Charles Dickens

Orwell on Dickens

Two quotes pulled from Orwell’s classic 1940 essay on Charles Dickens.

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s — why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect. In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character … because Dickens’s characters have no mental life. They say perfectly the thing that they have to say, but they cannot be conceived as talking about anything else.

And a little further on:

What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once.

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A Face Behind the Page

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page.”

— George Orwell, “Charles Dickens”

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Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).

Dickens’ Outlines

Robert Olen Butler has said,

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Atlantic Monthly, 6.14.04

It is a cherished fantasy of writers: if only a wise mentor could be with me at the moment of creation, looking over my shoulder, teaching me how to apply the chisel to the stone. The essence of a writer’s work is mysterious even to himself. Ask any writer how he creates his stories, what is happening inside his head as he types away madly, and watch him stammer. The only honest answer is “I have no idea.”

Olen Butler tried to capture the process on tape once. He recorded a series of videos for creative-writing students in which he sat at his computer and composed a short story. He would stop every sentence or so, describing the word choice or plot decision he was mulling, the options available, the reasons he might go one way or the other. The experiment did not really work. The videos are fine as a pedagogical tool and I admire Olen Butler for trying to capture the ineffable, but the constant interruptions seemed to short-circuit the creative process, and the story he wrote frankly was not very good.

If anything, Olen Butler’s experiment demonstrated that writing is intractably internal. It can only happen invisibly in the writer’s unconscious mind. The moment you look at it, it disappears. The moment you say to yourself, “I am writing,” you stop.

That is one reason why creative writing is so hard to teach. A writer can only show the product of his work for an after-the-fact review. He submits his pages to be judged, thumbs up or down, often in a “workshop” (the very name bespeaks writers’ desperation to recreate the studio experience available to other artists). His inadequacies cannot be corrected, only pointed out, because there is no “correct” way to achieve a given literary effect. Technique must be learned by trial and error. No one knows how it is done, even fellow writers; they only know it when they see it. It is as if a tennis coach could only tell a talented young player “you won” or “you lost.”

Still, we try. I have a voyeuristic interest in how other writers work. So when I run across a passage like the one below, from Michael Salter’s Charles Dickens, I stop to study it. This is the closest we can get to Olen Butler’s fantasy for young writers: a chance to look over the great man’s shoulder as he works. If you are not a writer, you may as well stop reading. The subject of how Dickens outlined his novels will not interest you. But if you are a writer, this sort of detail is gold.

The year is 1846. Dickens is 34 and already firmly established as England’s best and most celebrated writer. He has left London for the peace and quiet of Lausanne, Switzerland, to begin his novel Dombey and Son.

Dombey is the first Dickens novel for which there exists a complete set of preparatory notes for each monthly number (an isolated set, quoted above, exists for Chuzzlewit IV), a working practice Dickens followed for all his subsequent novels in this format, as well as for Hard Times which was published as a weekly serial but planned in five monthly numbers.

For each number he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called “Mems.” These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet” added later) — in short, what has been succinctly described as “brief aids in decision making, planning and remembering.” Among the “General mems for No 3,” for example, we find that wonderful image for little Paul’s desolation at Mrs. Pipchin’s, “— as if he had taken life: [sic] unfurnished, and the upholster were never coming” … and “Be patient with Carker — Get him on very slowly, without incident” (DS XII).

On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter. with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue like little Paul’s “Papa what’s money?” in chapter 8 [of Dombey and Son], or a note of significant events like “Death’s warning to Mrs Skewton” in chapter 36.

— Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, pp. 258-59

Here are Dickens’ “mems” for the first chapter of Little Dorrit, which opens with two men in a dank prison cell on a broiling summer day in Marseilles.

Waiting Room? No
Office? No
French Town? Yes
Man from China? Yes
Prison? Yes
Quarantine? Yes

— Source: Modern Philology, August 1966 (oh, the wonders of the web!)

I look at these scant notes and I see a writer accustomed to improvising in the moment. Only the bare essentials are drawn in beforehand. He may simply have known where he was going well enough that he did not feel the need to create a detailed outline (as I do). But Dickens must have known, too, that no matter how much planning has been done, when you finally sit down to write, it is time to put away your outlines and research, and keep only a few simple notes on the desk before you. The real work of creating will only be distracted by all this external stuff.

