Criticism of ‘Jane Austen, Game Theorist’

Relating to CC202’s study of Jane Austen’s work is an article from Slate, in which Adelle Waldman gives her amusing criticism of a recent book that discusses Austen’s insight into human behavior. Here is an extract:

Austen, it seems, has something to tell us. And not only us English majors. Mathematicians. Game theorists. Serious thinkers. Even Henry Kissinger.

That’s all according to a new book called Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at UCLA. According to the Times piece, Chwe watched the movie Clueless, an adaptation of Austen’s Emma, and realized that Austen had some insight into human behavior.

But Jane Austen doesn’t need vindication from social science. Or math. Let alone from Henry Kissinger. And these kinds of arguments often flatten both art and science, reducing the insights of each to simple platitudes.

I don’t want to judge Chwe’s explication of Austen without having read it. It seems perfectly plausible to me that people who are interested in manipulation and persuasion in the real world could tease out useful lessons from a writer as shrewd as Austen. But what we shouldn’t do is treat Austen’s supposed utility—to serious experts!—as a validation of her art.

Of course the tendency to implicitly deprecate fiction in favor of “harder” writing is nothing new. “There seems,” Austen wrote in Northanger Abbey, “a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labor of the novelist, and of slighting performances which have only genius, wit and taste to recommend them.” Now those are prescient words.

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