Category Archives: Literature Seminar


Toby Litt, head shining under the spotlights, sets the atmosphere for his ghost story reading by asking us to imagine the lights are off; and rouses a roar of laughter. But in defence, he argues that Dickens negated Christian values in favour of offering consolation, combining Christian martyrdom & Christmas pudding – Dickens wrote ghost stories so he could blaspheme. The message of A Christmas Carol is that you can sin for two thirds of life but it’s okay to have a change of heart; he wanted to say that it’s important that these ragged children get their share in life, that we need to deal with this now in this world.

Dickens’ core social mission was to change things through writing prose – I don’t think he would have that mission in prose today, I don’t think he would feel he was doing enough good in prose fiction. TL

While Poe is more inadvertently funny and Gogol more singlehandedly grotesque, Dickens can’t resist the gag halfway through the sentence. He wanted to entertain at every point – that was a mania. His most successful ghost story in fact is Great Expectations – this is where you flesh meets spirit, dead meets the undead. Miss Havisham is a Deleuzian ghost; she wants an inhuman relationship with time – and that’s much more creepy than a dripping wet woman.

Dickens Today: a collaborative work of fiction, by Nikola Richter and Dorothy Feaver

狄更斯 [dɪkənz], The Online Phenomenon, better known to his global audience as TOP

A bestselling Chinese novelist, living in Beijing, has been hailed as the new ‘Charles Dickens’ at a conference in Berlin.

TOP is spearheading e-publishing, making his writing available to emerging markets by selling novels in serial form, cheaply and in enormous volume. His e-books are adored for their enrichment with high quality audio-content, and have won him a billion Twitter and Weibo followers – even more than Stephen Fry.

He was the first to use the term ‘detective e-story’ in one of his reports about the living conditions of Chinese workers, retelling their lives in an oral storytelling tradition.

TOP has made waves among the literary elite by having all his serials immediately turned into graphic novels, making them available to children and the non-literate. He has fought many fights with his publishers who always want him to cut out digressions, but he preserves an idiosyncratic good-humoured tone as well as kitsch scenes. Editors want him to write his novels so that they can be immediately adapted for film: he fights the editors!

His writing is sometimes classified as the beginning of an entirely new genre: the Sentimental, now the fastest selling genre on Amazon.

Pursuing his three careers as writer, editor of a weekly Facebook magazine and as a sensational live performer of Cantopop, TOP has now realised his greatest dream and built a National Theatre in the Chinese capital where he both directs the big numbers and often takes the headline parts. Friends warn him regularly: ‘You might die early, because you don’t know when to stop.’

Although regarded as a pillar of the establishment, TOP remains a protester. One of his pet causes is the environment. He satirises ‘Lite-Green’ politicians mercilessly, among whom ‘Alex Crabcake’ is his most villainous creation: this slippery and smelly head of state is lampooned for his fraudulent promotion of wind farms… a load of hot air, argues TOP.

Although fans see TOP as a torchbearer for virtuous morals, his growing family (ten children+) contradicts his position on over-population.

TOP has worked hard to spread his genius-genes through IVF, spawning multiple sets of TOP triplets from donated eggs.

His most profound belief, ‘People mutht be amuthed’, is criticised by many scholars of social e-reportage, who’d rather see him educating the masses about the dangers of the internet.[13]

‘Charles Dickens’ is now the most common middle name in the entire world… alive even for those who might not know if they’ve read a TOP novel.



From the POV of a bestseller* and screenwriter** Nicholls was the only author to raise class as a defining preoccupation of Dickens. In turn, a kind of snobbery survives in interpretations of Dickens today; somehow Dickens’ entertainment value, his irrepressible humour, is still a bone of contention.

When it comes to adapting the novels, losing the narrative voice is a thorn in the side of Dickens-nuts; a screenplay just doesn’t provide for what people think. Instead, character and plot – Dickens’ iffier bits, perhaps – take precedence, and require some cleaning up by the screenwriter. The script for a film is, however, an instruction manual for the director/actors; ‘scriptwriting is not a literary form’. Whereas TV serialisation allows for baggy plots and diversions, a film has tight structural requirements (except DN recommends this outstanding and whopping 6hr version of Little Dorrit a film in two parts).