Also, I look at that joyous little double-underline when he hit on the idea of setting the scene in a prison cell and I feel his happiness. How many hours went into that breakthrough? How much of the writer’s private triumph is expressed in that little emphasis? Go, Charles!

Image: Detail from Dickens’ portrait by photographer George Herbert Watkins, ca. 1861. (The original, full portrait is here. Look here for more information.)

A Lesson from Dickens

In December 1839, Charles Dickens was 27 years old and already a superstar. He had written the Boz sketches, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. Each was a double sensation, scoring first as a serial — the day an installment of Nickleby was released, according to a contemporary account, the Strand “looked almost verdant with the numerous green [magazine] covers waving to and fro in the hands of the passengers along that busy thoroughfare” — then as a bound book. He was inexhaustible, creatively and physically. In addition to the long, serialized stories, he had written plays, musicals, and countless smaller pieces. He was a word fountain. All the while, he essentially maintained a parallel career as a magazine editor, generating much of the content himself.

The autumn of 1839 was particularly triumphant. In September he finished Nickleby, which had given him trouble. (“Thank God that I have lived to get through it happily,” he wrote in his diary.) It was published as a single volume on October 23. Six days later, his second daughter, Katherine, was born. Around this time, too, he was hired to edit a new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock, scheduled to launch the following spring essentially as a vehicle for his own writing and to capitalize on his fame. In early December he moved his family into a lavish thirteen-room home with a large garden opposite Regent’s Park. He leased the house for eleven years at a cost of £800 down plus a yearly rent of £160 — in today’s dollars, about $100,000 down, $19,000 a month.

By any measure, Dickens had made it. He was the hot young thing. The boy who had once been stripped of his middle-class expectations — his education abruptly canceled, shunted off at the age of twelve to work in a rat-infested blacking factory — was a star.

But on December 6, 1839, he did a strange thing: he registered as a law student at the Middle Temple. In today’s terms, he applied to law school.

When I first read this fact, in Michael Slater’s new and wonderful biography, Charles Dickens (the source for all the material in this post), I thought Dickens must have “applied to law school” to gather material for his writing. He had a long-standing interest in the law and had been a law clerk as a young man. And he often went on long rambles in and around London to find material, sometimes walking 20 or 25 miles, later spinning stories based on some little scene he witnessed. Surely he meant to do research, not actually become a lawyer.

But Slater writes that Dickens intended precisely that. “[A]ware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of [Sir Walter] Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.” Six years later, Dickens was still concerned enough to keep his name on the books as a law student at the Middle Temple, Slater writes, “so that he might one day be called to the Bar where ‘there are many little pickings to be got.'”

Dickens’s story is not quite Horatio Alger. Dickens was not a poor boy who made good. He was a respectable middle-class boy who lost everything then finally got it back — and then some. But the anxiety of seeing his father abruptly tumble out of the middle class all the way to debtor’s prison never really left him. The following winter of 1839-40, Dickens created the character of Jack Redburn for the new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. He described Redburn as a boy “reared in the expectation of a fortune he has never inherited.” He was describing his own younger self.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s childhood and subsequent success followed a similar arc. The parallel seems too close to be a coincidence: the two giants of English letters, neither especially well schooled but both forced to learn as young boys how quickly it can all be taken away.

But what was the lesson, exactly? What did the experience teach them? Empathy? Both were suddenly transformed from one sort of person to another, in society’s eyes. Or was it a lesson in the importance of hard work, never taking anything for granted? Maybe. Both men became ferociously hard workers and sharp businessmen. Or was it a lesson in how superficial social status really is, in the vanity of social pretensions? Both men did become expert critics of the worlds they lived in. Both saw their own times and the people around them with unusual clarity. Probably the tumble from respectability taught them all of these things.

Maybe for a writer it is not enough to want, to yearn. Maybe what you need is to have something — money, love, security — and lose it, then yearn to get it back. Maybe every great writer has his blacking factory.

Illustration: Detail from a portrait of Dickens at 27, made by his friend Daniel Maclise in 1839. The portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Categories: Creativity · Writers    Tags: ·

“Little Dorrit”: Dickens’ Teeming World

I’ve just finished Dickens’ Little Dorrit and my first thought on closing the book is how big and sprawling it seems next to our own spare, miniaturist novels.

