Actually, I’m pretty sure Dickens was a fan of jam.
I am still here, fully ensconced in a strange world where everyone chuckles appreciatively at a reference to eating one’s own head and the biggest daily obstacle is that someone’s using a Norton edition when everyone else is using a Penguin. (The Norton, of course, was taken from the later completed novel editions, while the Penguin comes from the earlier serial edition first published in Bentley’s Miscellany. What, you didn’t realize how different they were? Oh ho, you’re in for a treat.)
It’s hard to think about anything other than Dickens, frankly – a trap this person clearly fell victim to while registering his or her car. Occasionally I get flashes of TV or new media -related ideas, among them, “Were Dickens’ sketches the YouTube videos of his day?”, “What is it we like about really long stories if it’s not plot?”, and, “If his insistence on repeated public readings of the most violent scene in his corpus, the scene in Oliver Twist when Sikes murders Nancy, did indeed contribute to Dickens’ premature death (as was argued by a lecturer this morning), do we need to worry about the health of such TV violence aficionados as the Davids Chase, Milch, or Simon?” (Answers: Yes, hmm, and I hope not.)
At the moment, though, television looks like a far-off vision of the future when seen from a world emphasizing daily Victorian teas and frequent discussion of the New Poor Law. Better luck tomorrow.
I’ve written in the past about a peculiarly strong affiliation TV writers have claimed with nineteenth-century novels, and especially with Charles Dickens, and the many qualities of his work that are useful for people who think about television today – Dickens’ serial publishing, his focus on urban spaces, his melodrama, his intricately woven plots. It’s something I have continued to muse about over the past several months, and it’s a topic I feel especially drawn to expound on this week. Because I am at Dickens Universe.
Yes, Dickens Universe, a week-long Dickens-themed conference/workshop/summer camp/party held at UC Santa Cruz every year, and featuring lectures from Dickens scholars, seminars for graduate students and members of the general public, workshops on writing, pedagogy, and presentation skills, and nightly parties with themed cocktails that coordinate with the current year’s primary text. (This year: Oliver Twist and Sketches by Boz. Last night’s drink: Nancy’s Heart of Goldschlager cocktails.) It’s an unusual space for academics, something that combines graduate student development opportunities with a forum for peer feedback, and then adds in the nearly unheard of element of presenting one’s ideas to an audience outside of the academy. It’s pretty great, really, and not just because each day’s schedule includes two coffee breaks, a Victorian tea, post-prandial potations (yes, really), and the aforementioned nightly party.
I came to Dickens Universe well aware that ol’ Charlie has been actively re-appropriated in the world of television as a father of intellectually respectable mass entertainment of a form not unlike Lost or Deadwood or Damages or [insert multi-plot serialized show here]. I was also aware that from what I’ve found, most references to television’s nineteenth-century analogues have been whittled down to just one authorial figure, a jovial Dickens perched in the background of today’s television landscape. Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, or Thomas Hardy are nowhere to be seen, much less Balzac or Flaubert. What I have been surprised to discover is that at least colloquially, many Dickens scholars have performed the same kind of singular appropriation, only in reverse.
Where interviews and critical pieces about television reference Dickens over and over, Dickens scholars reference one show – The Wire – with similar fervor. I’ll admit, some of this is at least prompted by me. “I work on television,” I say, and the near-unanimous response is “The Wire!” But I hasten to add that it would certainly be here whether or not I were here, frequently bringing up TV. On the Universe’s first full day, graduate students and faculty got into small groups to brainstorm teaching ideas about Oliver Twist, and when we reported back to the big group, we ended with a giant list of possible avenues for further discussion. We had the novel as a form, affect theory, Dickens as a social reformer, caricatures and characterization, thingness in Oliver Twist, Oliver as the novel’s vacant center, negative depictions of marriage, etc. etc. etc., and as a suggestion from one of the groups, The Wire. In connection with Oliver Twist, they mentioned that season four might be particularly relevant.
It is particularly relevant, of course, but so would a discussion of melodrama, serialization, violence, audience, and any number of other things about television more generally. Right now, though, I find the selection of that singular touchstone show to be sort of satisfying. Television seems to have picked Dickens, and in turn, Dickens scholars have picked The Wire. Even if it’s somewhat unfair on both sides, the symmetry is too pleasing to pass up.
So Friday’s blog post was not a List of Giant Things entry in the sense that I’ve usually been doing them, but it was a collection of quotes on an issue that’s closely related to that list. The quotes deserve a little additional commentary, which I was going to do yesterday, but Treme interfered. For now, then, back to Charles Dickens, Father of TV.
As I indicated in a comment on that post, one of the most important things to think about that little collection is how many of those quotes misread Dickens, or use him in an extremely limited way. I have a list here that covers some of the primary contexts in which Dickens appears when related to television, but there’s a lot about his work that does not have much impact on the commentary. (For instance: his frustratingly narrow depiction of most of his female characters, his astonishing prolificacy, his presence as a public performer, his role as an editor, his impact on social reform, etc. etc.)
