So you might have heard that this guy named Michael Chwe has written a book called Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Austenacious reader Mr. Henke pointed us to The New York Times’ article about it. (So did three of my friends—thanks, Ms. Hobza, Ms. Reynolds, and Mr. West!)
Mr. Chwe, game theorist, watched Clueless and was impressed with Austen’s grasp of the technical elements of strategy. In 2010 he wrote a paper about game theory in Austen, but only the alert Miss Ball noticed: it was a scoop for Austenacious! (We’re in ur discipline, teaching ur colloquia) And I attempted to explain things a bit in Game Theory, SCIENCE!, and Other Hobbies of Jane Austen.
Now the book’s out, and it should totally be my thing. It combines three of my main pursuits: Austen (duh), math, and games. But this Slate article summed up my thoughts at first: “Political Scientist Realizes Jane Austen Knew Something About Human Relationships.” Kind of “Aw, isn’t that cute? I like it when scientists discover the arts … But humanities get no respect unless scientists are into them, grrr…. He’s just riding on Jane’s popularity wave with a tenuous connection like that Proust was a Neuroscientist book… Bah!”
However, I thought that instead of grumbling at length, I’d tell you a little about game theory and how YOU can use it in your own lives. (I figured you’re probably good on the Austen part.) Which meant I had to read up on game theory, and hey, I got all excited and into new things about math! Go, learning! So I thank Mr. Chwe for that, and will probably read his book after all. Meanwhile. . .
Game theory is the mathematical study of games, such as card games and board games. Game theorists want to know how to “solve” a game—determine an optimal strategy for the players. This is more complicated than it sounds, unless the game is tic-tac-toe. You probably know (or is it just me?) the exact best move to make in any situation in tic-tac-toe, whether you are X or O. That’s an example of a solved game.
There are a lot of different types of games in terms of strategy: is the game cooperative or not? symmetric (strategy doesn’t depend on WHO is playing it) or not? do you know everyone’s previous moves? do you know their strategies and possible outcomes? are there A LOT of possible moves at any given time (think chess or go)? Etc.
I know this sounds really abstract, but game theory is also super-useful in economics, biology, politics, and whenever people are trying to figure out the best outcome for a “player” in a situation, and how they should go about getting it. For example, apparently biologists have used the game of chicken to analyze fighting behavior and territoriality. (That sentence is a direct quote from Wikipedia and I think it’s one of the most hilarious things ever.)
How do you actually analyze a game? Probability comes into it a lot—if the words expected value mean anything to you, you’re doing well. But there are actually other methods, ones that don’t assume that players will act “rationally,” or realize that acting rationally may not mean choosing an outcome based purely on the payout (as you probably would in a casino, but not in the Real World). This is where fuzzy logic comes in, and other hard-core math/computer science stuff I could go on about but will spare you.
Here are a few ideas you may think about that are used in game theory:
- How to fairly divide something—Mr. Fitzpatrick and I used to split our pizzas in half meticulously. One of us chose the cut to split along (pizza cutters are not very precise) and the other chose which half to take. I think all moms know this method, which is called the cake-cutting problem.
- Zero-sum games—In a zero-sum game, anything you gain is someone else’s loss, and vice versa. Do you think this is a fundamental rule of life? I don’t, but a lot of people do! Whether you believe this in different situations can really affect your outlook.
- Minmaxing—Formally this means minimizing the possible loss for a worst case (maximum loss) scenario, or maximizing the minimum gain. Day-to-day I think about this in terms of taking small precautions against relatively large risks and NOT taking large precautions against smaller risks. Sometimes I also think about it in terms of efficiency, but I’m not sure that’s right.
- And actually, something new from Mr. Chwe’s book, the concept of “cluelessness”—that highly privileged people, AKA Lady Catherine, cannot know the strategies of “lower class” people, AKA Elizabeth Bennet. I think this one is called “white privilege” these days. I shall be interested to see how game theory tackles it.
OK, that’s probably FAR MORE than you wanted to know about game theory! Stay tuned for the continuing saga of Emma, the originator of cluelessness.
Photo credit: Michael Chwe’s video for Jane Austen, Game Theorist
Good job, guys! According to a study by people who track library loans, Pride and Prejudice is the most loaned classic in the UK! (Wuthering Heights is #2.) Jane takes three more of the top 20 spots as well:
- #8 Emma
- #11 Sense and Sensibility
- #17 Northanger Abbey
The Telegraph‘s article says, “The study involves a comparison of lending data from Britain’s libraries for 50 classics by British and Irish authors from the literary canon from the early 1990s, a decade ago, and last year.”