Not all of today’s novels are written this way, of course, but scan the Times bestseller list and you will see that generally the Raymond Carver/New Yorker style — lean, controlled, underpopulated, understated — has won the day. Young writers today are drilled in restraint. Be subtle! (“Show, don’t tell.”) Be concise! (“A rifle hanging on the wall in act one must be fired by act three” — must!) Cut, cut, and cut some more! (The novel, as Hemingway would have it, owes its “dignity of movement” to being like an iceberg, nine-tenths hidden under the surface.)

The result of all this decorum is that there is an artificial, circumscribed quality to a lot of our storytelling. Realism just doesn’t feel like reality.  John Updike once noted, “People in novels rather rarely eat; their health is not often of concern to them; earning money isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to those of us in the real world.” Real life is crowded, overstimulated, harried, sprawling, noisy, messy; realist fiction generally is none of these things. It is Art — oy.

Dickens breaks every rule of modernism, of course. His iceberg floats proudly above water. Yet at 152 years old, Little Dorrit feels more alive than most of those Times bestsellers. Why?

One reason is that Dickens employs a much larger cast than modern writers typically do. Whole brigades of characters swarm the stage. Dickens manages the crowd by a familiar set of tricks. He has a gift for making a character come alive with a single gesture briefly described. One unnamed character is seen at the dinner table “wiping some drops of wine from his mustache with a piece of bread,” and in that moment the character lives and breathes. Also, Little Dorrit is politically engaged. (But no less relevant: it is hard to imagine Mr. Merdle without being reminded of Bernie Madoff.) And of course, to prevent the whole invented world of Little Dorrit from spinning apart, Dickens contrives connections and coincidences that, to a modern reader, feel bogus and melodramatic.

The reward is the very scale of the story. Little Dorrit’s capacious, complex, multi-thread plotting — its bigness — conveys some of the complexity and interconnectedness of Dickens’s world in a way that today’s slimmer novels simply can’t.

It is interesting that this sort of sprawling multi-thread, multi-character drama still thrives on TV. Some of my favorite shows, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, are crowded ensemble pieces. The Wire, in particular, has often been called “Dickensian” and for good reason: it uses a big canvas because it is trying to capture a big subject, an entire city, just as Dickens did. Multi-thread storytelling was a brief fad in movies, too (Pulp Fiction, Traffic and, less successfully, Crash) but the trend seems to have petered out, lamentably.

I am not suggesting we go back to Dickens’ style of plotting. Today’s readers don’t have the attention spans for big Victorian novels, or the interest. But if the complaint about novels is that they feel less vivid, three-dimensional and immersive than “new media,” then maybe we should consider that some of the smallness is in our storytelling style. In a world that feels increasingly speeded-up, hyperlinked and complex, a style that is hermetic and spare feels badly out of tune.

This is not a new idea. The internet is not the first threat the novel has faced. Confronted with a similarly disruptive technology, film, John Dos Passos tried to mimic the jangled feeling of his time using a montage of styles and characters in his U.S.A. trilogy. I have even used a multi-thread plot myself in The Strangler, and for a reason similar to Dickens’s: to create a more panoramic view of a vast, complex place.

I have a fantasy that I will write a big, shaggy Dickensian novel myself one day. It would weave multiple threads from various parts of Boston to capture the sprawl and intricacy of a vast, living city. For now, though, my Big Book will have to wait. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, and who reads Big Books anymore, anyway?

Dickens and the Blacking Factory

"Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse"

At the age of 12, thanks to his father’s bankruptcy, Dickens found himself working in a rat-infested warehouse that produced bottles of liquid shoe polish. The work itself probably lasted for no more than a year, but it left scars on his imagination that never properly healed. His rage at social injustice, his sensitivity to the fate of abandoned children, his never-satisfied hunger for financial and emotional security: all this can be traced back to his time sticking labels onto bottles of Warren’s blacking. So can the routines he adopted to tame life’s mess and confusion. He would whip out a comb whenever a hair was out of place, conducted regular inspections of his children’s bedrooms, and rearranged the furniture when he stayed in hotels, so that everything was always in its proper place.

In his writing, too, Dickens sought to create order out of chaos. His sprawling plots were carefully parcelled out in weekly or monthly installments. His bulging lists of characters were allowed to run riot across the page, but were eventually tied down to the standard fates of fictional Victorians: marriage, exile, death. His “clutching eye” produced passages that teem with the clutter of ordinary life, while allowing some odds and ends to take on a strangely proverbial quality, as when a “sickly bedridden humpbacked boy” in Nicholas Nickleby is described enjoying some hyacinths “blossoming in old blacking-bottles,” like a little SOS message from Dickens’s childhood that has suddenly bobbed to the surface of his prose.

— Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, “Charles Dickens”

Image: Fred Bernard, “Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse,” from The Leisure Hour (1904) (source).

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Dickens and Me

I have been reading Little Dorrit the last couple of weeks and I am engrossed, even though life has been a little chaotic. I have been working feverishly on my own new novel, cranking out the last few chapters in rough draft. At the same time, my kids are on school vacation and our house has been unusually tumultuous — which is saying something.

Still, nothing in my life could possibly compare to the tumult in Dickens’s. He was roughly my age when he wrote Little Dorrit, completed in 1857 when Dickens was 45. (I am 46.) Here is Edmund Wilson’s description of this period in the great man’s life.

Dickens at forty had won everything that a writer could expect to obtain through his writings: his genius was universally recognized; he was feted wherever he went; his books were immensely popular; and they had made him sufficiently rich to have anything that money can procure. … Yet from the time of his first summer in Boulogne in 1853 [when Dickens was 39], he had shown signs of profound discontent and unappeasable restlessness; he suffered severely from insomnia and, for the first time in his life, apparently, worried seriously about his work. He began to fear that his vein was drying up.

It is hard to imagine a novelist achieving this sort of stardom today, even one whom Wilson considered the best England had produced since Shakespeare. It is poignant, too, to imagine a man so fantastically successful yet so intractably unhappy. Dickens’s life disproves the romantic notion that writing is good therapy: he fictionalized his painful memories in book after book but was tormented right to the end.

I am dying to learn more about him. Next up for me will be Michael Slater’s new biography, apparently wonderful, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing, fortuitously published just as I go on a Dickens kick.

(For the record, the quote is from Edmund Wilson’s essay “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” (1939), available in the Library of America collection of Wilson’s Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s & 1940s.)

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Dickens vs. the Snarks

I am reading Dickens’s Little Dorrit at the moment, inspired by the rebroadcast of the wonderful PBS/BBC mini-series. (It is being rebroadcast here in Boston, at least. I don’t know if this is true elsewhere.)

At the same time I am spending endless hours, as usual, idling on the web, particularly on blogs, where a different aesthetic prevails — hyperbolic, sarcastic, terse, frantic, distracted. A recent blog post by Ben Casnocha defines the web prose style pretty well:

In school anything you write or do will be read and graded by a teacher paid to do so. In the real world nobody wants to read your shit, and you have to earn their attention every single day.

Last year in a post titled You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I extolled blogging as a way to learn this value.

One way blogging makes you a better writer is it forces you to work hard for your readers’ attention. On the web, it takes less than a second to close the page or click a new link. Your readers are busy and distracted.

This means you must engage the reader out of the gate and take nothing for granted. If you start sucking in the second paragraph, you’ll likely lose the reader’s attention. They click to a new page.

It’s brutal. It makes you better.

It certainly is brutal, but does it really make you better? Alternating between Dickens’s elegant slow-cooked style and the fast food of the web, as I’ve been doing this week, I’m not so sure. Here’s the thing: after snacking on blog after blog, link after link, article after article, I do not feel any of the satisfaction or pleasure or transport that I get from even the dullest passages in Little Dorrit. On the contrary, all that hyperlinked, hypermanic prose on the web leaves me feeling drained and a little down.

Maybe it is just the skittish nature of the medium. The very connectedness of every screenload of words to every other makes everything I read online feel provisional and slick. There is always another article quivering unseen behind every link, another article which may be more interesting or more fresh. And then another and another.

I don’t mean to knock Ben Casnocha. Actually, I agree with him: in the raucous atmosphere of the web, it is probably necessary to write as if “nobody wants to read your shit.” In fact, when I first started to think about this post, I intended to say something similar, that web writing is shaping today’s novels by training modern writers and readers alike in a more compressed, hurried, no-nonsense prose style. I still think that’s true.

But I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. When I turn off the computer (as I am about to do) and go back to the peaceful, unlinked, timeless world of Dickens’s London, it will be a relief. Dickens does not have to “make me give a shit.” I already do. I don’t want to feel “busy and distracted” while I’m reading, as I tend to feel when I’m reading online. And if Dickens starts to suck in the second paragraph, well, I’ve got time. What, after all, is the hurry?

Disconnect. Slow down. Read at your own pace, for your own pleasure. The web will get along without you for a while.