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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Bolt from the blue

Does Jane Austen owe her fame to an excellent publicist?

 

The legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein says yes—or at least maybe—in a recent LitHub piece excerpted from his forthcoming book How to Become Famous: Lost Einsteins, Forgotten Superstars, and How the Beatles Came to Be.

 

In a nutshell, Sunstein’s thesis about fame seems to be: It’s a crapshoot. “Talent is not enough. Social influences of one or another kind are crucial,” Sunstein writes. “Successful writers usually depend on some kind of lightning strike.”

 

I’m tempted to say: Duh. Does anyone over the age of ten really believe that every great artist becomes famous, or that every famous artist is great? The alchemy that anoints some and ignores others is as mysterious when it comes to literary greatness as when it involves, say, the career trajectories of all the people who graduated in your college class.

 

To be fair to Sunstein, his piece (and, apparently, his book) is less about the existence of these lightning strikes than about their mechanism—how, precisely, having your novel picked for Oprah’s Book Club, or getting your obituary on the front page of the New York Times, translates into an edge in the artistic-fame-and-money sweepstakes. Or, in Jane Austen’s case, how being the subject of a popular Victorian memoir can position you for eventual induction into the English literary canon. Austen, Sunstein says in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, "had a network of supporters who were pretty relentless."

 

For Janeites, the literary history Sunstein cites is hardly new. By now, the story of how J.E. Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen helped revive the popularity of his aunt’s novels is a familiar one. (I haven't yet read Sunstein's book, but it will be interesting to see if he's relying largely on older work about Austen's reception by Kathryn Sutherland and Claire Harman, or if he takes account of more recent scholarship by  Janine Barchas and Devoney Looser, which has complicated this picture.)

 

Of course Sunstein is right that the quality of a work can’t tell the whole story. Especially when it comes to female writers, or writers from some other often-marginalized demographic group, even the best artists--or those with the potential to be the best--face overwhelming odds. This is hardly a new insight; the realization that fame doesn't align with human potential, or even with human achievement, dates at least as far back as 1751, when Thomas Gray evoked the specter of a "mute, inglorious Milton" buried in a country churchyard.


Still, if quality isn’t sufficient to ensure either contemporary success or posthumous fame, it's surely not irrelevant, either. Maybe Austen got a lightning strike that skipped over her contemporary Mary Brunton--who, says Sunstein, "was thought by many, in her time, to be as good as Jane Austen, maybe better." (Not, however, by Jane Austen herself, as her letters show.) But the fire from the sky would likely have burnt out quickly if the novels it illuminated hadn’t been as good as they are.

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lona manning
lona manning
Jun 03

Much has to do with changing tastes, I think. Is changing taste the same as good taste? I don't think the forgotten female authors of Austen's time will be resurrected because they are so didactic, so overtly Christian, so focused on the chastity of the heroine. I recently read an online article on this question which pretty much lays aside the question of intrinsic merit and puts it down to other factors: Francus, Marilyn. “Why Austen, Not Burney? Tracing the Mechanisms of Reputation and Legacy.” Aphra Behn Online, vol. 13, no. 1, 2023, pp. 0_1–25.

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lona manning
lona manning
Jun 03

"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." Ecclestiastes 9:11

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