Ironic bombs: Jane Austen, Jennifer Egan and twitter

Are you on top of the technology?

Jane Austen was. Yes, not only did she write beautiful, compelling prose, she also understood the technology she was using.

I did not know that until I took a seminar with Barry Webb, one of the most contrarian and enlightening teachers I’ve encountered.

Mr Webb spoke for about 20 minutes on the first six lines of Jane Austen’s Emma. For anyone who knows the novel, this should not be a surprise. These innocent-looking, unassuming words turn out to be packed with ironic explosives set to detonate all over the unwary, second-time reader.

I won’t repeat all that Mr Webb said, here. He might not like that. He might prefer you to cross his palm with silver first.

But a very concise precis – which can’t possibly do him justice – would be that Austen was an ironist. This means that her books are even more fun to reread than they are to read. The words carry more meanings second time around.

Mr Webb uses this analysis to argue, forcefully, against adapting Austen for screen.

I think he’s probably right about this. No small or large screen movie can do justice to the ironic ambiguities of Austen’s writing. Did Austen mean that Emma ‘seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence ‘ or that she ‘seemed to unite some of the best …’? The pleasure is in deciding. How can you put that on screen?

But I’m even more fascinated by how adroitly Austen handles the technology of her day. She must have known that at the time she was writing, books were very expensive. Those few who could afford to buy them would read them again and again. So she wrote books which improved with reading. Genius.

What would she have made of the explosion of channels of communication we know today? And surely Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare – all these writers would have been all over twitter?

Mr Webb thought about this for a while. While he agreed that some of our greatest authors would have embraced the internet, he felt that Austen, who was famously too shy to show her family her work and published under a pseudonym, would have refrained.

I wonder.

But I was incredibly excited to see that Jennifer Egan, author of the Pullitzer-prizewinning A Visit from the Goon Squad, recently tweeted a short story. I am a huge fan of Egan’s work.

Read the short story. I read it and it’s a gripping read. I’m not sure Egan really gets twitter though.

I notice that she follows 30 people and has tweeted 7 times, according to @egangoonsquad. Unless she’s got another account, it seems that she doesn’t have much experience of microblogging. (Note to self: this is probably why she has written award-winning books.)

It’s true that many of the tweets that form her story are powerful and arresting. They are in themselves an elegant use of up to 140 characters. She makes good use of the second person too, capturing something of the intimate loneliness of the medium.

But she has not embraced many other aspects of twitter.

For example, I follow almost 3,000 other tweeters – and that’s quite a small number by the standards of many others. This means that individual narratives get lost in the profusion of tweets on my timeline.

If I am intrigued by a tweet, I often have to read its context backwards, scrolling down my timeline, or go to the author’s account and read their tweets, again backwards.

Also, twitter is a participatory medium; it’s a conversation. The best and most fun that I have on twitter is often just spectacular silliness, banter, repartee.

The drama is in those heart stopping moments when I’m not quite sure if I’ve judged the mood correctly and have a sudden panic that I may have caused offence.

I should get out more.

Egan doesn’t test any of this stuff in her story, though. In truth, unless I were looking for her tweets, her narrative would be dispersed nonsensically in the cacophony of attention-seeking, book-promoting, blog-puffing, joking and general shouting about ourselves which is my experience of twitter. I might read one in every ten of her tweets and would doubtless miss the main plot points, get lost in the story and lose interest.

All in all, I’d say that Austen has the edge when it comes to technology.

What do you think?

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Posted in Barry Webb, characters, criticism, irony, literature, narration, reading, Writing, writing novels
8 comments on “Ironic bombs: Jane Austen, Jennifer Egan and twitter
  1. justinbog says:

    Once again, I agree with you, C, and your professor. The word ‘seem’ is filled with ambiguity and should be used sparingly just because of the multiple meanings anyone wants to convey. Austen used it well. If something appears to be one way but is really not that way at all, what is it really?

  2. Explosive stuff. Lots of shy people on twitter pretending not to be – Jane would have been very at home with a pseudonym, keeping people on their toes as to whether they have judged her meaning and tone correctly!

  3. P. C. Zick says:

    You’re right about Jennifer Egan. I admire here even more! To tweet or not to tweet, shouldn’t even be a choice for a Pulitzer Prize winner.

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Well I don’t suppose anyone had a gun to her head. It’s a good story, with great tweets. Just not a great use of twitter … Lots of people love twitter which is mostly I think a good thing (the more communication the better) although not always (oversharing and infantilism). But if anyone could work out how to tell stories effectively on twitter I’d love to read them. There’s almost certainly an audience there. Cathy x

  4. Entirely irrelevantly, but you should find you can now subscribe to Paper Knife by email if you want! I think it’s working.


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