But Dickens gave the green light for adaptations after all, bowdlerising stories for dramatic effect at his own public readings.

*Yes, One Day had the highest sales at the seminar, ahead of Claire Tomalin’s Dickens: A Life.

**Great Expectations the movie is released in October 2012.


Friday afternoon. Denise Mina in woolly mammoth boots that you just can’t argue with. Emphasising that the distinction between low/high fiction is a marketing decision, along with distinctions between crime fiction, literary fiction and other genres – all to do with sales. But for that reason, Dickens would have been a crime writer today, for the money, kudos, engagement with social affairs, and readership. Crime writing has a surprising reach:

The vast majority of crime readers are women; the vast majority victims of crime are boys between 14–19. I suspect people who read crime fiction are pretty safe; troubled women with violent partners will be reading romances. We have to change the way that women see themselves within the stories. DM

Mina’s reading about Betty Higden from Our Mutual Friend was intended to pull the heartstrings, which it sort of did, like a brisk walker pulling a reluctant dog. Her point was that Dickens was trying to provoke a visceral sense, a physical response even in the reader: so too, ‘the best crime fiction can reduce you to tears’.

Why is sentiment such a dirty word? Disregarding obsolete definitions, the OED supplies for sentiment: ‘What one feels with regard to something; mental attitude (of approval or disapproval, etc.); an opinion or view as to what is right or agreeable.’ Or A thought or reflection coloured by or proceeding from emotion.’ Nothing wrong there… It’s not till 9 (a) that we get a whisker of the meaning that is so disparaged: ‘Refined and tender emotion; exercise or manifestation of ‘sensibility’; emotional reflection or meditation; appeal to the tender emotions in literature or art. Now chiefly in derisive use, conveying an imputation of either insincerity or mawkishness.’

Off to browse the crime shelves, sentiment section…


#city #gesture #empire #absence

Friday morning; breakfasted; second breakfasted. Hensher’s reading from Our Mutual Friend focussed on Bella Wilfer’s relationship with her father, a tender moment, not that it led to debate about the strengths/weaknesses of relationships elsewhere in Dickens’ novels. Instead, the sticking point turned out to be Reginald Wilfer’s sticky-up hair – and all those many male characters that Dickens made suffer from sticky-up hair…

One of the interesting things is he’s writing for the first time in a huge city where you can’t know everyone, so he’s observing the external signs by which you know people, and this is a new thing, as opposed to Jane Austen. In the vast city of Dickens we are suddenly in a world where we have to judge the externals. PH

Hensher read from his new book, with an ‘oriental’ setting, and so it followed that ‘the absence of empire’ in Dickens’ novels should be observed.

Let’s tick Dickens off; he should have been more interested in the empire than Mrs Jellyby… I would have loved dickens to have written a novel that had something to say about India. In unexpected moments his mind just shuts off. PH

The audience refers to Dickens’ response to the Indian mutiny – he expressed a complete lack of sympathy with the protesters; although perhaps because his son was there at the time. The audience suggests that this abscence was down to his lack of confidence in tackling the unknown – Dickens wrote about what he knew – although there are specks of reference: Herbert going off diligently to India; the Landlesses from Egypt and opium dens in Edwin Drood. Hensher wonders, were Dickens to have had another five years of writing, would he have moved further into Africa? John Mullan’s return is sanguine: ‘perhaps it’s a relief that he didn’t write embarrassing passages? After the railway crash, that did something permanent to Dickens; he lost something.’

The question is not what, but where would Dickens be writing today? It isn’t going to be in Europe. The next Dickens is going to come out of a society with Drastic inequalities, with things to put right, where everything is up for grabs. Dickens hated oppression; he would be on the side of protestors… Where is the next Dickens going to rise from? I think it’s China. PH

Die Moralwende

Prof. Dr. Julika Griem ist Professorin für Anglistische Literaturwissenschaft an der Universität Darmstadt und Präsidentin des Deutschen Anglistenverbands, und ich bat sie, ihr Fazit von zweieinhalb Tagen Dickens-Seminar zu ziehen: performative, miteinander freundlich gesinnte Autorinnen und Autoren (anders als in Deutschland) und Moral-Analysen der Dickens-Stoffe statt Ideologiekritik.

Creative Writing with Dickens

In the afternoon workshop British writer Toby Litt had us read a Dickens ghost story. We tried to find out what is logically and semantically wrong there, spotted the “reality effects” and  the “ghostly rule” set up by Dickens for this special ghost called Henry, by for example enacting the gesture “waving his hand sadly, in a way that forbade approach”. (Maybe try at home?) Then we improved the story with the help of our collective imagination. Afterwards, so inspired, I asked our workshop teacher about the use of Dickens for creative writing processes and classes.

A recipe for the perfect Dickens novel

Professor John Mullan was hosting almost all panel discussions during the Dickens seminar, looking at the works of the Victorian writer together with contemporary authors. He’d most certainly know what ingredients will compose the perfect Dickens novel, wouldn’t he?

DICKENS TODAY (much abgd.)


Friday, 2.30pm, and the windows of the Bertelsmann lecture hall are being brought to, having let out some of the morning’s accumulated heat while pea soup (thin) and baskets of bread (various), trays of chicken stew and vanilla cubes with a chocolate coxcomb have been consumed: fuel for the great debate.

Sheets for the author workshops are laid out on a table at the back of the seminar hall – the most popular belonging to John Burnside and David Nicholls, but perhaps that’ll change by the end of the afternoon. The authors are now being wired up for the debate. John Mullan opens with a direct answer to the question:

John Mullan: He’d write brilliant literary novels that also have a plot; he’d mix up sentiment and grotesque tragedy in a way that novelists don’t do any more. So it doesn’t say something about what’s wonderful about Dickens but what’s rare to find in fiction/TV.

Toby Litt: What strikes me is how weird he is on every level. It’s strange that he’s not Russian after Gogol…Today he would have to not be predictable. His core social mission was to change things through writing prose – I don’t think he would have that mission in prose, I don’t think he would feel he was doing enough good in prose fiction.

Louise Doughty: He would. His social manifesto was a post-fact justification for his obsession with language. The language is much more important than the social agenda.

David Nicholls: I think soap opera degrades TV drama in its sheer drama, the endless weddings going wrong, the clichés. Nothing is mundane in Dickens. There are overlaps – there’s a tradition of larger than life characters in sit com too – look at the link between Micawber and Delboy.

Philip Hensher: He would be torn today in a way that he wasn’t in the 19th century. Now he would have to make a choice between what reaches the largest audience, and the medium that enables the richest expression.

JM: His literary status mattered to him; that’s the reason he wouldn’t do soap operas.

LD: He had a passionate desire to see his readers face to face.

Claire Tomalin: But during his readings he was in complete control of everything – red curtains, lighting – now with anything to do with TV, the people in control are lunatics… Fawlty Towers is the Dickens masterpiece of our TV age.

JM: Contemporary novels which are taught by my academic colleagues are to do with spareness and exactness – look at Coezee – a novelist without wasted words.

CT: But academics are never right on these things!

PH: There’s a duty for novelists to speak to the public who hand over their £15.99; they aren’t writing for the academy.’

LD: We’ll all get together to duff you up later [to Mullan]. There were a lot fewer novelists around in Dickens’ day… compared to the 700 on the British Council website.

Denise Mina: If we talk about popular fiction, we have to talk about genre. Dickens fundamentally challenges the higher/lower distinction. In crime fiction you have to write a book a year, so they are as responsive as dickens – he really responded to the society he lived in because he had to write every month. It’s what comics do as well.  During the gulf war all comics were about licensing super powers.

TL: Our humour has changed. Here are some people being benign over tea; if we put that in a novel it would be kitsch.

John Burnside: Is there a social novel – can it do anything politically?

DM: The only mania you get these days is with children’s or young adult literature; there is some optimism in that except they are nearly always written in a fantastical world.

CT: Although there were lots of innovations in Dickens’ time – railways, photography – most of his novels are set indeterminately between 30-40 years, he was able to take a great slab of time and move about in it. That’s no longer possible.

JM: So the common illusion then in Dickens is that he wrote about the issues of the day…

CT: The boys schools were of the day but that’s quite rare.

JM: Do readers care about the historic accuracy?

DM: He’s a storyteller more than a technical writer – that’s why it’s so fresh. Dickens was coming out of an oral tradition; you can hear someone telling you the story.

PH: he would love the transformation from ‘and he goes’ to what my students now say, ‘and he’s like’; English is changing more quickly than ever.

Audience: Why is it that Shakespeare adaptations can be completely modern, but however well it’s done, Dickens doesn’t translate?

TL: Dickens was writing pre-Freud, pre-Marx. He writes clockwork characters without an internal life.


Kein Sozialroman in Berlin

Es gab heute einen Moment, da spielte der Literaturprofessor und Panelmoderator John Mullan den Ball ins Publikum und fragte die anwesenden Anglistik-Akademikerinnen und Akademiker, wie es denn um den deutschen Sozialroman stünde. Ob es ihn gäbe. Der schottische Lyriker und Romanautor John Burnside hatte gerade gefragt, ob man ihn den wiederbeleben solle, so wie es Jonathan Franzen in seinem Essay „Why bother?“, erschienen 1996 im Harper’s Magazine, überlegt hätte. Schweigen. Ein schüchternes „Fontane?“ aus einer der vorderen Reihen. Weiteres Schweigen. Ich dachte kurz an Clemens Meyer.

Da sitzen wir nun alle in Berlin und verbringen viel Zeit damit, uns Dickens als einen Zeitgenossen vorzustellen, in dieser Stadt, die jetzt nur eine Million mehr Einwohner hat als London zu Dickens Zeiten, wo die im Vergleich zu anderen europäischen Hauptstädten geringen Mieten noch immer ein beliebtes Kaffeepausengespräch sind, ebenso wie der prekäre Arbeitsmarkt, eine Stadt, die kaum Industrie hatte und hat, wo viele Fußwege so breit sind wie einige Alleyways in der britischen Hauptstadt, um nur ein paar der Unterschiede zu nennen. Es lässt sich einfach kein besonderer Bezug von Dickens zu Berlin oder Deutschland herstellen – auch wenn es die Dickens-Biographin Claire Tomalin in ihrer morgendlichen Einführung heroisch versuchte. (Für Interessierte: Dickens Werke wurden schon früh ins Deutsche übersetzt; Dickens schickte zwei seiner Söhne u.a. zum Deutschlernen nach Leipzig; Fontane und Dickens waren Nachbarn am Tavistock Square, jedoch sind sich beide nie begegnet).

Warum also über Dickens in Berlin nachdenken, obwohl Dickens wie kein anderer das London-Bild der Welt geprägt hat? Weil die deutsche Hauptstadt so europäisch-zentral liegt und mit Flügen gut zu erreichen ist? Weil der Tagungsbau, die Bertelsmann-Repräsentanz Unter den Linden 1, der sich architektonisch-historisierend an das Kommandantenhaus von 1873/4 anlehnt, eine vergangene (und eigentlich zerstörte) Epoche erinnert, nämlich das preußische Kaiserreich? Oder weil die deutsche Literatur gut ein paar social novels gebrauchen könnte, nachdem sie im 19. Jahrhundert in Romanform nicht mehr als “poetischen Realismus” mit gutmütigen Bürgern und Dorfidyllen hervorgebracht hat?

Es fällt schwer, sich Dickens in Berlin vorzustellen. Vielleicht sollte man es halten wie Philip Hensher. Er fragte, wo der viktorianische Autor heute schreiben würde. Und das wäre nicht in Europa (also auch nicht in Berlin), sondern in einem Land mit drastischen gesellschaftlichen Ungleichheiten – oder sollte man sagen: drastischeren? “I think, it is in China”, befand Hensher.


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