On February 7 literary critics and writers alike will remember the 200th birthday of English writer Charles Dickens, born on this date in 1812. The Dickens' Bicentenary is being celebrated worldwide by activities that range from festivals to exhibits. Looking back at the work of this now famous author is revealing with regard to a number of developments that most of us have never thought about.
First, in 1812 there were only 66 novels in Britain. Writers had only been authoring novels for one hundred years. (Many date the genre to Robinson Crusoe, written in 1719. This might well have been the first "Christian fiction" ever.) No serious writer aspired to a professional career as a novelist. Most people thought novels were silly, immoral and toxic. The driving force behind this reaction reached back into the earlier Puritan and Reformed influence upon Britain. (Many modern neo-Calvinists still despise fiction, especially "Christian" fiction!)
Second, the literacy rate in England was under 50% in 1812. (We forget how late in time literacy became common!) But even the increasingly popular Jane Austen, in her book Northanger Abbey, satirized one of her characters as an impressionable young woman who read too many gothic novels! So much for using fiction to promote fiction reading!
Third, when Dickens died in 1870 the world mourned him as "its first literary celebrity." It is this fact that interested me the most in reading about Dickens. Dickens not only wrote novels but he promoted a style and made people aware of its value. From 1837 to 1901, in the Victorian era, some 60,000 novels were published. Few of us know any of these books today. But Dickens remains, clearly a stylistic genius as well as a brilliant marketer. He came along at the right time, a time when social, political and scientific progress was cresting in a whole new wave of immense change. Says Radhika Jones, "He rewrote the culture of literature and put himself at the center. No one will ever know what mix of talent, ambition, energy and luck made Dickens such a singular writer" (TIME, January 30, 2012).
How did Dickens do it? Many believe that he cultivated a mass following by "creating a sense of personal intimacy," adds Jones (TIME). He caused readers to believe he was speaking directly to them. He also created a sense of personal intimacy. Truly he was both a writer and a great salesman at the same time. If he was not a great writer he would not be read today. But if he had not been a salesman he likely never would have created a desire for the kind of writing he popularized. One literary scholar says Dickens "invented merchandising."
The next time you read a novel or think of popular fiction remember Charles Dickens. Like it or not he changed the world. People read books because of Dickens. Today no writer has had such an impact on us unless it is J. K. Rowling. Last year more than 30,000 novels were published in the U.S. alone. But almost none will be read in ten years. What sets Dickens apart from so many of those who write novels today is that he didn't just reflect culture, he transformed it (TIME).
The critics still have their moments. Many dour religious people hate novels, believing that they are truly beneath the devout. The fact is that more Christians read novels than non-fiction. I do not know whether this is good or bad but it beats a number of alternatives, like endless television. I, for one, did not appreciate fiction as much as I now do until after I turned forty. Some think this in itself is proof of my slipping in my theological convictions but my late Wheaton professor, Clyde Kilby, would not agree. I wish I had really learned what Kilby taught me sooner than later.