Some Thoughts on Dickens and Popular Literature
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Right now I am reading Bleak House. I haven't read any Dickens in longer than I can remember. I read most, if not all, of his novels when I was very young and then burned out on him. A few of his novels have really stuck in my memory but Bleak House is not one of them. All I really remember is that there is a case of spontaneous combustion in the book at some point which I found disturbing as a child.
I am about a third of the way through the book right now and I am finding it fascinating. Fascinating, not necessarily because of the story itself though that is good, but because of what constituted popular literature in Dickens' day. His books were immensely popular. They were serialized in magazines and newspapers and people waited eagerly for the next installment. So eagerly that when The Old Curiosity Shop was being serialized crowds waited at the docks in New York desperate to find out what happened to Little Nell. I read somewhere that the poor and illiterate would pay to have the latest installment read to them.
And now we view Dickens as difficult. If you ask the average person to read Dickens they are going to refuse, probably with memories of high school forced readings of A Tale of Two Cities. If someone finds you voluntarily reading Dickens they are likely to view you as a bit of a show off.
How have we gone from a world that goes crazy over Dickens to a world that goes crazy over Fifty Shades of Grey?
I know there are beautifully written, literary works of fiction being produced in our day. However, those are not usually the ones that take the average reader by storm. Dickens did in his day though. I wonder what makes the difference. Obviously many in his day were not well educated. Many were just average people. But now, reasonably well educated, average people view Dickens and authors like him as too difficult. So many popular authors of their day such as Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope have now become challenging. But when they wrote they were what the average person read. They were the popular authors of their day.
Occasionally, I worry for our day. I worry about a world that won't commit to an eight-hundred page novel but instead wants everything in 140 character tweets. (Though the thought of trying to condense Bleak House into a series of tweets sounds like it could be entertaining.) I am not sure what it is. Do we have less time? A shorter attention span? Has our reading style really been dumbed down? Are we less literate? Do we have too many distractions? I don't know. Maybe it is a bit of all of that.
But Dickens should be read. His characters are clear and appealing. So many have become part of our language, Scrooge, for example. His depiction of London and the England of his day is enthralling and horrifying in equal parts. His ability to tell a story is obvious. He had his flaws like any author does, I don't always feel drawn to his female characters, but what really amazes me on rereading him is just how readable he is. He knows how to hook a reader. That is why they waited on the docks for the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop. He had them in the palm of his hand. He was a consummate storyteller.