24 October 2011

Towards an All-Access Pass: Dickens & Co.

A week ago, when I started writing about the coming Dickens bicentenary, I said I was addressing 'primarily… people who in some way or another love Dickens, or who can remember deriving pleasure from a Dickens novel at some point in their lives'. The response to that post suggests that there are many such readers. But what about the others?

I'm not talking about people who prefer Austen or Thackeray or one of the Brontës or George Eliot or Henry James or Virginia Woolf to Dickens.

What concerns me today, and what has concerned me for decades, are the perceptions, or beliefs, or phobias, that inhibit some readers' access to all of these authors, if in differing degrees--to say nothing of the factors that inhibit access to books in general, or to art in the broadest sense.

Even if we restrict ourselves, for now, to questions of the accessibility of 'Dickens', by which I mean to say, roughly, of authors from Austen through Virginia Woolf, this is still an enormous topic, one that I approach with great humility and with no illusion that I can resolve anything with a single blogpost. My ambition, instead, is to start a conversation, one that will be open both to those who have and those who don't have the 'access' we're talking about.

I said that this has concerned me for decades. One starting point for me was a conversation in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s, at one of the Endowments. I was there to interview for a job, but the conversation was small talk between interviews. Someone was mentioning the 'exiling' of 'classics' (meaning something like Austen-through-Woolf or Homer-through-Steinbeck) to a separate section in the back of some bookstores in shopping malls, and the fact that most readers had their last contact with 'classics' when they took their last formal literature course in high school or college. I asked why the speaker thought that was, and he or she quickly responded, 'Oh, they find them too difficult.' At this point, without thinking, I said something like: 'Yes, but how do they end up with that perception? After all, Dickens isn't any harder to read than Robert Ludlum.'

Well, it was immediately obvious that I had 'lost' my audience--and I hadn't seen it coming. Here I was in a group of writing and reading professionals, all of whom, I'm still certain, had been reading Dickens and all the other 'classics' for most of their lives. I expected them to be briefly taken aback but then, on reflection, to agree with me. But they weren't having any of it. (It later emerged from the same conversation that at least one of them, an 18th-century specialist, found Gibbon hopelessly dry and perhaps a bit forbidding. Go figure.)

Perhaps I was wrong. Or perhaps I was trying out my material on the wrong 'room'. (I didn't get the job, either, but that's a different story.)

To be continued. Soon: the example of Jane Austen.

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