Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dickens is beyond modern kids? I beg to differ.

Today is Charles Dickens's 200th birthday.

Naturally, the world media is alight with stories relating to Charlie and his works and whether he's still relevant and so on and so forth. Likewise there's a lot of utter and complete nonsense flitting about, including the usual trumpeting of the downfall of civilization. In case you missed it, Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin in a BBC interview said: 
"Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that's a pity."
I hear this sort of stuff and nonsense all the time. Kids these days (with their shaggy hair and baggy clothes and loud rap music) just aren't able to follow the complex story lines and stay with a story the length of David Copperfield. To much TV, too many video games.

They rot your brain, you know.

To which I reply: Really? Have you ever seen a Harry Potter novel?

I'm going to give Ms Tomalin a pass on this one since she went on to say that the last time a truly Dickensian character caught the limelight was Basil Fawlty, bought memorably to life by John Cleese back in 1975. I think it's safe to assume that's when she stopped paying attention to such things because quite frankly, Harry Potter is David Copperfield with a magic wand.

But let's leave Harry and Ms Tomalin alone for a moment. Let's just talk about attention span and the ability to follow complex story lines.

There's a generational disconnect displayed here between people who see video games and TV as methods of storytelling and those who paint it with the same broad brush as brainless entertainment.

Tomalin's comments remind me of when movie critic Roger Ebert decided he needed to tell us all how he's not only never played a video game in his life, but also knew everything about them and could confidently predict their future development, I picked apart his argument on the basis of 'What constitutes art?' instead of 'What constitutes storytelling?' but he loses on both counts and so, I think, does Ms Tomalin.

Rather like dance has always freaked out the older generation who have conveniently forgotten how freaked out their parents were at the way that they danced, new avenues of storytelling continue to befuddle the generation whose preferred meme is getting replaced. Television has been doing this since its inception and video games have picked up where TV left off.

Video games are reaching a point where they are a storytelling medium in and of themselves. With plot twists and puzzles that would befuddle the likes of Ms. Tomalin or Mr. Ebert. The Uncharted series is interactive Indiana Jones. HALO is to Star Wars what Star Wars was to Flash Gordon. Each is the next iteration of our society's urge to tell stories and to immerse the listener/viewer in our tale.

These video games average more than 20 hours of focused gameplay. And they are played over and over again by their adherents.  Games like Skyrim are effectively infinite once you take into account all of the add-on quests and downloadable additional content.

Tell me again how people raised in the internet age cannot focus on an engaging story line for more than a few pages.

But what about books?

If I sat down and paged through the contact lists on my cell phone, I reckon that I could come up with a baker's dozen young ladies who have read every book Jane Austen ever wrote. In fact, if I got every daughter of every friend I have and forced them to confess to every book they've ever read, I would further propose that the pile would include (but not be limited to) the complete works of not only Austen, but also Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, JK Rowling, John Green, and yes, Stephenie Meyer.

Every copy would be well-thumbed. E-readers would have fingerprints on the screens, I suppose, but it amounts to the same thing.

Yes, Virginia, kids these days can concentrate long enough to endure longform fiction.

The real question is how do you choose to engage them in it?  By saying they're incapable and writing them off because their modes of storytelling are not the ones we're most comfortable with?  Or by engaging them in the stories that these authors have to tell?

One more quote from Ms Tomalin and I'll get back to what I really should be doing (writing a book).
"You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant - the great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt MPs, how the country is run by old Etonians, you name it, he said it."
Yes indeed. And don't you think that's a better approach than This is too complex for your minds, so pitifully addled as they are by modern culture? 


Other Posts you might like:
The Thing About Charlie: Is Dickens Still Relevant?: (Spoiler: Yes. He is.)
Video Games and the State of the Arts: Yes, Mr Ebert, video games do have the potential to be art.


  1. I always thought Argus Filch was straight out of a Dickens novel. And CD would have recognized the Dursleys immediately.
    I read "Oliver Twist" when I was 12 and "A Tale of Two Cities" at 14. Granted that was a long time ago, but tales of orphans and romantic derring-do are still being written and read.

  2. As one who is currently exhorting about 100 15-year-olds to wrestle through the early chapters of A Tale of Two Cities, I can testify that a) they are capable of reading it, and b) they are unused to the sustained effort of reading without great motivation. With Harry Potter, in addition to word of mouth from their friends who loved the series, many were undoubtedly brought in to the series by the films. They want to know they are going to like it before they put for the effort. All of their parents who respond, "Oh, I (vaguely)remember hating Dickens" don't help. I'm doing what I can for the bloodthirsty brutes, giving them graphic descriptions of what being hung, drawn and quartered entails and pointing out the courtroom chemistry between Lucie and Charles, and Lucie and Sidney, but it is indeed an uphill battle. I shall be victorious, however, because just enough of them are getting caught up in the story to infect the others. - Rebecca


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).