Paid by the word

Thursday July 17, 2008 @ 05:31 PM (UTC)

I’m beginning to get a little testy about this old saw that Dickens is overwordy “because he was paid by the word.” It was amusing when my dad teased me with it in high school; no more. Boz’s novels were being serialized; magazine fiction is still, overwhelmingly, paid by the word. If the system is so flawed, then by rights these kvetchers must also hate all magazine story-writers from Asimov to Zelazny. I shudder to think what they must think of Dumas, who Umberto Eco informs me was paid by the line.

In short, Dickens is Dickens. Florid, earnest, wordy, absurd, circumlocutory Boz, essentially and eternally himself. If you don’t like him, don’t seek beyond the truth: you don’t like Dickens. Why don’t you read some Hemingway instead?


is much, much, ever so much more, fun to read than Dickens! There, I said it. I hate Dickens! (Snaps glove off, flings it to the floor, trounces off…)

I love some really wordy writers, such as AS Byatt, who writes like she’s being payed by the letter…so, I think it’s just Dickens.

Hemingway has…points. I haven’t read any of his novels, so I suppose that’s all I can really say.

The point is not whether I like Hemingway or not, however. The point is that others, accustomed to attributing their dislike of Dickens to economic factors, do as you have bravely done, and just admit they don’t like Dickens.

Even my father has stopped using that tag about paid by the word, since the last time he said it I said, “Dad, SO AM I.”

For shame, not reading any Hemingway novels! I’ve read at least six of Dickens horrible books! You’ve got to at least read one of Hemingway :) My recommendation is the one I read back when I was a pre-teen hanging out at my grandmother’s house – The Sun Also Rises. Ashley Brett is the best female character Hemingway ever created.

But it wasn’t so much that Dickens was paid by the word, but that he was serialized – encouraged to make the darn things go on forever, like Days of Our Lives, that really corrupted his work. I mean, he could really have used a good editor with a red pen.

I have 133 books on my Goodreads ‘to-read’ list, so it might be a while ;p

But you’ll note how I refrained from the trashtalking and implored Dickens-haters to just state it as an aesthetic preference. I didn’t say anything like “Hemingway reads as if he smacked every page with his penis after he typed it just to make sure the reader knows he’s A MAN.” or use any inflammatory adjectives like ‘horrible’. I don’t say these things, for I am on the side of decorum.

Seriously though, perhaps the mechanism by which Dickens’s fiction was transmitted to the public affected his writing; perhaps it didn’t. Maybe the fact that Hemingway’s mom dressed him in girl’s clothing as a child affected his writing; maybe it didn’t. But fundamentally, the reader is reacting to the writing, not to the factors which may or may not have affected it. It seems to me that Dickens-dislikers have spent a lot of time over the years theorizing on why Dickens is Dickens, instead of just saying they dislike him, or describing the wordiness they dislike in detail.

It would make more sense if it were a minority opinion and they felt they had to preemptively defend themselves; but I find a majority of people, even a majority of English majors, dislike Dickens. I was the only English major in my Senior Seminar who liked him. So I don’t see a mob with torches assembling if you just say you don’t like Dickens. Based on his short stories, I don’t like Hemingway. (Although I learned things from picking one apart.) If a mob assembles, I hope Charles Xavier rescues me from my fate.

P.S. I also write serials. Although no one pays me.

P.S.2. If anyone wants to pay me to write serials, I do accept money, chocolate, and Powell’s giftcards.

I think he does a much better job with his longer forms than his shorter forms. It’s no excuse for not reading him! I mean, honestly, it’s Hemingway, it’s not like it takes ten weeks to read his books. Especially The Sun Also Rises. Ignore anything you’re read about Hemingway and just read the book. It’s still one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever read. Read that book! It’s messed up, in a good way.

You know who is becoming unpopular now that used to be on everyone’s “must read” list? Steinbeck. Now, there’s a guy whose short stories were much better than his novels. Dickens and Steinbeck were on the same train to preachy-town. But his writing, especially in his short stories, still holds up, I think.

