Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Returning to Dickens
Earlier this month, I went back and re-read Great Expectations for the first time in a couple of decades. It was the first re-read since I started writing mystery novels myself, and one thing that I can say for certain is that anyone who writes fiction can’t help but feel puny after reading Dickens.
I have a checkered history with this book. I tried reading it was in eighth grade, under orders from my mother, who was concerned that I was reading too much junk. She was right about the junk, but for me, then, Great Expectations was more of a book than I could handle. I got about 50 pages into it, rebelled, and won that argument at least.
Four years passed, and Mrs. Carruth announced that we would be reading it in her senior English class. I was less than thrilled initially, but by then I’d had four additional years of reading under my belt and had been reading adult books rather than the juvenilia that made up my eighth-grade list. I allowed my mind to be opened a bit.
It Helps to Have a Guide
Another factor in the open-mindedness was that Mrs. Carruth knew her books and how to convey what they were about. She had gotten me (and most of the rest of the class) to love Pride and Prejudice a couple of months earlier. And the previous year, my English teacher, Miss Irwin, had showed me how to enjoy and appreciate Moby-Dick, another book I’d stalled on before.
In short, I had seen that literature could be taught, and I had become teachable. And in reading, as in trout fishing, it helps to have a guide — especially early in the game.
Reading Dickens that year was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. I believe I’ve read all the novels now, some of them more than once. In college, I read Martin Chuzzlewit at the same time my high school best friend did, and we took to affectionately calling each other Tigg and Slyme, after two of the raffish characters in the book. We still do, 40-some years later.
In case you’re wondering, I’m Slyme.
Learning From What Lasts
It occurred to me, after this last reading, that if I were asked to recommend a book for someone trying to write a mystery, Great Expectations would be a good choice. It is, after all, a mystery about where Pip’s expectations come from and who he will turn out to be.
And for any writer in any genre, there’s much to be said for reading books that have stood the test of time. If you’re interested in writing a good book — as opposed to pandering to the market — nothing will show you the way better than a novel written 100 or more years ago and still read today. You can safely figure that what works after that long will probably always work if done reasonably well.
In my second novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, I had some good descriptions of the bleak, stormy weather that dogged the characters throughout the story. I felt pretty good about that aspect of the book. Then, after reading the description of the storm the night Magwitch turns up again in Great Expectations, I realized how far I am from measuring up to Dickens. The only comfort I can take is that I’m not alone.