January 17, 2006

Austen gets populist makeover as romance queen

By Paul Majendie

LONDON (Reuters) - Jane Austen, darling of Hollywood
costume dramas, is getting an image makeover as a queen of
romance that could see her novels stacked high in supermarkets
and airport bookshops.

But critics bridle at any trivializing of "the godmother of
modern women's fiction" whose novels offer publishers the
perfect chance to repackage classics for a mass market.

Austen's six novels are being relaunched in May by Headline
publishers as "Classic Romances" with glossy pastel covers
portraying dashing dandies and bonneted Regency beauties.

"Our aim would very much be every airport bookshop, every
supermarket," said Headline fiction editor Harriet Evans.

She complained that Austen's novels had always been
packaged in a very dry and academic way.

"It is such a shame as she is the archetypal popular
novelist. She is the godmother of modern women's fiction," she
told Reuters.

Patrick Stokes, chairman of the Jane Austen Society which
boasts 2,000 members in Britain, was delighted: "I am all for
it. Any publicity is good publicity -- as long as it is within
the bounds of decency."

But the bid to update the author of "Pride and Prejudice"
for a new generation was greeted with derision by Patricia
Clarke of the London branch of the Jane Austen Group.

"It is a pity that everything has to be dumbed down. I know
it gets people into books but I think she is classic and pure.
If you dumb down, you turn her into (mass produced romance
specialist) Mills and Boon."

That accusation was strongly disputed by Headline's Evans
who said: "It is not making them like Barbara Cartland or
Danielle Steel. This is not making them look like Mills and

Austen consistently appeals to film and TV screenplay
writers as a perfect romantic formula with Pride and Prejudice
adapted recently both by Hollywood and Bollywood.

But the Austen book makeover is about competing with top
authors like Dan Brown, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling who are
favored by risk-averse publishers and bookshops.

"Publishers are increasingly concentrating on just a few
titles as it is so hard to break new works into shops," said
Joel Rickett, deputy editor of trade magazine the Bookseller.

He said that in Britain last year, a total of 160,000
copies were sold of all Jane Austen's books compared to 190,000
for just one Danielle Steel novel.

"This is the first time I have seen a 19th century author
being given a more contemporary look," he told Reuters.
"Repackaging the classics is a tried and tested formula --
oldies are still goodies."