Dickens at his best bears a striking resemblance to Fanthorpe at his worst:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. -Charles Dickens

Beyond the sea a coastline, Greek coastline. Rugged, rocky, tortuous. A coastline as strong and as forthright as the nation who lived beyond it. The brilliant cunning of the Greek mind-as twisted as the inlets of their coastline, with its promontories, its peninsulas and its gulfs. Beyond the coastline fields. Cultivated fields; beyond the fields, mountains-high, forbidding, frightening, dangerous, and in the fields and the mountains, men . . . Men in the cities too. Men in the cities and in the towns. Men of Athens, men of Corinth, men of Medara, men of the Peloponnesus, men of the great northern mainland, men of Naxos, men of the islands, men of Greece. Farmers, artificers, craftsmen, sailors, politicians, democrats, oligarchs, tyrants; living together in a great tangled heap of humanity. A heap of humanity that led the world in its own time, and whose influence extended for five millennia into the future. The World of ancient Greece. A world of gladness and beauty. A world of pain, and savagery, and death. A world very much like our own, a mixed world, a perplexing world. A world in which everything was different except basic human emotions. A world where there were secrets. -R. Lionel Fanthorpe

Steinbeck’s still popular in our MFA program, I think…wasn’t it Of Mice and Men that YOU KNOW WHO read from as an example of “bad description” and you could feel the silence in the room gel like coagulating blood?

I’m not familiar with this Fanthorpe, and am obviously Dickens-partial, but I find Dickens’ excerpt much, much better. To my eye, the anaphora serves a useful (and, as the presence of Boz’s detractors on this very blog attest, quite risky) dual purpose of showing the fog’s omnipresence and, through repetition, how the fog wears on those who experience it. When I read that, I imagine a dramatic reading by Patrick Stewart in which the word fog acquires a more and more exasperated ring. Also, fog by its nature penetrates and unites the experiences of many people, allowing the anaphora to create many tiny scenes, which light up as briefly as a match and show us, for a moment, a life. Whereas I feel that I learn very little from the ‘men’ anaphora in the Fanthorpe snippet; the names of the places could be considered evocative, but I feel they add little to my understanding of the place. Most of the emotion and information seems to be carried in the second anaphora, the ‘world’ one, which is less unusual, presenting fairly standard thoughts on the ancient world.

Of course, I freely admit to loving Dickens. And we few, being few, must fight all the more pugnaciously! Dickens has real music. It may not be solely as a result of owning a recording of the Patrick Stewart one-man Christmas Carol that I imagined that paragraph read aloud. If anyone thinks my arguments above so much sophistry, I challenge them to, as I have just done, read the excerpts aloud (you may wish to retire to a private location first to avoid censure or mockery). There is a rolling, sonorous music, a rhythm and beauty, to Dickens’s prose. And if some find it has too many notes, then so be it.

Oh, I love Dickens, too. But I also love Lionel Fanthorpe, albeit for different reasons. If it’s still around, “Down the Badger Hole” by Debbie Cross collects some of the best/or worst of his 160 pulp novels for Badger SF series.

And, yes, the fog tells us much about what’s happening in the now of the novel. But there are also another 900 pages that tell us more, and I do not believe this passage would have survived had the book not been serialized.

I wonder if that’s why his novels work so well as audiobooks…not only do you get to really appreciate the music, but it takes longer to listen than to read, so perhaps the reminders are welcome….

The real problem with the “paid by the word” saw is that for most of his work Charles had his own publishing company. Which means he effectively had to pay more if he used more words than a given story or chapter needed.

Also: not intended to be read in one sitting, or even in one month. These were serials, sold a few chapters at a time. Bleak House is a crazy 2-week read if you do it like the English profs suggest, but 3 chapters at a time, each month for a couple years makes a much more digestible story. And one where you want the extra descriptions so you can mull over them for a while.

Ooh! I’ve skimmed his Wikipedia article but missed that. Great call.

I think that Charles dickens shouldn’t be hated as much as you do just for the reason of how he writes. And in no way should you ever compare Dickens to another author because it is as impossible as Dividing by zero.

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