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.