It is a truth universally acknowledged that we’ve grown awfully sloppy with allusions to Jane Austen. But of all the young novelists described as our ‘modern-day Austen,’ Emma Straub may have the greatest claim to that title. Two hundred years after Austen’s death, we asked Straub, who owns a bookstore in New York, to reflect on the British novelist’s timeless popularity.
A few days ago, I was standing behind the counter at Books Are Magic, my two-month-old bookstore, and a woman came up to the register with a copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” The woman said that she’d never read any Austen and expressed an endearing mix of excitement and shame, the sort of shame that one occasionally confesses to independent bookstore professionals in the same way that one might blurt out to a heart doctor that they had a doughnut addiction or that they’d never even tried kale.
In any case, the woman set “Emma” on the counter, and one of my chattiest, most wonderful booksellers yelped, “This is my favorite book!” which I happily seconded. (This bookseller, who is also a novelist, admitted that she first picked up the book as a pre-teen because she loved the movie “Clueless,” which goes to show that movies and TV can lead to a life in letters as easily as a childhood writing haikus by lamplight.) The customer stood there for a few minutes after paying for her book, trapped by our enthusiasm, or perhaps because we still had her credit card.
There are a thousand reasons not to read a book at any particular moment, and sometimes those moments accumulate to decades, and you wonder, “Am I too late? Am I just A Person Who Has Never Read ‘Moby Dick’?” Is it better to just take a big gulp of wine at the moment of the dinner party when everyone names their favorite character in “Middlemarch”? I personally haven’t tackled “Infinite Jest” for the same reason I haven’t read “The Fountainhead,” which is that — with deepest apologies to D.F.W. — I find their most vocal fans to be equally irritating. (Oh, to have all those fans in a room together, trying to convince the others of their world view! How much talking, how little listening!)
I don’t often admit that “Emma” is one of my favorite books because it’s sort of embarrassing to love a book named for a character whose name you share — especially because Emma Woodhouse is thought of so dismissively within the Austen canon. Elizabeth Bennet she’s not. On the face of it, “Emma” is a novel about a bored rich girl with too much time on her hands, and yet it was the final paragraph of “Emma” that my husband and I typed by hand over and over again and set at each guest’s table setting at our tiny wedding. It’s Jane Austen’s mix of irony and satire and true generosity to her characters that makes Emma Woodhouse so charming, and what makes the book so pleasurable to read.
What is most incredible about Jane Austen is that a couple of goofy novelist/booksellers can get so giddy about her books 200 years after her death. For those of us who write books that get published in the warmer months of the year, whose covers are splashed with bright colors and merchandised with inflatable beach balls, it is Jane who we’re channeling, Jane who we’re praying to, Jane whose wit we wish to possess.
When Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Eligible” was published last year, my first thought was really? Another adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”? And my second thought, a split second later, was to figure out who could send me the book immediately because, of course, of course, yes.
At the store, people come in and ask, all day long, for a summer read that “isn’t too light, but isn’t too heavy,” a book that is “funny, but smart.” I hand over Colson Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor,” Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” Meg Wolitzer’s “The Wife.” But now, for the rest of the summer, my follow-up question will be, “When did you last read some Jane Austen?”
To be the one to make that introduction, to make that match! Why, one feels practically like Emma Woodhouse.
Emma Straub’s most recent novel is “Modern Lovers.”