'Pride and Prejudice' and roller derby: Q&A with Devoney Looser

July 17, 2017

Update: Professor Devoney Looser's new book, “The Making of Jane Austen,” was reviewed this month in the New York Times, and Looser's editorial — about how it's time we put the fanciful, and sexist, story of a shy Jane Austen hiding her writing — ran July 15 in the New York Times as well.

When she died in July 1817, Jane Austen was not a household name. But in the 200 years since her death, she has become one of the world’s most celebrated novelists. ASU Professor and Jane Austen scholar Devoney Looser traces the author’s posthumous rise to fame in her new book, “The Making of Jane Austen,” which was named a Best Summer Book (Nonfiction) for 2017 by Publishers Weekly. Devoney Looser - The Making of Jane Austen Download Full Image

Looser, who has also played roller derby as Stone Cold Jane Austen, recently talked with Knowledge Enterprise Development writer Kelsey Wharton about how a Jane Austen debate led to her marriage, what Jane Austen might think of roller derby and why Looser would pass on having tea with the late author.

Question: Tell me about the first time you read Jane Austen.

Answer: The first time I became aware of Jane Austen was when my mother handed me a book. It was a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” together in one big volume. And it had been on the shelves in our living room. I'd never noticed it before, but she brought it to me and said, “I think you should read this.”

I think I tried to start it two times, and I just got really stuck in the language. I was probably 13 or around that age. The third time, something clicked. It was fun and delightful, and I loved it.

It was only years later that I learned that my mom had never read Jane Austen’s novels. We’d just owned a copy of that book, and she knew it was literature that educated people should read. And obviously, it set me on the path for a life that I'm really happy to have. So I'm incredibly grateful to her for doing that. 

Q: Jane Austen has been popular among such diverse audiences — from suffragettes to the alt-right. Why do you think that is?

A: Well, she’s hard to pin down, and reading her isn’t a cake walk. I would say my students often come to her texts with exactly the same feelings that I did as a teen. That is, they are either prepared to be pleased or skeptical but struggling a little bit with the language.

Once they get past the struggle, they say she's “relatable.” I think that’s because she's able to speak on so many layers and levels. You can re-read her and see new things every time. That is what's amazing about her fiction. You can go in with a lot of different agendas or interests and find something there to appreciate.

Of course I have opinions about what I think are better and worse ways to interpret her fiction. But the fact that we have these debates swirling around her for so long is evidence of how complex and enduring the questions she raises are. 

(Looser comments on this topic in a recent New York Times article.) 

Q: How do you think of Jane Austen now that you've spent so much time studying her and her work? Is she an active mentor or more just a historical figure to understand? 

A: The answer to that is probably both. She's now so deeply woven into the fabric of my life that it does feel like somehow she's a cosmic traveling partner. But I don’t believe I’m unique that way. I think she also serves that purpose for a lot of people. The way my experience is unusual is that I make a living doing Jane Austen. Not too many people make a career out of her, not to mention a marriage and a hobby!

Q: How is your marriage related to Jane Austen?

A: I met my husband [ASU English Professor George Justice], who is also a Jane Austen scholar, over a conversation on Jane Austen. We date the moment of our first knowing each other back to an argument over her.

George asked me which of her novels was my favorite, and he didn’t like my answer. He told me his favorite was “Mansfield Park because he loved the heroine Fanny Price. I told him, “That is my least favorite novel because I do not like Fanny Price. I find her to be too much like me. She's boring. 

He says that's the moment at which he knew he wanted to marry me. I always say that he decided right then that he wanted a boring wife. That’s something that we continue to tease each other about, more than 20 years later. 

Q: Has your opinion of Fanny Price changed over the years?

A: You know, it has, it actually has. I now see her as a lot less boring! She's still not my favorite heroine. I still much prefer the spirited, independent heroines, more in the Elizabeth Bennet mold. I was a very shy person in my teens and 20s, and Fanny Price spoke to that part of me, and maybe it’s not a part that I still identify with in the same way. I think as I identify less as a timid person, I can appreciate Fanny Price more for the quiet strength that she does have.

Q: For your forthcoming book, “The Making of Jane Austen,” how did you get the idea to explore the years after Jane Austen's death? 

A: There's an area of exploration that scholars call reception studies. It means looking at how an author was received over time, by critics, readers and audiences. It looks at how their writings are interpreted and used. That's an approach I’ve taken for a number of female authors I've studied over the years in my previous books. 

