. Again, I don’t proselytize for Austen too much, and I don’t inherently distrust a man just because he does not understand her appeal. I am in favor of people finding joy wherever they can, and from books wherever possible, but I don’t proselytize. Anyway, if I did it would probably be for someone much weirder or more obscure, like maybe Eliza Haywood? Austen really doesn’t need my help.
You also mention briefly how Austenworld is predominantly white. (I know why I think this is, but) why do you think this is? In a literary world where we’re all trying to elevate the voices of marginalized people who have been overlooked, and to be more inclusive in spaces that have been predominantly white in the past, what do you think teachers, scholars, organization presenters, or other Janeites could do better to bring in a more diverse audience to Austenworld? What would you like to see done in that realm?
Well, my experience of Austenworld in America and Canada was overwhelmingly white, but not entirely so, and globally, there are Austen societies on most continents — 1843 Magazine ran a great article last year called “Austenistan,” about the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, with chapters in Lahore and Karachi and Islamabad. The regional chapters meet regularly and there’s an annual ball with period gowns, just like the Jane Austen Society of North America. The subcontinent is regularly turning out interesting Austen adaptations and remixes on film, and back in the mid-nineties, my mom was asked to do a short tour of various Indian universities, to give a few papers about Austen and Indian traditions of arranged marriage — a question of both literary and practical concern to her audiences there. With the exception of encountering some Middle Eastern and Indian scholars at various Austen conferences, my own experience in Austenworld has indeed been much whiter, and even when there’s a panel about Austen and global film, you’ll often still see a majority-white panel. You can change some of that through programming choices (choosing wider and more imaginative panel topics, and soliciting more nonwhite speakers), but I should also say that for some post-colonial scholars the cosplay part feels so deeply bound with the carefree celebration and enjoyment of white colonial wealth that it’s just not their idea of a fun night out.
Your mother is a central part of your book, as she is a longtime scholar of Austen’s work. Your sister, who shares a dedication page with your mother, is named Jane, and we both agreed in a past conversation that you got lucky with the name of Edward, because it could have been a more cringeworthy Fitzwilliam. Now that she’s a main character in a published book, what does your mother think of Camp Austen?
She was a very good sport about appearing so prominently, and I think that she’s gratified at the book as a tangible proof that we are bonded in this way — not just by an enjoyment of Austen but more generally by a love of books and wordplay and things like that. I think she rightly feels a certain kind of indirect, visceral pride of authorship; she calls the book a “mom-oir.”
In the works of Austen, there is always a strong sense of family. Do you see any parallels to your own family, either in the work of Austen or in the layers of Austenworld fandom?
Hah, there were a few people at conferences who used to quote at me a version of Mrs. Allen’s line to Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey: “You must be a great comfort to your mother, sir.” I think that was largely in reference to my mother’s ongoing surgeries, to which I allude in the book because they explain part of why I ended up going to various conferences as a surrogate for her. There were probably times in my childhood when my mother and sister and I were a trio — those times in England while Dad stayed back in the States — and I could relate to Elinor Dashwood.
You spent some of your youth in England when your mother was teaching there. How did that help shape you into the person you are today?
It exposed me to a lot of theater for extended periods of time very early in life, which was formative, and my largely posh classmates in London introduced me to manners that the British call “middle-class” manners but that in America we’d consider almost aristocratic. I guess they also taught me a specific kind of British mix of unflinching obscenity and dry humor. But theater was the main thing: we went to plays whenever my mom’s class did, which was about once a week and sometimes much more. For a long time, all I wanted to do was write plays.
Although I’m convinced we started out with the same childhood dream of being playwrights, we veer at my very unpopular opinion on Jane Austen, so here it comes. (Bring it, Austenworld: I can take it.) While I do like her work, I find much of it to be incredibly passive, leaving out the tension and climaxes I really care about in exchange for glossing over important moments in a mere sentence or two, and I find her the queen of Enemy №1 of modern-day writers: telling not showing, with all her lengthy diatribes about every character’s mannerisms being spoonfed to me without organic unfolding. She’s a headhopper who can’t control her undefined pronouns when she gathers all her characters in one room to do nothing but stand and talk, with most of her protagonists being wholly inactive, forever being acted upon as mere witnesses to everyone else’s actions while they do little but stare out a window waiting for carriages to arrive. Speak nothing of everything revolving only around men, ignoring almost entirely an outside world, wars, slavery, and the other 99 percent of the population who weren’t gentry. Much like Marlon Brando showing up for the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau in a muumuu and a sunhat, Austen sometimes just needed a director to say no to her. I’m sure it’s nothing that you haven’t heard before, but what do you say to people like me, besides “How dare you?”
Well, first of all, “show don’t tell” is a rule for mortal writers. Geniuses can get around it, and Austen does so nearly every time. I also think she’s quite strategic in the parts that she leaves out (“glossing over important moments in a mere sentence or two”), and which she sometimes structures according to the rules of an older and more epistolary style, which necessarily involves nearly all action to take place offstage. But you’re not really asking me to defend Jane Austen to you; you’re asking me what I say to people who don’t like her — and the answer is that I leave such people in peace. I understand why Austen might not appeal to everyone. If I’m teaching a class, of course, I’ll make sure to get the students onboard by highlighting the comedy, the narrative deceptions, the satirical technique, the startlingly easy ways you can apply Austen to your own life. (Undergraduates can be persuaded to have open minds about most authors, most of the time.) But with my peers, I do my best to honor each person’s knowledge of her own taste. And I do not like you any less for your stance on Austen!
