Tag Archives: Ben Yagoda

damning with faint praise

 

 

Consider … the most popular novelist in the English language–Charles Dickens. His characters are types, not people. With some honorable exceptions like Great Expectations and David Copperfield; his plots are unwieldy and ultimately uninvolving. He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of. His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day, are coming up on 150 years old and read like it; his sentimentality handed Oscar Wilde his best moment in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. (“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”)

— Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource, 2004)

To be fair, Yagoda does proceed to praise Dickens for his style. He states: “So why could you roam the Contemporary Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble for a year and still not find a writer as stirring and alive? Benjamin Disraeli suggested the answer when he observed, ‘It is style alone by which posterity will judge of a great work.’ ” He provides an example of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

Yagoda goes on to say:

Flaubert used to submit his sentences to what he called la guelade—the shouting test. He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and proclaim what he’d written at the top of his lungs, the better to see if the prose conformed to the ideal that was in his head. Try that with Dickens’s words. Or, maybe better yet, type them out (as I just did), the better to fall under the spell of this mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.

I disagree (overall with Yagoda’s assessment, that is, not with the above paragraph). Charles Dickens is not still read (and, he will continue to be read, long after writers such as J K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King will be forgotten) because of style alone.

 

 

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I agree with Yagoda about Dickens’s “mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.” This is well put and totally on target. But, Yagoda has gravely underestimated Dickens. True, his characters are, in a sense, “types,” but in their “improbability” and eccentricity, they are exactly just the opposite of improbable; they are realer than real, completely believable.

Dickens’s plots may perhaps be described as “unwieldy”; they do seem at times contrived. (This was also true of many other great nineteenth-century novelists. Think Les Misérables.) But, “ultimately uninvolving”? No way.

“He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of.” So what? The works of a great novelist involve us on many levels, and their function as social commentary/criticism does not wither away over time. (Again, think Les Misérables.)

“His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day. …” This is uninformed criticism. A main reason to read Dickens is for his HUMOR. Still true. Completely.

 

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The first rule for a newly minted MD is “do no harm.” The first rule for anyone purporting to opine on literature or writing is READ.

You cannot learn how to write or how to judge writing without reading.

This includes the greats. In fact, you will never fully comprehend the above parameters of writing and literature without reading the greats. This means to fully engage with them.

Charles Dickens, for example.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018