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The serial novel: Slumming it?

June 19, 2008 |  1:10 pm


On this question of suspense: I once did a novel of 175,000 words and felt pretty pleased with myself, stamina-wise, until I went back to "Bleak House" and realized that Dickens had written closer to a million, building a huge cathedral of a novel in a way that, according to his biographers Peter Ackroyd and Edgar Johnson, was only semi-planned.

It really blows your mind.  Dickens set up and juggled multiple storylines to sustain suspense over such length. Carolyn rightly made the point that he was in the habit of introducing new characters almost out of the blue to keep things going. He just heaved them in and tossed them into the story blaze, especially in the early novels, the baggy monsters "Pickwick Papers" and "Martin Chuzzlewit." At that stage in his career, he was all about entertainment and excitement, whether of language or incident, about making it happen on the page, and giving his audience the same sort of instant bang that we, as viewers, as readers, increasingly demand these days, as David said a couple of days ago.

I don't get the feeling that Johnson is slumming it here, just being aware of his audience, as Dickens needed to be. The reader of Playboy just doesn't have the same commitment to Denis Johnson as does the purchaser of Denis Johnson novels. Johnson is too much the pro to be doing this off the cuff. I'd guess that he's got this plotted out reasonably carefully, with all the big cliffhangers already in mind. At the same time, he's enough of a purist to let the spontaneous moments occur -- like the guy's hat floating away on the wind. The next chunk will be the tricky one, though, and we'll start to get the sense of how good this thing might be.

Richard Rayner   

Photo credit: Dickens' desk and chair, Associated Press/Christie's