I apologize for the lack of posts; this past week has been quite busy and I've not been on the computer much.
Dickens is the kind of writer who must either be loved or hated. Readers either see him as brilliant and witty or dull and tedious, and there are elements of his style which support both views; it doesn't help, for instance, that he was paid by the word and that he was in constant need of money. In addition to the length of his novels, they deal with very dismal themes - not the kind of light reading you want for a rainy day. In fact, until I began watching the Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of his works, I did not realize that Dickens' novels were concerned with anything but starving orphans, a misconception which I am sure is shared by many others. Dickens is simply not appreciated by the majority of readers nowadays.
A few weeks ago I finished reading Little Dorrit, one of Dickens' less familiar novels, although it has become more well known since the release of the BBC production starring Claire Foy and Matthew Macfadyen. Although we had long owned an older production of David Copperfield, the Little Dorrit mini-series was my family's introduction to the world of Dickens adaptations, and my introduction to Dickens as something more than a boring and dismal writer. It had intrigue. And romance. And wit. And - and color! I was startled and pleased, and began to take an interest in reading more of his books than I had hitherto.
I had read A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers before, but though I enjoyed both, I did not fully appreciate them. After watching a slew of Dickens adaptations I picked up Martin Chuzzlewit, not being in the mood for one of his more popular and more dismal novels, like Oliver Twist, and learned to appreciate his writing. Then, as I already mentioned, I just recently completed Little Dorrit and found it fantastic.
I am no literary expert, and so I do not intend to go to great lengths to talk about the minutiae of Dickens' style and his expert use of adverbs or some such silliness. But I would like to do my bit to set aside the idea that Dickens oughtn't be a classic or that his stories have no life. While it is true that he tended toward wordiness, it is amazing how much wit and truth he put in those "useless" words - proving that, while less may be more, it does not necessarily follow that more is nothing. (Chew on that conundrum for a bit.)
Many, if not all, of Dickens' novels have a high moral tone and a heavy political criticism, but unlike most modern novels - and, no doubt, many of his own era - he succeeds in keeping the reader engaged even through long chapters on the Circumlocution Office by his tongue-in-cheek narration. Although he is essentially satirizing the British government and there is no action, he makes up for it with humor and shows a little later that some detail on the Circumlocution Office was necessary for the storyline. I do not suggest using this as license to run to great lengths with backstory and description, but I believe a little such spice would not go amiss. Writing gurus today are so adamant about chopping words and never having any sentence that does not move the plot along that, judging from the sizes of paragraphs in modern novels, writers seem afraid of exceeding three or four sentences in each. So the moral of this story is not to be flowery merely for the sake of being flowery (unless you're getting paid by the word, in which case, have at it), but not to be scared using too many words.
Another thing for which Dickens ought always to be regarded as a classic is his skill in crafting characters. I have seen many books around on "crafting characters" and "creating the perfect character" and "eliminating every cliche that ever existed from your main character"; but I really have no idea why such works are needed when we have Dickens novels. In his books he displays a variety of characters such as I have never seen in any other author's work, and characters who exemplify such extremes and yet also come across as unquestionably realistic. His main characters, indeed, are not so much this way as his supporting characters are; in Little Dorrit, the titular character narrated a relatively small proportion of the book. Throughout the novel she is a quiet, retiring young woman who hardly stands out at all, but is made remarkable in her silent virtue by the characters who surround her - her petulant father, her ne'er-do-well brother, her proud sister, and the hard and self-righteous Mrs. Clennam. Arthur Clennam, the narrator of most of the story, is a kindhearted man with a desire to do right, but again, he is not remarkable in the way the minor characters are.
Little Dorrit alone provides a plethora of fantastic minor characters. There is Fanny Dorrit, the main character's proud sister who is given to outbursts of temper followed by outbursts of tears and cries of "I wish I was dead!" There is good-natured Mrs. Plornish, who believes she can speak Italian and always has to "translate" for the Italian Cavaletto (who can communicate in English). There is Maggy, the orphan girl who had a fever when she was ten and has never gotten any older since. There is the whole cast of characters who make up the Circumlocution Office, particularly Barnacle Junior with his eyeglass-woes. And then there is my personal favorite: Mr. Pancks, the grubby rent-collector who is disliked by the population of Bleeding Heart Yard, while his hypocritical employer is beloved by all. Pancks is described as the Tug - always puffing and snorting and going along at a great rate, chugging into 'dock', towing the 'ship' (his employer) around.
Those are just a few of the outrageous characters who populate Dickens' novels. Most writer's minor characters appear to serve a plot point and then slip into oblivion, but with Dickens, everyone is made to stand out no matter how slight his role is. Just about any of his stories will provide a writer with a lesson in minor characters and how they make a story move - and that is the genius of Dickens.