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Austen’s Powers

Nearly two centuries after her death, Jane Austen remains a literary sensation. Zombies, anyone?

Author Gillian Fassel Illustration Thomas Allen

NOT LONG AGO, I was purchasing the latest newfangled gloss on Pride and Prejudice at a Borders in San Antonio. “Ever read the original?” wondered the twentysomething salesdude. “Uh, yes.” I stammered, though I refrained from mentioning how many times (I’ve lost count) or the circumstances of my first reading it (12 years old, up all night). “Hard to imagine Austen without the zombies,” he laughed. Yikes.

“Austen still inspires people to become fanatical readers,” Harold Bloom writes in his foreword to A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a new collection of essays celebrating the novelist whose six biting romances launched a thousand pastiches and parodies-not to mention items such as Mr. Darcy tea towels and Sense and Sensibility sachets. And then there are the endless “sequels” and “interpretations,” including last month’s Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, which is billed as “A Novel of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan,” though the author has two cowriters. Meanwhile, a new play, Jane Austen’s Guide to Pornography, is earning raves in London. (She didn’t write that one, either.)

Indeed, this is looking to be Jane’s most fecund year since 1995, when Colin Firth’s mutton-chopped Darcy emerged dripping from a Pemberley pond, unleashing a series of fresh spins on Austen’s oeuvre (e.g., Clueless, Bridget Jones’s Diary). This year has also seen a flurry of macabre mash-ups, spawned by the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-with nearly a million copies in print-and its follow-up, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Several paranormally inclined novels are slated for 2010, and Elton John’s Rocket Pictures is producing Pride and Predator.

Of course, parody is one thing; desecration is quite another, notes Austenprose blogger Laurel Ann Nattress. “We’ve evolved from laughing with Austen to laughing at her just to make money.” So WWJD? “Jane would laugh, she would cry and then want her share of the pecuniary emolument.”

Perhaps so. And with any luck, this new crop of Austen takeoffs will inspire us-including, I hope, my Borders clerk-to reread (or just read) Austen’s actual work, gimmick-free.

GILLIAN FASSEL recently purchased a “Jane Austen Is My Homegirl” hoodie.

ALSO THIS MONTH

What else to read on the go in November

Swans and Pistols

Léon Bing has been a fashion model, a mob associate and an intrepid journalist (she wrote an acclaimed exposé of the Bloods and Crips street gangs), all of which adds up to an amazing life. Her memoir is a knockout.

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker

James McManus, whose best-selling Positively Fifth Street chronicled his performance in the World Series of Poker, offers up a colorful history of the game-and comes up aces.

You Better Not Cry

Fans of the mega-selling memoir Running with Scissors know Augusten Burroughs is hardly the most reverent author. They also know he’s very, very funny. Here, he turns his cutting wit to the holidays with predictably iconoclastic results.

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