Monday, July 6, 2009

The Thing About Charlie...

I occasionally spend some time ghosting over on Book Blogs at the Ning. Even though book reviews aren't really my main 'thing', I like to see what the book reviewers are talking about and there's always something fun going on over there.

 Over the weekend, the subject of Dickens came up: Is he still relevant

Notwithstanding two recent books spun from the stuff of his final (and unfinished) novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it's an open question. Dickens thus-far seems to have been skipped by the renaissance being enjoyed by other classic authors such as Jane Austen. So... does he need an infusion of post-modern zombies to bring back the readers? Or is he already just another zombie author refusing to shamble off to the churchyard and a peaceful afterlife confined to the shelves of English Lit professors, destined for a messy end on the killing fields of postmodern lit crit?

The main trouble with Charlie is that he was made victim of his own success. So many see elements central to his plots as cliche (Orphans? Wicked stepfathers? That is SO overdone!) but what Dickens did was not cliche -- it was made cliche by endless repetition from the pens, typewriters and laptops that followed him. It's a mental space that a reader needs to get themselves into before embarking upon any of the classics.

This is doubly-true of Dickens, whose plots and twists and characters have become so indelibly woven into modern fiction. His ideas and plots and characters have been endlessly plundered by nearly everyone because his voice was so persuasive that he set the bar that we're all trying to clear. Not long ago I was reading a music critic talk about the number of bands whose entire catalog and careers could be summarized as "Variations on one song from the Beatles' White Album". (I'll have to find the article so I can quote and attribute accurately). So too could many more authors and screenwriters be summed up as churning out endless variations on the source material drawn from Dickens. Some of it has been amazing, epic tales built upon a 'Dickensian' and some of it should remain nameless and fade from our minds. Regardless, the quality of imitation does not strain the strength of the source material.

In a time when optimism is oft times treated as though it were a contagious disease, perhaps the inveterate optimism of Dickens' characters can't catch hold upon the modern mind. Perhaps the moments of astonishingly-modern wit are too weighted with the passages of florid Victorian prose. I tend to disagree. Dickens' voice was so modern and his wit was so sharp that we can still hear ourselves in it.

Still don't think he's relevant? I think he's so relevant that the biggest publishing phenomenon ever doesn't make sense until you view it through his works. There has been no more profound reflection of this influence than Harry Potter. The boy wizard aside, this is a time of literature cast in the light of Hemingway, awash in the blood of a million murdered adverbs. Yet, despite Rowling's cinder-block sized tomes, often grandiose prose, and sweeping tales, even books that are meant to appeal to her audience are pared down and scaled back ever more as writers and publishers chases an allegedly dwindling attention span. Have our attentions really so dwindled, though that we're in need of a zombie incursion into the classics to renew the spark of literature that has aged? I had a love-hate relationship with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And I fear however, that this is going to spawn a trend of duct-taping postmodern monsters into classic tales until it devolves into an Abbot & Costello movie.

In my opinion, P&P&Z only worked because of a brilliant blend of two gifted writers (Austen and Grahame-Smith) hundreds of years apart and it took off because the readers were primed by the Austen renaissance (and in case you've been living in a cave, zombies are kind of a thing right now).

Maybe it's for the better, this mashup culture. If nothing else, before we're ready to receive Little Dorrit Versus the Zombie Debtors of Doom, we'll need to reacquaint ourselves with Dorrit's creator.

However, I'm thinking of shopping around a story about a zombie antihero escaping a zombie-infected prep school to bum around New York for a day. He'll have a thing for ducks, wear a funky red hat and spend a lot of time trying to eat the brains of the prostitutes in he meets...  Just kidding, Mr. Salinger. Just kidding.

But I think you should write down the date and time you scoffed at the notion of Zombiecatcher In the Rye.  Because at this rate, it almost seems inevitable.


  1. I love Dickens and agree with you that he has been ran over by the recept upheavel of Austen addicts.... I cant talk, I have joined the forces as well to do a little Austen reading since I never have before.
    However - I have read Dickens and would be thrilled to be a part of a Dickens Challenge.

    Now you got me thinking..... oh oh

    Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books

  2. I posted this on Facebook and spawned some great comments that I thought I'd bring over for the chortling of the rest of my readers... (Names truncated to protect the innocent)

    "Oh, but Bleak House has a sort of meta-zombie quality as a novel, in that it has a high probability of eating the brain of anyone who attempts to read it in its entirety."

    And this fun exchange:
    SMN: "Why limit yourself to zombies? Doesn't Fagan strike you as a great potential vampire?"
    Scott: "Ooooooo! Oliver Twilight!"
    SMN: "Does he have to sparkle?"
    Scott: "Absolutely not. Though there's just no accounting for the Artful Dodger..."
    SMN: "That works."

  3. Welcome Shiela! Like I said, I loved the Pride & Prejudice zombified, but I'm leery of the trend it could spark as the meme degrades under endless repetition...

    What would a Dickens Challenge entail?

  4. A Dickens Challenge... well that would be up the creator as to how it was handled. The current Austen Challenge going on through many book bloggers is from July 1 - December 31, read, or watch 6 Austen related movies and/or books. That includes all this new Austen stuff as well.

    I am participating beucae us until the challenge, I was an Austen free zone. never read her, never watched any of the movies... nada. I know, I know... and I call myself a book lover...

  5. As I thought about a response to this, I found myself wondering if it mattered. Does an author have to be relevant for his or her work to be appreciated? That said, I think the fact that the Beeb and PBS are still churning out Dickens miniseries is evidence enough that the stories are superb and timeless.

  6. I agree that the BBC/PBS adaptations (and their source material)are both superb and timeless.

    It was interesting to me that in an unrelated discussion today at the writing center, Harry Potter came up and two well-educated tutors (one with an MA and the other working toward one) expressed the opinion that Harry Potter drew from James Frazer and Joseph Campbell in that order without either mentioning Dickens. I asked them both why not and one said that it "went without saying" while the other nodded.

    Perhaps what I see as him being ignored is simply a reflection of his ubiquity...


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