Before I get too high on your hit list, I should clarify further that I do not dislike Austen, but I can separate my heart from my mind, and I often find her infuriating — which I understand is also part of her allure. I am sometimes baffled by her inconsistency where my taste is concerned — how I can love one of her books so much it hurts, and despise another so much that it nearly cancels me out. (Yes, she has a book I emphatically dislike, but you’ll never drag it out of me!)
I realize this is the crux of the entire bulk of your book, so summing it up may be nigh on impossible, but why is it, briefly, that you think her legacy is so lasting? Do you think, perhaps, that people have overanalyzed her and made her into something that she really isn’t, just to bend her to their will? You have studied other British Classics, so why are we not obsessed in the same way with Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, George Eliot, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Aphra Behn, Ann Radcliffe?
The shortest answer for why we celebrate Austen as a group is that her novels valorize a certain kind of communal sociability, while also offering guidelines for how to achieve it. The reason she has enjoyed such a long and capacious legacy has a lot to do with all the blank space left around her biography, and the way she feels so modern while also offering a measure of pre-industrial nostalgia, because her books are too smart to be satisfied with happy endings yet offer them nonetheless, and so forth. A classicist I know who never cared much for Austen nonetheless grants that she’s a stylist as skilled as Cicero. In some circles, that’s still high praise.
You light very briefly on a Brontë/Austen ‘feud’ in what was summed up so poetically in one of my favorite lines in your book: “Mr. Rochester attracts Jane Eyre by scowling; Darcy wins Lizzy’s love by treating the servants kindly.” Did you see any of this feud play out in-person? My mother once told me that during the landing of the Beatles in New York, the feud was between whether or not you liked the former or the Dave Clark Five. Clearly, the Beatles won out here, and it seems to me that, despite the enduring passion for Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and perhaps the romance of a family of writer sisters, Austen has won out against all of the Brontës combined. Do you think this is so? And are you a subscriber to the Brontë/Austen feud?
I don’t subscribe to that feud. I’m going to admit something here — the idea of jockeying with someone else over whose favorite author is the best feels so childish! Like, there’s a period in one’s life when it feels so important to define the things one loves in opposition to other things, you know? And I understand why that’s an important phase of fandom or acculturation to go through; it helps you understand the shape and the limits of The Thing You Love to see, in stark terms, how it’s different from The Thing You Don’t. But by someone’s mid-twenties, it feels a bit odd to be doctrinaire about these things. Of course, we’re all doctrinaire in some way. To the extent that the Brontë/Austen feud is a measure of enthusiasm rather than of enmity, I am in favor of the feud.
In a previous discussion, we talked about the new model of published viral essays becoming books in the nonfiction world. Your book started as a freelance essay that you wrote for The Paris Review, and then you were approached about turning the material into a nonfiction book. What are your thoughts about this model, and why do you think it’s catching on now? Do you find it effective? Do you think people who do not have the reach of a viral audience will be left behind, even if they have something important to say?
Well, I didn’t have a viral audience for that first essay, but it did get a lot of readers. It’s not a bad model as long as the subject furnishes sufficient material for a book; a few of these viral articles become truly awful books, either because the idea couldn’t sustain the book or because, when the author expatiated beyond the confines of an essay, he revealed his ignorance or something worse.
Anyway, it’s easy and understandable to look at this model with skepticism; I did when the publisher first approached me, but eventually we agreed there was enough depth here, given the combination of family story and the weird, theatrical eccentricities of this particular world. If the best parts are already in the viral essay, though, leave that thing alone, is my advice.
You’re a busy man these days, as a senior editor at Pacific Standard, a musician, and a writer in your own right. On the coattails of the success of Camp Austen, are you planning on writing more books? Though I know you are currently in the lengthy promotional stage for the launch of this book, what projects are you working on next?
I am in the very early stages of a violently comic farce of a novel that sort of lampoons the techno-managerial class in California. It’s a funny plot, and the right person could really make it sing. Now I need to find out if I’m that person.
As a former Silicon Valley Californian, I’d totally read that. Let’s do this again when it’s published, yeah?
Are you afraid now that everyone’s going to ask you questions about Jane Austen for the rest of your life, or that you can’t escape that stigma? Do you wish to escape it as you escaped the world of Austen cosplay?
I am, and I do! But there are worse ghosts to have following you around than Jane Austen’s.
Olivier or Firth?
Do you have a ‘Keep Calm & Find Mr. Darcy’ T-shirt?
Unforgivably, I do not.
Do you ever have Manners Envy?
Unforgivably, I do.
What was the last great nonfiction book you read just for fun?
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison and an advance copy of Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. I’m also reading advance copies of Rising by Elizabeth Rush and of Homeplace by John Lingan.
Would you have carried Austen in your knapsack during the war?
TED SCHEINMAN is a writer based in Southern California, where he works as senior editor at Pacific Standard magazine. He is a contributing editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books, and his essays and reporting have appeared in The New York Times, Oxford American, The Paris Review, Slate, The Atlantic, and Playboy. His first book, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, is available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux/FSG Originals. Follow him on Twitter: @Ted_Scheinman.
LEAH ANGSTMAN serves as Editor-in-Chief for Alternating Current Press and The Coil magazine, and a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Electric Literature, Slice Magazine, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. You can find her at leahangstman.com.