Mission #1: People of Britain, read more Austen! I want to see Persuasion and Mansfield Park on this list next time too. We can’t leave Anne Elliot out in the cold and Fanny Price sitting on her bench, now can we?? And let’s get those other numbers up, too. (Special Sneak Preview: Austenacious will do our part by hosting another read-a-long soon!) People of Not Britain: don’t think I’m not watching you too!
Also according to The Telegraph, “Works by Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and EM Forster have seen their popularity plummet over the last two decades . . ..”
I’m not going to say a word for Thomas Hardy. (Anyone want to take that on in the comments?) But, EM Forster, you guys! I love EM Forster. A Room With a View, anyone? Howards End? So beautiful! So smart! The article says maybe Austen got more popular because of the adaptations, and because of her “rather too light, bright, sparkling tone.” (Though George Orwell also got more popular, and he’s, like, super-funny, right?)
Forster is comic, just as much as Austen, so maybe we need more adaptations? I love the 1985 version of A Room with a View—Helena Bonham Carter, before she was crazy! Naked guys! … Good lord, has it really been that long? IMDB says there’s also a 2007 version, which I completely missed. Have any of you seen it? Thoughts? We could do better, though, right?
For Howards End there’s just the 1992 version with Emma Thompson. I’m conflicted here—I really don’t think this book is adaptable. But if anyone wants to have a go, feel free!
Then there’s our girl George Eliot. I’ll admit I’ve only ever read Middlemarch, and I only read that because of the 1994 version. (See, TV adaptations pay off!) Middlemarch is pretty awesome—though it’s not as joyous as Austen and Forster, it does have depth, without being as, um, self-conscious as the Brontës. Do we want a new Middlemarch adaptation? But Rufus Sewell and Colin’s brother Jonathon are so cute… Juliet Aubrey is so Dorothea…. I don’t know. What do you all think?
Mission #2: People of Britain and Not Britain, read more Forster! Read more Eliot! Demand quality adaptations, or make your own crazy vlogs! Or both! Think, live, breathe fiction!
P.S. (Mission #3: Contemplate Colin Firth’s legs.)
Photo credit: dbking. Used under Creative Commons licensing.
Readers, I almost hesitate to bring this up. I prefer not to bring free publicity to people I think are a) wrong, on the Internet, and b) potentially angling for some free publicity for their wrongness. On the Internet. But here we are: it’s an election year here in the States, and we’re talking about Jane Austen’s political views.
For those of you NOT trawling the Austen blog circuit on a daily basis, it all started with a National Review interview with Elizabeth Kantor, in which Jane’s conservative values were extolled at length. Ladies want to get married more than they want to work or have friends or invest themselves in something larger than themselves, remember, and if we’d all just follow Jane’s advice, as culled from her novels, then we’d all find ourselves as snug as bugs in rugs. If bugs in rugs had husbands.
This, as you can probably imagine, went over SUPER WELL. Sarah Marian Seltzer shot back. Team Jane!, she said, rather than Team Feminist or Team Conservative. The story spread, as it tends to do.
Eventually, The Atlantic picked up Seltzer’s rebuttal and ran a bravely researched summary-and-history piece, and here we stand. It’s 2012 in the United States, and we’re all claiming the triumphs of wit and true love for our own—different, of course—sides.
People, I am not apolitical. (Surprise!) I am not neutral. Due to a medium-length commute and a high tolerance for talk radio, I am often hyperinformed, and I care. I get worked up. I am, in fact, probably the key demographic for this story. And even I say: Who cares? Jane Austen is not alive. She does not vote. She could not vote in her own country—not, by the way, the one in which this story is playing out—during her lifetime. In fact, her work is almost explicitly non-political, focused so tightly on the personal realm that the main reason for the British military is a source of handsome men of varying character. Certainly non-political works are subsumed into greater arguments, simply by being works of intellect—the personal is political, etc.—but that clearly wasn’t the point, for Jane. I’m sure she had opinions about the politics of morality, as she did about so many other things, but those opinions are neither expressed in her work nor genuinely relevant to either her characters’ lives or her readers’. So, readers, if any of you are out there scouring Emma for advice on political philosophy, you should probably find somebody else to fill that role (but may I steer you away from anybody whose name rhymes with “Pine Bland”?). I don’t think Miss Woodhouse wants it, no matter how much she likes telling people what to do.
