Eco, Chuckie D., who else?

hallieod at hallieod at
Tue Feb 11 14:19:56 EST 2003

This place sounds more like a sanitarium with every passing minute, 
so you'll forgive me if I interrupt the regularly scheduled 
programming with whimpers and moans, won't you? I've also cut out the 
light bantering to get to the real discussion of Dickens and all, 
just as my sitting at the keyboard stamina is very low. ;-)


>And anyway, most of the time "potboiler" means something nasty, so I'm not
>really going to defend the use of the term--just the concept, if that makes
>sense.  I.e. if you call something a potboiler, it has a literal meaning
>(unoriginal, full of cliches and reused images, a book grown from a template
>with only cosmetic changes from all the other potboilers) and a pejorative
>meaning; the name-calling is indefensible, but examining the literal meaning
>and how such a text connects to the literary tradition would be all right.
>I just don't know another term other than "popular novel," which is
>inaccurate because you can have a popular novel that isn't a potboiler.

Makes sense, I think, though that's closer to what I'd think of as a 
"hack" writer, while a potboiler (in my Oxford Dictionary at least) 
implies more the mercenary motive.  Not that I've any interest in 
arguing the definition, just saying what I understood by it.  On the 
definition you've given above, I think it would be hard enough to 
justify including Dickens - as he was quite original, and even 
innovatory in a lot of ways.  The mercenary bit is so subjective 
though, it's hard to get anywhere with it.  A woman in my tutorial 
group insisted that _The Color Purple_ was written only to cash in on 
the popularity of "Roots" on the telly, despite the fact that we'd 
read a lot of background material about how it was written.  She 
wouldn't even entertain any other possibility. I can't see calling 
TCP a potboiler somehow!

>>>Okay, seriously.  What's interesting to me about the way Dickens is
>>>perceived as a writer today is that there are so many divergent attitudes.
>>>Uneducated people just lump him in with all those old writers of classics
>>>and revere the name and the concept without ever reading his books--but
>>>among educated people there's this war about "yes he's great" and "no he's
>>>not" and what it comes down to is the fundamental assumptions you have about
>>>literary greatness and so forth.  So I think it's as valid to refer to
>>>Dickens as a mere writer of potboilers as it is to find his writing relevant
>>>today.  It's more revelatory than anything else, which stance you take.
>>That's interesting - I wonder if experience on this is slightly
>>different on the two sides of the Atlantic.  I think it would have
>>been hard for anyone of my generation over here to have managed not
>>to read at least one Dickens in school, which might do away with the
>>reverence-without-reading.  But our (University) Lit. courses  are so
>>focused on a more inclusive study of books which might have been
>  >dismissed as "mere potboilers" a lit crit generation or so ago (_The
>  >Woman in White_ and _Dracula_ being good examples) that I haven't
>  >seen any of the debate you mention.  Of course, this is only my
>>experience with the Open University, which is well-known as a
>>subversive bunch of radicals. ;-)
>Yeah, I'm so sure they were radicals before YOU showed up.  :)

Melissa, it started (as a radical institution) in the 60s!  Even I'm 
not quite that old... :-)

>It's actually less common in the actual university establishment than it is
>among educated readers talking amongst themselves.  I haven't had to read
>Dickens since high school, and I've been trying to remember if any of the
>English lit courses required his study...very likely one of the senior
>survey courses would have, but those are very fluid from semester to
>semester, depending on who's doing the teaching.
>The funny thing is, it never occurred to me until now that I went all the
>way through college without reading Dickens.  I wish I had noticed this at
>the time, because I would have been in a better position to ask about how he
>was perceived in the Establishment.

Well, I wish you had too!  For the sake of our sharing of those 
perceptions now.  FWIW, here's my extremely rough and ready take on 
the literary view in unis over here.  For years, I'd say Dickens, 
Hardy and even the Brontes were definitely considered second-raters, 
by the likes of Leavis, but others too.  (Started in the 19th 
Century, with James among others.)  Collins wasn't even considered. 
After the Realism-bashers, the whole notion of genre was 
reconsidered, and suddenly the elements of writing in Dickens, Hardy, 
Charlotte Bronte that had been considered so inferior (melodrama, use 
of popular cultural forms, Gothic etc,) were viewed much more 
appreciatively.  And writers like Collins, Stoker, Mary Shelley were 
being studied, right up there with the originally canonical ones like 
Jane Austen and Henry James.

>>I probably shouldn't even ask, but what do you think that finding
>>Dickens relevant to today reveals?  I almost can't imagine anyone not
>>finding a lot of what he writes relevant, though I can easily see
>>disliking his style.
>No, not relevant TO today, relevant TODAY.  As in, worth studying in itself
>as you would any other literature.

Why not??  Hope this doesn't cause you any flashbacks to the civil 
war (wasn't your college the one at serious battle-stations over the 
idea of the canon?). ;-)  Where would you draw the line?  I know you 
wouldn't really say that Dickens isn't worth studying because you 
don't like him, but I can't even imagine the argument.   Would he be 
rejected solely on the basis of his popularity or something else? 
And what would you do with all the big-name lit crits who've written 
about him?

>I mean that I can imagine reading
>Dickens in a university setting and taking him as seriously as, say, my pal
>Thomas Hardy, but I can also imagine someone taking the "he was a hack, but
>let's look at what made him so popular and compare it to the hacks of today"

But they said that about Hardy too!  Actually with fairly good 
reason, IF you consider there's good reason to say Dickens was a 
hack.  Admittedly, the person who wrote the section of our course on 
Hardy had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about the way Hardy had been 
dismissed - he also edited our Critical Reader so he managed to 
siphon the more critical (in the nasty sense) material our way.  But 
in terms of 19th C. novelists striving to satisfy audiences , and 
tailoring their work to a market, you could find evidence for many of 
them doing it, and certainly for Hardy as much as Dickens.

>>Lol.  I'd tend to suggest _Great Expectations_ if you want a
>>recommendation for whenever you get around to giving him one more
>>shot.  Not that I've read all of Dickens by any means, but GE is
>>probably my favourite of all the ones I've read.  And then we could
>>have a big old discussion about it! :-)
>Well, that's one of the ones I've read, so it might be interesting.  I've
>always wanted to read _The Old Curiosity Shop_ after reading Connie Willis's
>_Bellwether_, which refers to the mania that sprang up on both sides of the
>Atlantic over that book.

:-)  We studied _Dombey and Son_ last year, and the death of little 
Paul had exactly the same impact on the world as the death of Nell. 
One of my favourite stories was of Thackeray, who had _Vanity Fair_ 
being serialised at the same time as D&S.  He apparently stormed into 
the Punch office, and flung down the issue of the novel which had the 
death scene, and said that it was impossible to write against "such 
power as this - one has no chance!... It is stupendous."

Oh, ow ow ow.  (Forgot to moan about my cough.)  And I woke up at 3 
this morning feeling awful and thinking about Dickens.  Have you 
Proffitts ever thought of bottling "essence of Melissa" as a 
stimulant?  ;-)  (Cara came in at 3:30 feeling terrible again, so the 
night time sleep loss wasn't all your fault.)


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