True or False: Jane Austen Outsells Alice Walker and Ann Coulter

Jane Austen probably can't compete yet with Shakespeare or Dickens—and certainly not with the Bible—for the greatest number of adaptations, tie-ins, tchotchkes and other epiphenomena. Dickens has a theme park in Chatham, England, while the Austen-themed resort called Pembrook Park exists so far only in "Austenland," a just-published chick-lit novel by Shannon Hale, whose author's note describes her as "an avid Austen fan and admirer of men in britches." Hale's heroine is a "Sex and the City" career gal who can't keep a boyfriend and who has a crush on Mr. Darcy. Oh, not the "real" one—the one played by Colin Firth in the BBC "Pride and Prejudice."

Later this summer, a British actress named Emma Campbell Webster will publish "Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure," an interactive fiction game with you as the main character ("Difficult as it is, you give up Colonel Brandon and return home to Longbourne ..."). Your mission is "to marry both prudently and for love." And in August—speaking of creating your own Jane Austen adventure—the film "Becoming Jane" invents an Elizabeth/Darcy-esque love affair between 20-year-old Jane ("an emerging writer," the press packet calls her), played by Anne Hathaway, and a rebellious young lawyer (James McAvoy). One advance review compares this Jane to Bridget Jones, but that's not as blasphemous as it seems: Bridget herself is a remote descendant of Austen's heroines.

Austen is the Virginia Woolf of 2007: a certifiably great novelist starring in books and films, yet one who might go to the same manicurist as you. Shakespeare and Dickens were pop-culture entertainers in centuries past, but as familiar as they remain, they've sunk into venerability. True, Shakespeare gets out to the park once in a while, where broad acting and a white-wine buzz make him seem like one of the guys, and you can still spin Dickens as a combination of Karl Marx, Frank Capra and Tex Avery. Austen, on the other hand, has become our contemporary. Nobody would be surprised to see her shelved at Barnes & Noble between Margaret Atwood and Julian Barnes, and if Starbucks should ever add a line of books to its CDs, you know "Pride and Prejudice" would be its first publication. Like Norah Jones, Austen seems to offer middlebrow entertainment with an upmarket sheen. Like BMW, Prada and Martha Stewart, she's now a brand, and a signifier of class aspiration.

So why her? And why here? Let's start with the obvious. Austen caters to Americans' perennial Anglophilia—as does that odd preoccupation with the royals. With that, she offers Regency variants of the Cinderella story—the oldest work of chick lit, and the central fable about class, and about marriage. Or rather, about weddings, since every Cinderella story, including all of Austen's novels, must end when marriage begins. Most obviously, she's one of history's great storytellers. She contrives plots to prevent you from putting the book down, writes dialogue so well that you hear her characters in your ear. Those characters seem as real and idiosyncratic as those in Shakespeare or Dickens: the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, the gossipy Mrs. Jennings, the comically imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and such museum-quality ninnies as Sir John Middleton, Robert Ferrars and the Reverend Mr. Collins. And don't forget that ubiquitous character Jane Austen, whose voice is even sharper than the voices of her smartest heroines—and, in taking you into her confidence, flatters you that you're as intelligent as she is.

Why now? Clearly Austen started to become a brand with all those Austen films of a few years back—"Emma," "Sense and Sensibility," the excellent "Persuasion" and the preposterous "Mansfield Park" (in which Austen's meepy Fanny Price is a robust outdoors girl and an "emerging writer"). But the motor of all her books—courtship leading up to marriage—has a strong resonance in the socially conservative 2000s, when young women who might once have been feminists aspire to be Bridezillas, starting their marriages $20,000 in debt. Still more creepy, a version of Austen's world has become the American Dream—at least as dreamed by advertisers and the entertainment industry. Her "charming" country villages, in which even the most financially precarious upper-class people amuse themselves while surviving on the labor of invisible servants, look like our aspirational world of guilt-free leisure and nonstop entertainment, with illegal immigrants mowing the lawn and building the new deck. Austen's orderly, decorous world has an Augustan balance and sanity—just the place to which we'd like to retreat after each day's news.

It might seem all to the good that Austen is now one of those writers held up as a model by such nostalgics as Tom Wolfe: a novelist for everyone, dishing up literary intricacy and complexity for the scholars, a corking good read for the groundlings and a rebuke for the snobs. But it's time to rescue Austen from her fans, lest the most adventurous and discerning readers pass her by. If you look at her books closely, you find them more bleak than charming: her characters are isolated within their own minds, trapped in tight spaces, forced to socialize daily with a small group of people they can never fully trust, including their own families. Not a one of her heroines ever shares everything with a true confidant—that is, up until the marriage we never see—and everybody has secrets and conflicting agendas. Courtship is deadly serious business: fail to find the right husband and you end up poor, or married to someone you can't stand, or cast out of this iffy Eden for fornication or adultery, perhaps to die.

Austen balances out that bleakness with wisdom, with humor, with romance, and above all with a deeply satisfying sense of form, analyzed by scholars and subliminally sensed by general readers. Entertainment, advertising, professional sports, the gossip industry, electro-gaming and the tsunamis of digital information seem calculated to obliterate that bleakness, or at least drown it out with noise. Literature, by contrast, tries to find what Samuel Beckett called "a form to accommodate the mess"—the pain and disorder of life inside and outside the mind. If admirers of Beckett, or whatever exemplar of High Seriousness or harsh edginess or meta-coolness you want to name, pass up Austen because of the prevalent notion that she's a literary fashion accessory who can be cozied up to as "Jane" ... well, what? The sky won't fall, the books will survive, but the culture will ratchet down another notch, and the best readers will never know what they're missing.