CLAIRE TOMALIN, PHILIP HENSHER, TOBY LITT, DENISE MINA, JOHN BURNSIDE, LOUISE DOUGHTY, DAVID NICHOLLS. Chair: JOHN MULLAN.
Friday, 2.30pm, and the windows of the Bertelsmann lecture hall are being brought to, having let out some of the morning’s accumulated heat while pea soup (thin) and baskets of bread (various), trays of chicken stew and vanilla cubes with a chocolate coxcomb have been consumed: fuel for the great debate.
Sheets for the author workshops are laid out on a table at the back of the seminar hall – the most popular belonging to John Burnside and David Nicholls, but perhaps that’ll change by the end of the afternoon. The authors are now being wired up for the debate. John Mullan opens with a direct answer to the question:
John Mullan: He’d write brilliant literary novels that also have a plot; he’d mix up sentiment and grotesque tragedy in a way that novelists don’t do any more. So it doesn’t say something about what’s wonderful about Dickens but what’s rare to find in fiction/TV.
Toby Litt: What strikes me is how weird he is on every level. It’s strange that he’s not Russian after Gogol…Today he would have to not be predictable. His core social mission was to change things through writing prose – I don’t think he would have that mission in prose, I don’t think he would feel he was doing enough good in prose fiction.
Louise Doughty: He would. His social manifesto was a post-fact justification for his obsession with language. The language is much more important than the social agenda.
David Nicholls: I think soap opera degrades TV drama in its sheer drama, the endless weddings going wrong, the clichés. Nothing is mundane in Dickens. There are overlaps – there’s a tradition of larger than life characters in sit com too – look at the link between Micawber and Delboy.
Philip Hensher: He would be torn today in a way that he wasn’t in the 19th century. Now he would have to make a choice between what reaches the largest audience, and the medium that enables the richest expression.
JM: His literary status mattered to him; that’s the reason he wouldn’t do soap operas.
LD: He had a passionate desire to see his readers face to face.
Claire Tomalin: But during his readings he was in complete control of everything – red curtains, lighting – now with anything to do with TV, the people in control are lunatics… Fawlty Towers is the Dickens masterpiece of our TV age.
JM: Contemporary novels which are taught by my academic colleagues are to do with spareness and exactness – look at Coezee – a novelist without wasted words.
CT: But academics are never right on these things!
PH: There’s a duty for novelists to speak to the public who hand over their £15.99; they aren’t writing for the academy.’
LD: We’ll all get together to duff you up later [to Mullan]. There were a lot fewer novelists around in Dickens’ day… compared to the 700 on the British Council website.
Denise Mina: If we talk about popular fiction, we have to talk about genre. Dickens fundamentally challenges the higher/lower distinction. In crime fiction you have to write a book a year, so they are as responsive as dickens – he really responded to the society he lived in because he had to write every month. It’s what comics do as well. During the gulf war all comics were about licensing super powers.
TL: Our humour has changed. Here are some people being benign over tea; if we put that in a novel it would be kitsch.
John Burnside: Is there a social novel – can it do anything politically?
DM: The only mania you get these days is with children’s or young adult literature; there is some optimism in that except they are nearly always written in a fantastical world.
CT: Although there were lots of innovations in Dickens’ time – railways, photography – most of his novels are set indeterminately between 30-40 years, he was able to take a great slab of time and move about in it. That’s no longer possible.
JM: So the common illusion then in Dickens is that he wrote about the issues of the day…
CT: The boys schools were of the day but that’s quite rare.
JM: Do readers care about the historic accuracy?
DM: He’s a storyteller more than a technical writer – that’s why it’s so fresh. Dickens was coming out of an oral tradition; you can hear someone telling you the story.
PH: he would love the transformation from ‘and he goes’ to what my students now say, ‘and he’s like’; English is changing more quickly than ever.
Audience: Why is it that Shakespeare adaptations can be completely modern, but however well it’s done, Dickens doesn’t translate?
TL: Dickens was writing pre-Freud, pre-Marx. He writes clockwork characters without an internal life.