If Dickens Were Alive Today, He Would Be Me

A few people have linked to an article in The Guardian about genre ghettos and the Booker Prize. There are plenty of things to argue with in the article, and I'm only going to attack one right now, because it's something I've heard from all sorts of people over the years (and certainly not just people trying to defend the honor of genre writers).

To say, "If Dickens were alive today, he would write soap operas," is nonsense, not because it's unlikely, but because if Dickens wrote soap operas, he wouldn't be Dickens. Dickens wrote lots of things, but we remember him for his novels. If he didn't write novels, he would have been doing something very different from what the entity we celebrate as Dickens did. What Dickens did was expand and exploit the possibilities of the novel. Change that, and you change everything. A truly great writer's greatness depends on an unlikely convergence of many different qualities, and the greatness usually comes from the writer finding the perfect form and style of expression for what is expressed.

Would Shakespeare be a screenwriter if he were alive today? Maybe. Probably. He liked making money and suing people, so I'm sure he'd find Hollywood more appealing than many other places. His scripts would have been chopped up, put through development hell, and rendered "accessible to a wide audience". Nobody but film buffs would know his name. And what he wrote probably really would have been closer to Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter than anything else, because screenplays don't have much room for poetry. In other words, he wouldn't be Shakespeare-the-greatest-writer-in-English writing screenplays, he'd be some guy named Bill Shakespeare with a nice house in Beverly Hills.

Yes, Shakespeare and Dickens wrote popular art. So did Mary Johnston, Harold Bell Wright, Gertrude Atherton, Mika Waltari, and Henry Morton Robinson. Defenders of genre writing need to whine less and spend more time arguing the specific merits of whatever writing they are proclaiming to be masterpieces. Or they need to stop caring what the literary world they so dislike thinks of them, because in my experience, it's the genre-only readers who are more ignorant and disdainful of the world of mainstream fiction than vice versa.


  1. Oh, but wanking about how much litfic sucks is so much easier!

    Man, you make everything hard.

  2. I know, and it's a wank I like myself at times, but, yknow...

    And I do think in some ways they've got a case, which is why I wish they'd make it better. To take just one example, it's odd that Harrison's Light didn't at least make the Booker longlist. (Unless it did. I haven't checked, but I think I'd remember if it had.) (And if I knew the mystery field better, I could also point out some of those.) Like it or not, the burden of proof is on the side of people who maintain that there are genre novels that are as good as mainstream novels, but it's not an impossible burden to meet. In fact, it gets easier and easier to do.

    On the other hand, there are reasons to ignore the whole literary establishment altogether. But I think I'm going to save all this for another Strange Horizons column....

  3. I agree exactly. I was just talking over at Vandermeer's blog about the same thing. He had interviewed a book publishing house, publishing a genre antho attempting literary ideals.

    All well and good, but then he went on a tirade and started name dropping those "literary genre writer" names we've all heard a thousand times (Orwell, Borges, etc) and I was rolling my eyes.

    The sad thing is that the literary world pushes this idea. I was getting into an argument with some postmodern writers I met about genre and fantasy. They argued it was escapism and pop crap. Genre garbage.

    I hated myself for saying it, but I said the name Borges and they all nodded in agreement that his fantasy was allright, and it it was like Borges it was good.

    Which is just bullshit.

  4. Well, my latest SH column invokes Borges, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka, so I'm not entirely on the same page with you, Paul. Those are three of my major touchstones for what fiction can accomplish. At the same time, I recognize that most SF writers are not aiming to be in that company, but rather are working from a different set of values. If that's the case, then there's no point in judging them as if they're trying to be Borges, Dostoyevsky, Kafka. But then to whine and complain that you're not being accorded the standards of the most literary of literatures doesn't make much sense. Some SF can be judged against those standards, but most can't, and probably shouldn't be, because the writers are working within a set of standards created by Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Tiptree, Gibson, etc. I don't sit down and read most SF novels and wonder if they can compete with Dostoyevsky; to some extent, I do wonder that about every literary novel I read, because that's the tradition the writers are working out of, so that's what I set them up against in my mind (or Turgenev or Faulkner or, for short stories, Alice Munro). Not that there's any shame for a book to seem good, but not as good as Faulkner. (Faulkner sometimes wasn't as good as Faulkner.)

  5. That is a very excellent point. One I had not considered.

  6. I just read your article, and see how our points differ. I guess i didn't really delve into what I was saying.

    What I meant was, I was sick of people name dropping certain writers in order to give credence to the field. Most people who drop these names don't even read the names they drop, but understand that by dropping them they can get respect from the "literary field".

    I do think it's a great thing that there is a sort of resurgance in fantastic writing that holds itself to literary standards. I feel that in the future, more and more writers will try and move out of the ghetto and try to bring the themes, stylaziations and wonderful writing of The Brother's Karamazov or As I lay Dying into a fantastical mold.

  7. Paul:

    I just think that even if an editor's manifesto is questionable, the antho engendered by it can still be valuable.