This ended up being sort of absurdly long, so it’s going after a break. Join me for some TV-pertinent iterations of Charles Dickens:
“One of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one-chapter segments from the newspaper, so that’s why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We’re doing obviously the same thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people’s lives come together, and it’s a very fun way to tell stories”
- Tim Kring, creator of Heroes
Carlton Cuse: [Dickens]’s getting a lot of play on Lost, isn’t he?
Damon Lindelof: He is indeed. He’s a favorite writer of ours. He wrote serialized stories just like we did. He was accused of making it up as he went along, just like we are.
Cuse: That’s right…he didn’t even have a word processor.
Cuse: And Charles Dickens was also a wonderful inspiration, because here he was, writing these great, wonderful, sprawling, serialized books…
Lindelof: Also, Dickens, the master of coincidence. Y’know… his stories always hinged on the idea of interconnectedness… in a very strange an inexplicable way.
- Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, producers of Lost
I found it kind of ironic that in season 5 there are a few really great scenes where you’re mocking the editors of newspapers who are asking for a Dickensian vibe, and then a lot of critics and writers compared The Wire to Dickens.
It was fun goofing on the Dickens comparison because I understood what they meant by Dickensian when they said it. You get this sort of scope of society through the classes, the way Dickens would play with that in his novels. But that’s true of Tolstoy’s Moscow. That’s true of Balzac’s Paris. It’s been done a lot in a lot of different places by a lot of writers. And I’m not the one doing the comparing. I’m just saying if you use those tropes you can go to a lot of places other than Dickens. The thing that made me laugh about it with Dickens was that Dickens is famous for being passionate about showing you the fault lines of industrial England and where money and power route themselves away from the poor. He would make the case for a much better social compact than existed in Victorian England, but then his verdict would always be, “But thank God a nice old uncle or this heroic lawyer is going to make things better.” In the end, the guy would punk out.
Now that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great writer and they’re not great stories. They are. But The Wire was actually making a different argument than Dickens, and the comparison, while flattering, sort of fell badly on us.
- Vice interview with David Simon, creator of The Wire
It’s a leap of faith doing any serialised storytelling. We had an idea early on, but certain things we thought would work well didn’t. We couldn’t have told you which characters would be in which seasons. We couldn’t tell you who would even survive…You feel that electricity. It’s almost like live TV. We don’t quite know what might happen. I’m sure when Charles Dickens was writing, he had a sense of where he was going – but he would make adjustments as he went along. You jump into it, knowing there’s something great out there to find.”
- J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias, Lost, Fringe
“[Shows like Damages are] like Dickens for the 21st century.”
- Glenn Close, actress on Damages
“[The Sopranos] has a novelistic sweep… Each character is defined multidimensionally. Instead of going back to drama’s theater roots, as TV did in the 1950s, it employs many of the techniques of, say, Charles Dickens and revitalizes them. This has been an interior journey from the beginning. Viewers took that trip with a bona fide sociopath, defying television’s time-honored prohibition against unlikable protagonists. In that regard, (creator/executive producer David Chase) created perhaps the darkest series of all time.”
- Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media
Several critics have commented on The Wire‘s “literary” quality. In particular, The Wire has echoes of the Victorian social panorama of Charles Dickens (who gets a mention this season, as an obscene anatomical reference). The drama repeatedly cuts from the top of Baltimore’s social structure to its bottom, from political fund-raisers in the white suburbs to the subterranean squat of a homeless junkie. As with Dickens, the excitement builds as the densely woven plot unfolds in addicting installments. The deeper connection to Dickens’ London is the program’s animating fury at the way a society robs children of their childhood. In our civilized age, we do not send 12-year-olds to work in blacking factories as the Victorians did. Today’s David Copperfield is instead warehoused at a dysfunctional school until he’s ready to sling drugs on the corner, where his odds of survival are even slimmer.
- Slate’s Jacob Weisberg
Driver: [as the coach races down the road after the hearse] Everything in order, Mr. Dickens?
Charles Dickens: No it is not!
The Doctor: What did he say?
Charles Dickens: Let me say this first. I’m not without a sense of humor…
The Doctor: Dickens?
Charles Dickens: Yes?
The Doctor: Charles Dickens?
Charles Dickens: Yes.
The Doctor: The Charles Dickens?
Driver: Shall I remove the gentleman, Sir?
The Doctor: Charles Dickens. You’re brilliant you are! Completely one hundred per cent brilliant. I’ve read them all. “Great Expectations”, “Oliver Twist”, and whats the other one? The one with the ghost?
Charles Dickens: “A Christmas Carol”?
The Doctor: No, no, no. The one with the trains. “The Signalman”. That’s it. Terrifying, The best short story ever written! You’re a genius!
Driver: You want me to get rid of him, Sir?
Charles Dickens: No, I think he can stay.
- Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead”
Master Sergeant: Set of keys; one pocket watch, gold plated; one photograph; one book, Our Mutual Friend. Why didn’t you bring that inside?
Desmond: To avoid temptation, brother. I’ve read everything Mr. Charles Dickens has ever written – every wonderful word. Every book except this one. I’m saving it so it will be the last thing I ever read before I die.
- Lost, “Live Together, Die Alone”