Anyway, let’s leave poor Jane out of it, and go back to keeping our eyes peeled for handsome scoundrels.
To be fair, the article does address the fanfiction elements of this story—both the fact that Austen fanfiction is to the Internet like the crocodile is to Earth (that is, an early and successful inhabitant) and the fact that Fifty Shades began its life as Twilight fanfic, only to later be published for profit.
Really? Thirty seconds on Amazon didn’t tell you about The Darcys: The Ruling Passion, published last October? Not Mr. Darcy’s Undoing or Pride and Prejudice: Hidden Lusts or any of the countless sexy sequels/reimaginings published long before 50 Shades got search-and-replaced into semi-respectability?
Nice work, Vulture. When the Times finally gets there, you can feel superior again.
Janely bits and bobs from around the Interwebs:
- PD James on crime, Jane, boobs, and death. Not necessarily in that order. Via the Guardian.
- Want a professional to tell you the story of Emma in the comfort of your very own home? No, not that guy. The Beeb (Radio Edition) has just kicked off a new dramatization; you can catch the first episode if you’re quick, and the second if you’re slow.
Okay, internet, you can stop shouting now. We understand! There MAY—or may not—be a newly discovered portrait of Jane Austen living in the home of a Shakespeare scholar and his wife! It’s pretty different from the old one, thank goodness! We were going to have a nice chat about Jane and Feminist Ryan Gosling, or something, but we understand that this is The Thing this week. Ryan and his thoughts on gender can wait, gosh darn it, and the urgency of a three-hundred-year-old portrait just takes precedence.
I think the hullabaloo has less to do with the portrait’s historical significance, particular biographical importance, or any academic furor over it, and more to do with the portrait itself. The existing verified portrait of Jane, the so-called Cassandra portrait painted by her sister, is…well, it’s painted with a sister’s honesty, shall we say? This new one would, by comparison, definitely have been her dust-jacket photo—it’s completely believable in terms of having the same subject as the Cassandra portrait, but with all the benefits of a kind and skilled portrait artist, and without the possible effects of somebody who’s still pissed that you drank the last of the pulp-free orange juice at breakfast. As the Guardian so succinctly put it—and here I think they’re just saying what everybody else is thinking—Jane Austen wasn’t as ugly as people think. But the question is: Why do we care?
It seems to me that, for the most part, author sexiness is a moderately lucrative form of icing in today’s publishing market—a benefit, sure, but not an industry requirement. (And, might I add, thank goodness for that.) Nobody seems to obsess over the fact that Margaret Atwood’s had basically the same haircut for forty years, for example, and I think I could pick J.K. Rowling out of a lineup, if none of the decoys looked too much like her. I’m sitting here trying to think of a hot male author, and failing—not, I suspect, because they don’t exist, but because I read a lot of jacketless paperbacks. And yet the books sell, and we read, and everybody seems pretty happy.
So why do we want so badly for Jane to have been a fox? Much of the neurosis, I think, has to do with the stages set in her work; we want the woman who created all these winning romantic heroines to have the face of a winning romantic heroine. This is why the movie Becoming Jane exists: surely she was beautiful; surely she had a secret boyfriend who looked like James McAvoy; surely her life was a novel filled with affection and loving respect. Another theory is one I’m less sure about: that we want Jane to have been beautiful because identifying with a plain, single woman hits close to home in a subculture dominated by women and the issue of marriage. I see the trajectory of the argument; I also see the belittling underbelly of the argument. Heck, maybe we just want the poor woman to have a nice picture to put on her Facebook profile. Readers? What do you think?
Things are getting good, people.
After a spattering (splattering?) of competing Jane-death theories in the past couple of years–including bad milk–we’ve got an exciting one: muuuuurder!
In researching Jane’s life for her upcoming mystery novel, writer Lindsay Ashford came upon Jane’s description of her own pre-mortem symptoms, which apparently mimic a textbook case of arsenic poisoning. Mystery writers! Always jumping to conclusions with their “knowledge” and “connection-making skills”! The plot thickened further when the former president of JASNA informed her that a lock of Austen’s hair, purchased at auction by a private buyer in 1948, had tested positive…for arsenic.
So maybe Jane was poisoned via arsenic. Or maybe she wasn’t–apparently, in her day, doctors bandied the stuff about like it was children’s Tylenol. According to Ashford, Jane may have been killed by a medicine containing arsenic as some kind of cure for whatever ailed her originally.
