What Would Dickens Do?
Imagining, for the sake of argument, that he were still alive, what would Dickens write today? I’ve come across many critics and literary historians who think that he would be taking full advantage of modern technology to self-promote and to release his fiction in installments, as he did in Victorian times – or that he wouldn’t be writing novels at all, but television scripts instead.
Most of Dickens’s novels were serialized, in weekly or monthly parts, in magazines or other publications. His first great success was with The Pickwick Papers (1836), which he released in monthly pamphlets costing a shilling each, and his next bestseller, Oliver Twist (1838), was serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany.
Dickens would later feature his own novels in the journals he ran, Household Words (which printed Hard Times in 1854) and All the Year Round (which published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859 and Great Expectations in 1860-1). Following serialization, the full text of the novels would be released in one or three volumes, depending on the length.
By working to weekly or monthly deadlines, Dickens became accustomed to adjusting his pace to readers’ expectations. If you look carefully through modern reprints of his novels, you’ll notice that after every 30-35 pages there’s a mild cliffhanger. That periodic suspense can still color the reading experience today.
Like a weekly television drama – or even a soap opera (which his novels sometimes resemble in terms of melodrama) – each episode had to leave readers on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting the next update. It’s even said that eager American readers of The Old Curiosity Shop waited at New York City’s harbor for ships to bring in the next chapter, calling out from shore to the crew, “Is Little Nell dead?” The makers of the 2005 BBC dramatization of Bleak House tried to capture that original sense of anticipation by showing two of the 15 episodes each week.
Because Dickens plotted his novels as he went along (he did plan things in advance, but didn’t always have the endings figured out ahead of time – thus the novel he was writing at the time of his death, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has remained unfinished), he could sometimes respond to readers’ reactions, or take inspiration from his illustrators’ visions of prior scenes.
In this sense, his writing schedule was not unlike that followed by authors who release their fiction in chapters via blogs or newspapers. For instance, Michel Faber previewed the first section of his Victorian pastiche, The Crimson Petal and the White, in 18 weekly parts on the Guardian website in 2002. This summer, at Greenbelt Festival, I met a creative writing professor and novelist, Catherine Fox, who became frustrated with traditional publishing methods and so decided to release her latest novel, Acts and Omissions, in weekly segments on her blog. She feels this is quite a unique situation in that she gets reader feedback via the comments section and uses this when formulating the ongoing plot.
With their interlinking subplots, gritty sense of realism about poverty and violence, and their unlikely heroes or antiheroes, Dickens’s novels indeed have a lot in common with American television hits like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. Eleanor Catton admitted to having been influenced by such shows when writing her Booker-shortlisted novel The Luminaries, a whopping 832 pages of Victorian pastiche. In an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, she said,
“I feel very strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama…the emotional arcs and changes that you can follow are just so much more like a novel, and so many amazing shows recently have done as much as film can do to show the interior world.”
She also noted that these television series reflect “our fascination with…very strongly ordered patriarchal communities” – also an element in her novel, which follows the machinations of a secret council of 13 gentlemen.
Catton isn’t the only one to laud American TV box sets as the new method of Victorian-style story serialization. Novelist Zadie Smith, during an interview with Richard Godwin for Evening Standard magazine earlier this year, asked “‘Are you watching Game of Thrones?…That is a masterpiece. The last episode, after it finished, we just sat in the dark for half an hour…Literary novelists would do well to learn to plot from these people.’”
Likewise, in London’s Sunday Times, Brian Appleyard has argued that “American long-form TV is one of the great art forms of our time. The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Shield and, I will insist, Dexter represent a revolution in narrative art comparable to the creative apotheosis of the novel in the 19th century.” He also recognizes how they have fostered “the cult of the antihero,” in the same way that Dickens celebrates unexpected heroes in his novels: the poor, orphans, waifs, cripples, madmen, and invalids.
WWDD: What Would Dickens Do?
So, what would Dickens write today? Perhaps he would have been a scriptwriter on Breaking Bad, or a contributor to well-loved British soap operas such as Coronation Street. Or he might be publishing in weekly installments on his own blog or a newspaper’s website.
One thing is for certain: he would definitely be a Twitter devotee. He thoroughly embraced the technologies of his time and loved being in contact with his audience through public readings, so social media would have been a perfect way for him to connect with readers and ramp up his popularity. I say this in a spirit of honest admiration, not meaning to imply that he was egotistical or greedy; he was one of the first great literary celebrities, and so if he was alive in the twenty-first century he would be using every ‘celebrity’ tool at his disposal.
His regularly verbose style (which some argue he developed to fill in the word count as each week’s or month’s deadline approached) would not have been a good match for Twitter as it stands, but I daresay he could have adapted his genius to any situation.
For a good introduction to Dickens’s life and works, I recommend Jane Smiley’s short biography, Charles Dickens: A Life. For a more in-depth examination, try Claire Tomalin’s biography of the same title.
Stay tuned: next week I’ll have a photographic retrospective of the Dickens bicentennial year.