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Posts Tagged ‘Dickens’

Is it the choice of subject matter?  The genre?  The number of pages?  The use of big words?  Is a Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie book considered to be of a higher literary quality than Dan Brown or Stephanie Myer?  If so, why?

I heard an interview on the radio a few months ago with Jeffrey Archer and he described himself as a storyteller.  There’s an interview with Archer on The Browser website where he talks about 5 famous books.  It’s really interesting because in this article, as with the radio interview, he makes the point that Dickens isn’t considered a great writer, but a great storyteller, the same goes for Dumas.  It’s taken the French 200 years to recognise how good a novelist Dumas was.

So the question is this, in 100 years what books written from this current period will we consider classics?   What will they be reading in school?  Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice or Harry Potter?  Will students be studying Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Sebastian Faulks?  What makes these authors more worth studying than Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman or John Grisham?  The latter 3 authors have all won literary awards so aren’t they as good as the others?

I wrote an earlier post asking if we’re aver embarrassed by what we read and I concluded that we shouldn’t ever be embarrassed, as everyone likes something different.  But I do notice that if people ask me what I’ve been reading recently I sometimes will say ‘just some crime novels’ in a dismissive way.  But if I’ve been reading something that’s considered literature I’ll make a point of naming the author.  Is that really pretentious?  I don’t do it all the time – now I sound defensive!

It’s an interesting thought as I personally much prefer a good story to an award winning literary novel.  The Booker Prize long-list was released on 26 July and, not surprisingly, when I looked at the list I had read none of the books.  In fact, I haven’t read any from last year’s list either!  But I have read a huge number of works that are classified as literary classics.  I’ve read every Charles Dickens novel and they are considered classic works of literature – but when they were first published they were the Victorian equivalent of Eastenders!

So what’s the key difference between a literary effort and popular fiction?  Personally, I don’t know how to describe the difference other than in many cases a good story is easier to read.  People criticise Harry Potter and dismiss adults reading these books, but I would much rather see anyone of any age reading Harry Potter or Dan Brown than reading nothing at all.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read every Dickens, I’m a huge fan and I’ll highly recommend Dickens to anyone. But why should you read Dickens rather than James Patterson?  There’s no reason.  They’re both great story tellers, though one does take a few hours longer to read than the other!

Maybe one difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature is what we’re told we should read, like it’s good for us!  Who says so, some critic in the Guardian?  Why should they advise us on what we should read?  I think I’m pretty capable of deciding what I will and won’t read.  I enjoy reading reviews, they provide me with ideas of books I might be interested in reading.  But I certainly don’t choose the books I read based solely on reviews or award lists.  At the end of the day surely the sign of a good book is how enjoyable it is.  That’s the key point of reading, isn’t it?  I wouldn’t read over 100 books a year if I didn’t enjoy reading and I wouldn’t enjoy reading if there weren’t so many darn good stories out there!  So I say, stuff the critics and the awards lists stick with what’s enjoyable.  100 years from now, that’s what we’ll still be reading!

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If you were to ask me to name my favourite author my answer would probably differ depending on my mood, but I can guarantee that Dickens would consistently be in my top 5.  I’ve read and own practically everything he wrote but I don’t own a copy of Great Expectations and I’m not sure why.

It’s certainly not my favourite Dickens novel but then again Mansfield Park is my least favourite Jane Austen novel and I still own a copy.  I’ve not read Mansfield Park since I had to dissect it at school but I figure that someday I’ll be ready to face it again (it’s only been 15 years or so!) and I want a copy for when that day comes!  I’ve never read Les Miserables, but likewise I own a copy for the day when I’m ready to read it.  So why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?

I have read it and it was easy enough to read, though it wasn’t as enjoyable as David Copperfield or the Pickwick Papers.  It’s darker than either of those two books but it regularly appears in ‘must read’ lists and lists of favourite books.

I’ve often wondered if people name Great Expectations as their favourite Dickens novel because they think they should.  They think that there’s more depth to it than Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit.  I also wonder if, for many people, it’s the only Dickens they’ve ever read, and that was probably at school.  People think they know Oliver Twist because they’ve seen the film but I doubt that most of those viewers have actually read the book, which has much more depth and twists and turns than the film or the musical.  The BBC adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorrit received fantastic reviews and were watched by millions but how many of those viewers have read either book?

Is current awareness of Dickens due to word of mouth, school and TV adaptations rather than actual readership?  I wonder how many people have a copy of Great Expectations but don’t own any other Dickens novel?

Many people have told me that they find Dickens difficult to get in to, that the novels are too descriptive.  Perhaps that’s true to some extent.  But I think that with Dickens perseverance pays off.  For me Dickens is a master of evoking a time and place.  Think of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, I know this might not seem like an obvious comparison but bear with me.  Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels are huge (in size and readership)!  They’re full of detailed descriptions of locations, weapons and military paraphernalia and all that description brings a reality to the novels.  You can believe what he’s writing because he infuses his fiction with fact.  And Dickens was the same.

Dickens descriptions focus on society and environment; the time and place.  He evokes a society divided by class and his novels portray the true nature of poverty faced by many on a daily basis.  He wrote about a time and society that he was familiar with and understood, and it’s his passion with regard to highlighting the social conditions of the poor that often leads to the descriptive nature of his works.  He also uses comedy, satire and gross caricatures to get his point across and I believe this is what makes his work so enjoyable.  He may be trying to portray depravity and the harsh conditions of the lower classes but this darkness is infused with a lightness that keeps the reader engaged.  He’s not preaching about social conditions, he’s creating awareness through entertainment.

Dickens is a social commentator, just as many other authors before and since.  Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a great example of a satirical look at society.  George Orwell took a more realistic look in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) but also reverted to caricature in Animal Farm (1945).  Alan Sillitoe fictionalised working class life in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) but it’s very much based on the reality of life and social conditions during that time.  And just as Dickens, Swift and Orwell inserted lighter moments in their works, so did Sillitoe.

I think many people probably have the wrong idea about Dickens, they think they know what the books are about.  These novels have been around for years, and everyone has heard of Dickens and can name at least one novel.  But how many people would go into a library or bookshop and pick up a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop?  How many people think they know what happens in that novel?  How many people think they know what happens in Hard Times?  I think Dickens is misunderstood, not because people don’t understand what he writes but because people don’t actually read the novels but instead rely on what they think they know about the novels.

Obviously I’m making a lot of assumptions but it’s just my opinion.  And in my opinion a Dickens novel is a great read and I would encourage anyone to give one of his novels a go.  Stick with it and hopefully you’ll get the same enjoyment I have.

So now that I’ve raved about Dickens why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?  I am a huge fan, as you may have guessed, and I’ll happily sit and read Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby despite having read them numerous times already.  But if someone gave me a copy of Great Expectations I’d probably put it to one side and read something else.  So maybe it’s time to take my own advice and give it another go.  I guess that means I’d better go get a copy.

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