Or, you know, maybe Ms. Ashford will just sell a whole lot of copies of The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. Either way, this is probably a win for her. And we can’t fault that.
The mood was calm yet determined as dawn rose above the ten-day-old tent city calling itself Occupy Haworth. In the shadow of the very center of Bronte power, crowds of people gathered to express their disillusionment and have their voices heard.
“I just think this one family has too much influence over storytelling, especially what it means to be romantic in Britain,” said a man who asked to be identified as a post-Ffordeian Bronte scholar. “I think it’s time we stood up for ourselves—not everybody’s a Romantic, you know. Some of us form healthy attachments borne of love and respect, and it’s like they just steamroll right over us on the way to the Moors!”
A young lady who wished to remain anonymous, presumably to avoid repercussions from the family’s many connections, added, “Just because they had three kids who could write a little, they trade on their name. It’s not fair to the rest of us.”
Scores of protesters milled about, shaking their signs in the direction of the gift shop and repeating, via the human megaphone system adopted by the Occupy movement at large, first lines from novels, such as “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul,” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Banners ranged from “Let Helen live!” to “St. John is a douchebag.”
A number of Haworth employees and pro-Bronte activists made a point of engaging with the protesters from a safe shouting distance. “Get a library card!” They shouted. Protesters appeared unruffled, though tempers began to wear thin when the passers-by added, “Plus, you really ought to try Villette again—it’s quite good!”
It’s unclear how long the Occupy Haworth protest can continue without declaring any particular ideals or naming any specific demands. But one thing is clear: the power of the Brontes doesn’t translate just outside the gates of Haworth. “I just don’t think Mr. Rochester’s that hot,” said a young lady carrying a sign bearing the popular slogan Name Mrs. DeWinter. “And I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that. I guess I am the ninety-nine percent.”
Apparently this is the week to talk about Austen in public, if you are a famous writer beloved by lots of people. Jane on the radio! Jane on the internet, by which I don’t actually mean our site! So it seems like this “Jane” person is could really, you know, go somewhere. Or whatever.
First of all, I have an assignment for the community: let’s all go to our local bookstores or libraries, get our hands on Jeffrey Eugenides‘s new novel The Marriage Plot, read it, and meet back here for chatter and cookies. Ready? Break!
Well, we probably should–it is, after all, Austen-related. And probably great. I know. I KNOW! Also, he talked to Terry Gross about it here.
Look, I know how I can be about post-Austen Austen lit—which is to say, unwilling to read it and yet NOT unwilling to speak ill of it. But this is Jeffrey Eugenides, considering the life and death of the 19th-century novel in the wake of 20th-century cultural developments! Am I not supposed to love a book that reflects Austen and Henry James in a fictional format that also includes references to semiotics and possibly a true-love ending (one hopes)? You don’t know me at all, do you?
Additionally: isn’t The Marriage Plot such a great, ambiguous title? Before I read the flap, I thought it was about some kind of scheme. Which I guess it still could be. OOH, WORDPLAY.
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In other news of excellent famous people talking Austen (etc.), we have life heroine Mindy Kaling—her spectacular shopping blog is back, so you should probably go read that—talking to EW about her reading habits. By which I don’t mean Jane, actually, but favored bitter literary spinster-cousin Edith Wharton—for reasons that reference Jane and the marriage plot (the concept, not the novel) directly. And it’s great. And I think we should hang out and braid each other’s hair and drink wine and talk about our favorite lady authors. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
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In a world of dispiriting politics, an economy that is decidedly lowering all boats (except a notable few, of course), and a disturbing upward trend in the number of televised singing competitions, at least there’s this:
Way to go, HarperCollins! Clearly, with all the foresight and innovation of an industry that definitely will not be obsolete in fifty years, you’ve identified an unmet need and an unfilled niche. I mean, it’s not as if we had a) an entire genre of female-oriented lit originally spawned by a Jane Austen update fifteen years ago, b) an entire sub-genre of female-oriented lit featuring Austen sequels, updates, mashups, prequels, re-imaginings, re-genrefications, and character studies, c) with monsters, d) numerous generations of young-readers editions of Austen novels, or e) ACTUAL JANE AUSTEN NOVELS. WRITTEN BY JANE AUSTEN.
Before you get too far into this esteemable project, HC, may we interest you in some friends of ours? Three sisters and a crazy brother raised on the moors? They’re over there. No, way over there. Yes, that way. Keep going! Don’t stop! Have fun storming the castle! Bye-bye!
Oh, readers. How long do you think we can keep this up?