It always seemed to me, “Well, Jane Austen must have been done to death. We must know everything there is to know.” But then I was interviewed for this book that Deborah Yaffe wrote, “Among the Janeites.” She included me and my husband as some of the “quirky weirdos” profiled in her book. And so I thought, “There are all these quirky Jane Austen-loving weirdos now. I bet there were more in the past than we think there are.”

And the more I dug in the more I found. I think I found some pretty fun, new things about how Austen’s popular reputation was made, especially in book illustration, stage plays, early film, politics and schools.

Q: If you could sit down to tea with Jane Austen, what would you want to ask her?

A: Austen has this line in a letter to her sister where she talks about the advantages of getting older. She writes, “I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” I like that picture of her better than the tea-drinking picture!

But regardless of where I'm sitting with her, I think one of the things I would ask a ghost of Jane Austen would be, “What do you think of all the fuss that's been made of you and all the dust that's been kicked up about your writing and the arguments and the debates?” It's hard to imagine any author wouldn’t be somewhat pleased with their works living on in this way.

But it might end a lot of the debates to hear exactly what she thought. The fiction, I think, purposely doesn’t tell us what she thought, because pinning everything down makes it a lot less interesting. So, I'm actually glad that she can't tell us what she thinks because I'd rather have the debates and the arguments than have any kind of a settled line from her. The questions she raises for readers about how to live good lives, how to cope and maneuver in a world that can be deeply unfair, these may be far more valuable things than pat answers.


This is an excerpt. Visit research.asu.edu to read the full interview, watch a video of Looser skating roller derby and see additional photos. 

Kelsey Wharton

Science Writer, Knowledge Enterprise Development

ASU's Cronkite School receives challenge grant for innovative virtual-reality project

July 17, 2017

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has received a grant to fund a new virtual-reality project through a news initiative from Google News Lab, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Online News Association.

Journalism 360 awarded the Cronkite School a $30,000 grant for “Data Real,” in which students in the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab will develop a tool that easily enables journalists and content creators to add location-based data visualizations to virtual-reality content. Cronkite School building ASU's Cronkite School has received a grant to fund a virtual-reality project that would allow journalists to add statistics, data, pricing and other information on particular neighborhoods through data overlays on VR footage. Download Full Image

The Data Real tool would allow journalists to add statistics, data, pricing and other information on particular neighborhoods through data overlays on VR footage. Users would search neighborhoods by entering a ZIP code.

“This grant will help our students push the limits of storytelling through cutting-edge technologies,” said Kristin Gilger, Cronkite School senior associate dean. “We sincerely appreciate the support of Google News Lab, Knight Foundation and the Online News Association.”

The Cronkite School’s project was one of 11 challenge winners in the contest. The winning projects will help advance Journalism 360’s mission of developing an international network of journalists to explore and share knowledge about their work in immersive storytelling. This is the third time the Cronkite School has received a challenge grant with Knight Foundation support.

Cronkite’s New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, which connects journalism, computer engineering, design and business students at ASU to create pioneering media products, will work on the Data Real project over the next several months. They are invited to the ONA conference in Washington, D.C., in October. They also will share their findings at a special Journalism 360 demo day in early 2018.

Retha Hill, director of the New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, said the Data Real tool will enhance VR experiences by allowing users to more deeply interact with the content. Users could explore a neighborhood by wearing a VR headset and interact with data around them by clicking on 3-D visualizations with a controller that reveals information such as crime statistics, school data, dining information and more.

“The data visualization tool will help storytellers bring localized data alive,” Hill said. “I can’t wait to see what my colleagues in journalism will do with the tool once it is available. My students in the lab can’t wait to get started.”

The New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab was conceived by ASU President Michael M. Crow and the late Sue Clark-Johnson, who headed Gannett’s newspaper division. Over the past 10 years, students in the lab have created mobile and VR apps, interactive games and social-media sites for a variety of media companies and nonprofits.

Announced in September 2016, Journalism 360 was designed to help accelerate the use of immersive storytelling in the news through innovative technologies such as VR, augmented and mixed reality, and 360-degree video.

Other Journalism 360 projects ranged from the use of augmented reality and data visualization to document the building of a border wall between the United States and Mexico to a tool that allows users to create virtual-reality photo experiences from their smartphones. Grant recipients included media organizations, such as The Arizona Republic and NPR, as well as universities and multimedia companies.

“The overwhelming response to the open call demonstrated that journalists are seizing the opportunity to use immersive storytelling to engage people in new ways,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. “There is still much to learn, and the winners will help lead the way by identifying best practices and tools and expanding the Journalism 360 network.”

Communications manager, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication