Dickens Wrote Soap Operas: The Myth of Artistic Merit


The “fanfiction isn’t real literature and has no artistic merit” reared its ugly head again over the weekend. The person spouting this claimed to have a degree in English literature, so I’m here to push back on this ridiculous notion. I feel a little sorry they got a different education, because it seems like a lot less fun.

A screenshot of the homepage of Archive of Our Own, a repository for fanfiction and other derivative works.
It’s porn, but is it porn with artistic merit (PWAM)? (Anna Roldos/Wikimedia)

So, today I’m here to explode the idea that there’s any such thing as high literature.

Dickens and Hawthorne Are Sudsy Commercial Hacks

Let’s hop back to the Victorian era. Print was booming. Recent breakthroughs made paper super-cheap, which lead to the rise of mass print culture. This is the era where we see the evening and morning newspaper, as well as cheap magazines.

The paperback book revolution is still almost a century away—that’s a post-World War II revolution. So, at this point, books are all still hardcovers. That makes them luxury items. Industrialists supported public education because they needed workers who were capable of reading. The 1800s were the first time mass education was undertaken as a result.

So, we have a newly literate class of readers. On their wages, they can’t usually afford hardcover books, but they can afford cheap daily, weekly, and monthly papers.

And they want to read. Remember, we have no television, no radio, no telephone. There’s definitely no internet, video games, or social media to keep people entertained.

So people read. They read a lot! And the publishers were quick to figure out that, if they want to keep selling papers, they needed something that would get people coming back for more.

Enter the serial novel.

What the Fuck Is a Serial Novel?

I’m glad you asked! It was the dominant form of popular literature in the 1800s, because it would garner those repeat readers. Newspapers ran stories, magazines ran fiction—it was a good time to be a writer, really.

These works would be serialized in whatever newspaper or magazine. You might get a chapter a week or maybe a few chapters a month.

These were the Victorian equivalent of the soap opera. They were as dramatic, overwrought, over-the-top as possible, and they often ended on cliffhangers—perfectly designed to get people to come back for the next instalment. Eventually, the works would be published as a three-decker novel. The complete work spanned three “parts” or “books,” which would be published as individual hardcovers.

These stories relied on spectacle, on appealing to emotion, on getting readers, well, hooked. So it’s not all that surprising they’re also known as “sensation novels.”

The cover of Aurora Floyd, a popular Victorian sensation novel.
One of the most popular books of its time.

You wanna know who wrote sensation novels? Louisa May Alcott definitely did. Jo in Little Women is a stand-in for Alcott herself. Jo takes a similar gig writing what amounts to sensation novels for a paper. Little Women was a serial novel.

Know who else wrote sensation novels? Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens. Yeah, those guys who you probably studied as great auteurs were out here writing novels that needed to be as sudsy as possible to keep drama high and get readers to tune in next week to find out what happens on the next instalment of The House with the Seven Gables or Great Expectations.

But What about Shakespeare?!

Okay, fine, Dickens and Hawthorn were shills getting paid for every sudsy word. But what about the other greats? You know, like Shakespeare?

Actually, funny thing. Shakespeare was writing, by and large, for a popular audience. The play texts are full of redundancies, which speak the necessity of repeating yourself in a noisy playhouse. The texts are also rife with dick jokes and toilet humor.

We think of Shakespeare as some kind of untouchable genius, but we’re not even sure he was One Guy. Of course, Shakespeare was, in fact, a guy who was a playwright. He may have worked with collaborators, so it’s hard to say that all the writing is just his sheer singular genius.

Shakespeare also drew inspiration from older works, particularly those coming out of Italy. (Why do you think the Bard, who lived in England, set at least five of his plays there?)

The Chandos portrait  is thought to be one of the only portraits of Shakespeare painted from life.
Dunno, guys, seems a bit sus.

Even Shakespeare’s historical plays drew on other texts, and they function as a sort of political fanfiction. Macbeth, for example, was written for King James I—which is why it’s about the Scottish royal family. (James I was king of Scotland before he was king of England, and he commissioned Shakespeare for the play.)

The other issue here is that, once you get past the archaic language, Shakespeare really isn’t all that difficult. It’s ribald fun, actually. More on that in a minute.

Before I delve into how Shakespeare got kidnapped by the ivory tower, I want to point back even further: Chaucer. People tend to think The Canterbury Tales must be some kind of masterful work of art. If you can get by the language, you’ll quickly discover that—much like Shakespeare—Chaucer is pretty raunchy. I mean, one of the pilgrims tells a story about a guy getting branded on the ass because he’s trying to bed someone else’s wife.

Yeah. High art there, for sure.

So, if Chaucer is raunchy and Shakespeare is dick jokes, how did we come to think of it as “high art”?

Prats in the Ivory Tower Needed to Feel Superior

That headline about sums it up. In the 1800s, Shakespeare was still—get this—super popular. Shakespeare plays were in the public domain, which made them popular texts. They’re also really fun to see performed. They were pretty much staples of circuses and traveling theatre troupes in 1800s America.

Shocking, I know.

How did we go from circus performers doing Shakespeare on Saturday afternoon to high school students bemoaning how tough Shakespeare is to understand?

We could argue people were just smarter back in the 1500s or 1800s, but that’s … not really true. The problem is that Shakespeare was co-opted by a bunch of snooty academics in the ivory tower.

See, academics needed a reason Shakespeare had the staying power it did. Like, c’mon, nobody writes a play that stays popular and fresh for 300, 400 years. So how do you explain why people still loved Shakespeare in the 1800s?

Academics decided it had to be because Shakespeare’s plays spoke to some kind of universal truth, touched on some core of humanity that everyone, across the ages, could relate to. Gosh, the sheer genius and artistic merit of such a work.

Couldn’t have been the dick jokes, nah.

So, what we have here is a reverse engineering of artistic merit. Shakespeare was popular. Academics couldn’t figure out why, so they decided to assign the reason to some high-flung idea of artistic merit.

The Idea of Art for Art’s Sake Is Relatively New

That then brings us to the 20th century, with the modernists and post-modernists, who were keenly aware of their works as art. We have writers like Hemingway and Joyce, who were interested in form. And, in this moment, we begin to have art “for art’s sake.”

What I mean by that is that these writers were less interested in payment. They saw what they were creating as art. This is where we get the idea of the tortured writer as a singular genius, toiling away over their typewriter until someone recognizes their brilliance.

Prior to this era, most writers—and actually most artists—created art for the purpose of making money. In Shakespeare’s era, we have wealthy patrons who commission works, much like King James I asked Shakespeare to write him a spooky play about his ancestors.

This is even more common in Renaissance art. You can often find the patrons who sponsored the piece painted into Bible scenes (self-insert much?). Composers wrote operas to please their wealthy patrons. And so on.

In the Victorian era, we have Dickens struggling with his bills so he bangs out A Christmas Carol. Dickens is the epitome of a shill here! He wasn’t sitting there agonizing over the themes or the craft of his sentence. He wanted to get paid, dammit.

It’s a few generations later that we start seeing the navel-gazing prose of writers who write for art’s sake.

We Still Have Debates Over the Artistic Merit of Popular Fiction

So that brings us to the modern moment, where we have professors who want to put Harry Potter and Twilight and pulp novels on university reading lists. And they’re often derided for doing so: this isn’t literature!

I’m not going to say she-who-shall-not-be-named’s prose is the be-all, end-all of the English language. I’m also not going to defend Stephanie Meyer’s work as being some kind of genius, much to her chagrin, I’m sure.

But the point of the matter is that these works are entering academic study much the same way Dickens and Shakespeare got there: by virtue of being popular.

Suggesting that a work can’t be artistic if it’s popular is the work of academics, to elevate Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens—and leave behind the Mrs Henry Woods of the world. (I bet you’ve never heard of Mrs Henry Wood, even though she was more popular than Dickens for a time).

People also use it to exclude works for hire and the romance genre by and large. Romance novels sell like hotcakes. Yet some indie booksellers refuse to stock them. At best, they’re porn and at worst they’re soulless, cookie-cutter fiction that brainless women read.

We can argue that the rap against fanfiction as having zero artistic merit is also a knock against women. Fanfiction tends to be the domain of women, both readers and writers.

If you’re male, you get to publish your fanfic as part of the Star Wars extended universe or whatever. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, other than steadfast refusal to admit it’s fanfic.

People hate on derivative works because they don’t fit the “singular genius” myth we like so much.

Popular Works Do Have Artistic Merit

And here’s perhaps the strangest thing of all. Academics argued that Shakespeare touched on universal themes, which explained the enduring appeal of his works.

I’d argue popular works, then, do have some sort of artistic merit in a similar vein. That is, works become popular because they speak to something pertinent to the audience.

And if speaking to the human condition isn’t the purpose of writing, I don’t know what is. Different genres explore it in different ways, most certainly, and not all works do a good job. But there is something—has to be something—that resonates with people in order to keep them reading.

And that’s really what gives Dickens or Shakespeare or Hawthorne or whoever else any sort of artistic merit. And if you suggest that fanfic can’t touch that or a popular work will never approach it, you’re wrong.

There’s a certain idea that popular works can’t be artistic, because it’s “low-brow” or somehow uncultured. Yet, if something is popular, it must be because it’s somehow hitting a nerve with people.

The idea that something only has merit if it’s stuffy, navel-gazing, self-involved, self-conscious art is the invention of academics and a bunch of writers who wanted to feel superior to shills, who wrote for a mass audience—even though Dickens and Shakespeare had done just that.

There is no more merit in literary fiction than in fanfiction, just as there’s no more artistic merit in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (a work for hire, actually) than a Picasso.

The Canon Is an Elitist Tool

The canon’s sole purpose is to create a divide between “high-brow” works and the stuff the riffraff likes. Its entire purpose is to deride “silly” romance novels and gothic novels.

The canon is, by and large, an invention, a tool, used to keep some writers out. That’s why we study Dickens and not East Lynne. It’s why we can study works like Wide Sargasso Sea (a retelling of Jane Eyre) or Aimé Césaire’s riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest (both fanfic, in a sense), but can’t include derivative works of popular series like Star Wars. And it’s why people seem to think we can’t assign merit to romance novels or fanfiction.

So go ahead and pull the canon apart, rebuild it in your own image. Study romance novels and pulp lesbian fiction from the 1950s as seriously as you’d read Hemingway. Read (and write) fanfic. Be a shill and get paid.

It’s what your literary forebears would have done.

About the author


By Cherry

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