To get you in the Christmas mood we’re celebrating Charles Dickens in this guest blog by Lynda Clark. Dickens visited Nottingham four times and stayed at the Mercure Hotel (formerly the George Hotel). His first visit was in August 1852 as an actor-manager of a group of amateur theatricals. Great Expectations, a new adaptation by Michael Eaton (author of Issue 3 of Dawn of the Unread) will be performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 4 March – 2 April 2016.
As a writer, it’s hard not to love Dickens. He was unpretentious about his craft and faced its challenges with self-deprecating humour. When he struggled with writer’s block during Little Dorrit he informed his editor, John Forster, that he found himself: “sitting down to do an immensity and getting up after doing nothing–walking about my room on particular bits of all the flowers in the carpet– tearing at my hair (which I can’t afford to do.)” Which sounds horribly familiar, although for me it’s more likely shouting abuse at my laptop rather than hair-tearing.
Critics levelled the same complaints at Dickens as popular modern writers like Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, one saying snootily: “Give a child a wooden horse… he will never be disturbed by the fact that the horse does not move” – if he was widely read, then of course, he couldn’t be actually any good, it was just that his readers were idiots, easily distracted by bright colours and movement like a baby or a cat. However, as Forster responded: “…his books are the test to judge by” and while I hadn’t heard of Lewes and his wooden horse analogy before looking into all this, I’d certainly heard of old Charlie. (Although Forster did say that after several pages wanging on about how wrong Mr Lewes was, so perhaps he wasn’t as confident Dickens’ books could stand on their own as he made out.)
As a reader, it’s hard not to love Dickens, too. The man went around writing things like: “He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favour of two” and “My guiding star always is, get hold of portable property.” Whether or not Lewes was right is immaterial. Dickens was hugely popular and his readings seem very unlike literary events today, even those involving the most popular authors. A Dickens reading had more in common with rock star meet and greets – rooms so packed his audience sat and laid around his feet, sharing the podium with him, crowds so raucous that his reps’ clothes were torn, their hats lost in the throng. He encouraged a sense of inclusion, wanting to move his audience, to make them feel part of his readings and did his best to ensure they laughed and cried along with him by reconfiguring his work, learning each extract, making a performance of it rather than reading drily from the page.
And it got me thinking, why don’t authors do that anymore? Some do interesting readings, sure, even fill out the main marquee at the Hay Festival. But where’s that back and forth, that sense of fun and intimacy? And then I watched this:
I’d read a couple of Limmy’s Daft Wee Stories when they were available on his website (They aren’t there now. Don’t visit if you’re easily offended) I found them interesting, funny and well-written and I particularly liked the way many of them linked back to little in-jokes and silly things he often said on his Twitter feed. A nice way of adding an extra layer of comedy for the fans. But I didn’t really think of them beyond that, because Limmy always has a ton of interlocking and overlapping projects on the go, from Vines to Let’s Plays to Photoshopping pictures of fans and Youtubing the results, and I enjoyed them all without giving one format precedence over another.
But watching Limmy after reading about Dickens drove home to me how similar their approaches to fiction actually were. Via Twitter, Limmy can include his fans as he creates, much as Dickens could via letters between instalments of his serials. I suspect Limmy takes slightly less notice than Dickens did, although when switching from weekly to monthly instalments, Dickens wrote a letter to his fans that essentially said: ‘This is happening, deal with it’, so perhaps they’re more alike than they initially appear…
In his live shows, by asking fans to shout out requests and shaping his readings to have a more conversational tone, Limmy’s creating the same kind of politely fired-up audience Dickens so enjoyed. No-one’s going to rush the stage, but they might shout out; “Do Dombey!” or laugh loud enough to distract the author from his reading.
Maybe we all need to engage more, to get a back and forth going, to remember that as readers and writers we are both recipients and creators of content, no matter how slight our role in the latter may be. And with social media at our fingertips, we can reach readers and writers globally without having to risk our health on long boat trips like Dickens did. We can write and read for and with the world. It’s a scary thought, but an exciting one.
Imagine that, all of us together, creating one big interactive…
Lynda Clark is the writer of several published short stories, videogames and a board game. She recently received the BBC award at the TCN Comedy WriterSlam for her script about household appliances. She’s currently working on a PhD in interactive narrative funded by M3C & AHRC.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.
- Lynda Clark’s website (wouldyouliketochangethedifficultysetting)
- Dickens at Work by John Butt & Kathleen Tillotson (questia.com)
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (online-literature.com)
- Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (gutenberg.org)
- The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster (lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp)
- Three Tales from Limmy’s Daft Wee Stories (scotsman.com)
- Michael Eaton on Charles Dickens (anttialanenfilmdiary.blogspot)