  8. To be fair to Peter Preston, who penned the Guardian article in question, he is actually quoting Andrew Davies, a Dickens-to-TV adaptor, about Dickens writing soap operas 'if he were alive today' (which seems like a likely sort of thing for a Dickens-to-TV adaptor to say). Preston also says that it is a 'fantasy debate' with a 'deeper point', ie. what makes genres inferior in the eyes of the 'literary' world and specifically of the Booker judges?

    Preston himself seems to think that Dickens - if he were alive today, of course - would be more likely to write gritty crime dramas a la Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane. Which, you could argue, is what Dickens did a lot of the time anyway when he was actually alive. Drop Sykes into a Rebus novel and no one would bat an eyelid. So that doesn't seem too far off the mark, taking into account that the whole debate is fantasy anyway...

    And from the point of view of SF, Preston seems to agree with Rankin, that SF is 'dealing with some of the biggest ideas, where we are going to go as a race - but for some reason it's not taken seriously'.

    So, that's my two pence worth: Preston, usually a very 'Literary' man, is actually defending genre, and so probably doesn't deserve to be attacked at all. (Not by Us, anyway. Only by Them.)

    Apart from that, I agree with Matthew - that by and large 'it's the genre-only readers who are more ignorant and disdainful of the world of mainstream fiction than vice versa'. Which is why I always like to mix a little Nabokov with my Moorcock. I mean, don't we all..?


  9. I just think that even if an editor's manifesto is questionable, the antho engendered by it can still be valuable.

    No doubt. No doubt at all. I plan on picking up that antho when I have some spare change. Veniss Underground comes first, of course. (wink, wink)I guess I just have a problem with manifestoes in general and idealism.

    Maybe it's the petty cynical existentialist in me. I dunno.

    Dickens - if he were alive today, of course - would be more likely to write gritty crime dramas a la Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane.

    And if Aeschylus were alive today, he'd be writing courtroom dramas for Law and Order.

  10. Matt, nothing much profound to add, just wanted to say I agree with you. Well said.

  11. There's a pretty good argument, actually, for caling Dostoyevsky a genre writer. The Double is straight-up fantasy and Crime and Punishment a detective story, just one told from the POV of the perp.

    The genre/mainstream division is obviously anachronistic looking at 19th c. Russian lit but I think it also just doesn't apply to Russian literary consciousness in general. Edgar Allen Poe is considered a mainstream canonical writer over there. And just about every Russian canonical writer from Pushkin onward has written fantastic literature of one sort or another, though those don't tend to get taught in this country (USA) as often. I had a Russian language asst. in college, a Soviet literary exile type whose bent was fantastic lit, so that's what we read. Then you get into the 20th century and the Soviet era, where the list of great canonical novels includes We and Master and Margarita. These aren't exceptions admitted into the canon like Borges; they're straight-up mainstream.

    There is a distinct Russian genre called nauchnyi fantastik, science fiction, where the Strugatsky brothers belong. I don't know that We would be classified as such.

    As someone who has intermittently read a fair amount of the canon (and who has large gaps as well), I'd agree that more people in the genre community should read outside of it. But as a genre writer with literary aspirations I also experience the ghetto with considerably frequency.

    One other thought: there was that Atlantic article a few years back (in the same issue as the Mark Twain story) about, among other things, the change in attitudes over the 20th century as to what is accepted as good writing, and the possibility of popular writers (Somerset Maughm was given as an example) winning major literary prizes (he did, would not now). Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain and Dickens wrote to make a living, and they wanted as many readers as they could get. I suspect (albeit from the wrong side of the ghetto wall) that storytelling prowess is not now considered a significant literary quality by the juries who award the Booker, or most other such prizes.

  12. I'm not sure how much it helps either Dostoyevsky or the mystery genre to label him as such, except to point out that just because a story involves a crime and investigation, that doesn't limit it to being only one sort of book. Actually, in some circles that's a revolutionary statement, though one that fits SF/fantasy even better -- just because a book includes space ships or elves doesn't limit it to being only escapism (or whatever pejorative term happens to be popular).

  13. Oh, and as for attacking Preston -- I don't have feelings about him one way or another, just the article, which I think is, on the whole, pretty bad, regardless of whether there are points I'd agree with.

  14. Judith Berman10/20/2005 2:52 PM

    I'm not sure how much it helps either Dostoyevsky or the mystery genre to label him as such

    Well, I think this is something pretty deeply wrapped up with Dostoevsky's intention (prestupleniye, transgression, is not just part of the title but it's what Raskolnikov was up to). I would say C&P is not a mystery so much as a detective story, perhaps a slight distinction--but meaning by the latter focusing less on the whodunit aspect (never in question in C&P anyway) and more on repairing the injury to moral order that has been inflicted. Again, that reparation (nakazaniye, penalty) is both the other half of the title and a fundamental part of the narrative structure, Raskolnikov's moral journey.

    But I'd agree that a book doesn't have to be just one thing, and probably the better the book the more that's true.


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