We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Why my draft for an essay on Jane Austen movies was no good · 14 November 07

Dear Harriet,

I’ve come across an explanation for what goes wrong with some of my papers. I had to give up on a draft towards a chapter or essay on film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. I was rehearsing and repeating the best of the insights and information that was relevant to my thinking in a structured form and exemplifying them through analyses of scenes you’ve seen me do here. I know that I’ve read published papers & heard many a conference paer that did this lightly: a couple of insights borrowed from someone else and an exemplification. But in my case, the result was an indigestible overwrought text that seemed to have as its terrain far more than I could do in a very long book. I pour in insights; I pack examples. When I write that sort of thing (which I’ve done many times) and put it down, and then return to it, and try to read it imagining some other person, I feel I am making what others might perceive as drivel. Earlier failures in this vein include drafts towards essays on Jane Austen and Bath, on Anne Finch’s poetry, on Mary Sidney Worth’s poetry, on Ann Radcliffe and the female gothic in women’s novels, and many others too.

The passage occurs in “Beautiful Screamer,” an essay in Katha Pollitt’s Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories. Catherine Shine quotes it in her favorable review of Pollitt’s book (New York Review of Books, 54:18, Nov 22, ‘07, p. 10):

“She gives one of the best explanations of a failed poem—and so by implication what good writing is—that I have ever read. Reading the hopeless, abandoned poem years after she had struggled with it, she sees

‘its leadenness, its fragmented attention, its sadness that seemed to come from outside the careful, elevated language of the poem, like darkness seeping in through the window behind the lamp and the bowl of flower.’

The poem, she writes, ‘had been dragged up with so much difficulty from some murky but insufficiently deep part of my imagination.’”

Each time I have failed this is how or why I have failed. I write my non-fiction prose in an not wholly controlled way, just as I did my translation poems and I do my postings. To revert to this most recent draft (9 closely-typed single spaces pages with 15 of essays in the form of notes), I had not on my own through my own mind and heart worked out of what I was seeing and hearing and reading to make the story of my text about Jane Austen movies. I do that here on this blog, but separately for each movie. What I have to do is bring it all together out of myself.

I do love how Pollitt also discerns there is an intense sadness getting in the way of addressing the reader in a strong forthright arresting way. Shine understood the general reach of Pollitt’s insight.

The editor of the volume which was to be called Adaptation and about movies based on 19th century novels probably thought I had just given up, or had not worked seriously and tried to keep my promise to provide an essay for her anthology. I did try, but could not see my way clear to writing a genuinely readable essay of value (which should include new insights, new information, and be lively fun and moving too). It’s no good flattering myself with tales of how I go so much further and want a wide accurate view; what happens is I can’t create a text with an inner life.

Now by-the-way I’m trying with three films: the BBC ‘72 Emma, ‘79 P&P and ‘83 MP. I can’t resist situating them by comparing them to other faithful adaptations, but I am trying to get to the point where I make my own scraped bony holistic skeleton. And all the while moving very slowly through the 26 part ‘74 Palliser cycle.

Meanwhile it is such fun to watch these mini-series and intelligent or high culture “quality” film adaptations of older books. Last night I began watching the 6 part Barchester Chronicles, and discovered that far from being simply a sort of “cliff notes” (which is how I’ve heard it described), it has takes an individualized look at specific aspects of Trollope’s first two Barchester novels to produce a piquant thoughtful combination of anguish and comedy.


Posted by: Ellen

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