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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Writer's writer

Virginia Woolf famously remarked that “of all great writers [Jane Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.” Austen’s writing is so naturalistic that its astounding craft can remain almost invisible to the averagely attentive reader. Not for Austen the elaborate set-pieces or metaphor-heavy descriptive passages favored by showier authors.

Perhaps it’s only fellow novelists who can fully appreciate how hard it is to do what Austen does with apparently effortlessness: create fictional people whose psychology, behavior, and conversation seem directly cribbed from real life. So it’s not surprising that when writers talk about their inspirations, their favorites, or their diversions, Austen’s name crops up repeatedly—as it has just in the past couple of weeks:

--The novelist Brandon Taylor is a confirmed Janeite, judging from his perceptive and frequently hilarious discussions of, say, the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion or the Regency reality dating show The Courtship. In a recent edition of the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” column, a hotbed of Austen mentions, Taylor said he turns to classic fiction when he’s working on his own stuff.

“I find it difficult to take in contemporary fiction when I am writing, so it’s a lot of Henry James and Edith Wharton and Jane Austen rereads for pleasure,” Taylor said.

Luckily, he has delightful Austen editions to hand: “I received a beautiful set of Jane Austen novels from my British publisher when my first book was a finalist for the Booker Prize,” Taylor said. “They’re in this cute little case and they have beautiful painted pages. The books themselves are rather small, so sometimes I take them out and pretend I’m in a Regency sitting room.”

--Every recent conversation I’ve had with a fellow writer has ended up focusing on the threat that artificial intelligence poses to our livelihoods. But the writer Jane Smiley isn’t worried, she told a Washington Post interviewer recently—and Jane Austen provided some of her evidence.

“The reason we read novels and nonfiction is that we want to get acquainted with the individuality and the opinions of other people, and I don’t see how AI can do that,” Smiley said. “Jane Austen was a really interesting woman with a great sense of humor and a lot of insights — and in some ways, for her time, a very unusual life. And so the pleasures of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion that draw you in are that you understand her idiosyncratic point of view and that you also understand the world that she lives in. And that’s an incredible pleasure."


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