February 7, 2012

Are we too stupid to read Dickens?


We’re familiar with the argument: the modern age is bankrupting our attention spans, we are all technology-addled morons clicking semi-consciously between browser screens, unable to complete the simplest of tasks: mesmerised, drooling, catatonic simpletons. They’re not Claire Tomalin‘s precise words, but let’s imagine that that’s what she really wanted to say. The Dickens biographer told the Press Association yesterday that children are now unable to read and appreciate Dickens, despite his continued relevance, because they are ‘reared on dreadful television programmes’; ‘Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.’

According to HuffPo UK, the comments have riled teachers, who graciously remind Tomalin that Dickens is still read in schools, and that many pupils are switched on to him by TV adaptations of his works. All well and good, but let’s also consider that Dickens’ original audience didn’t, in fact, have to have prolonged attention spans to enjoy his work — those beefy tomes were serialised over the course of months, years, and to keep readers hooked Victorian novelists had frequent recourse to TV’s favourite trick, the cliffhanger. That’s not to say that we can rest on our laurels about children’s reading, but endlessly harping on about the worthiness of literature in contrast to TV’s immediate powers of sedation, if not gratification, is far from the best way of changing anything here.

David Foster Wallace said it best back in 1993, in his essayE unibus pluram: television and US fiction’:

There’s this well-known critical litany about television’s vapidity, shallowness, and irrealism. The litany is often far cruder and triter than what the critics complain about, which I think is why most younger viewers find pro criticism of television far less interesting than pro television itself… Critical complaint degenerates quickly into plain whining. The fecund question about US television is no longer whether there are some truly nasty problems here but rather what on earth’s to be done about them. On this question pop critics are mute.

He goes on:

Jacking the number of choices and options up with better tech will remedy exactly nothing, so long as no sources of insight on comparative worth, no guides to why and how to choose among experiences, fantasies, beliefs, and predilections, are permitted serious consideration in U.S. culture. Insights and guides to human value used to be among literature’s jobs, didn’t they? But then who’s going to want to take such stuff seriously in ecstatic post-TV life, with Kim Basinger waiting to be interacted with?

Claire Tomalin points to Dickens’ continued relevance:

You only have to look around our society and everything he wrote about in the 1840s is still relevant – the great gulf between the rich and poor, corrupt financiers, corrupt Members of Parliament, how the country is run by old Etonians, you name it, he said it.

If children are more interested in watching television than reading a writer who still speaks so much and so valuably to our experiences, isn’t it pertinent to ask why, and what we can do about it, rather than simply railing against the state of affairs?

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.