Should fiction be about consciousness or systems?

Let us make a false distinction where modern novels are derived from either Eliot or Dickens. Eliot is the naturalist, the novelist of the world as it is, of emotional depth, whose real stories involve young women struggling with their place in the world and the role of religion in society. Dickens is the surrealist, the novelist of the world as it isn’t, whose fantastic stories involve spontaneous combustion, stuttering con-men, one-eyed villains, half-mummified old women and ghouls.

According to this distinction, these two writers are the grandparents of English literature, occupying different sides of the family tree. Eliot opened up the stream of writers of serious fiction. Critics thinks she is a grown up. They admire the naturalism of her type. Flaubert is the zenith of this art.

Dickens belongs to a more unruly side of the family, with his descendants spanning everything from Evelyn Waugh to genre fiction. They are all too lively and not as impressive as they seem. Their books are full of what James Wood calls, ‘the ubiquitous flat character of the English novel.’

This false dichotomy was prevalent among traditional critics. Dickens was an entertainer. Eliot wrote about ideas. According to Leavis, when Dickens’ influence is seen on Eliot it is in her ‘less felicitous characterisation.’

It’s a false view that persists today.

When Zadie Smith published White Teeth, James Wood disliked the book’s ‘hysterical-realism’. His objection can be summed up with this sentence, from his 2000 review:

this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality—the usual charge against botched realism—but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.

These novels, he says, have too much invention. Stories piles upon stories, descriptions wriggle around each other like worms in a bucket. This abundance is very Dickensian. And Wood thinks this influence is everywhere in modern fiction. Bellow, Amis, Delillo, Wallace.

Wood’s disappointment extends to the incredulity of Dickensian characters:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human.

We ought to be able to assess whether or not it is more difficult to write ‘fully human’ characters’.  Being ‘evasive of reality’ might mean these authors aren’t capable of what Eliot (and others like Henry James) create. Or it might mean they don’t see it as the correct way to model the world.

Dickens’s world seems to be populated by vital simplicities. He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

That the Dickensian method is easier or simpler is an assertion that requires verification. And if it was true it would imply a lesser quality. We would expect Dickens’ work to stop enduring. Scrooge is a caricature, but he is one of our main models of a miser and tells us much more about the reality of rapacious selfishness than any of the less well-known characters of Henry James. We know he is not a ‘fully human’ character, but we also know he is a better way to model the possible moral outcomes of being miserly.

Wood’s view reflects his preferences but also his philosophical beliefs. He thinks his view is proved by looking at the scope of modern novels:

some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more.

But the primacy of this sort of novel relies on consciousness being real. If we believe Daniel Dennett that consciousness is an illusion, the result of an intentional fallacy we have about ourselves, then Dickens’ model of the world seems much more useful and real than Eliot’s. Scrooge’s so-called flatness might then look like an advantage. Would we not, at that point, describe Dickens’ as the higher achievement? Or at least re-balance the argument?

Once you relieve the novel of the burden to be an exercise in consciousness, you can see that Dickens is an excellent systems novelist rather than a sub-par consciousness novelist. As Wood says, Bleak House is ‘an ambition to describe all of society on its different levels.’

Wood prefers character to story, consciousness to system. But there are parts of what is real that cannot be adequately captured in the novel of consciousness. Think of Great Expectations. Pip is one of the great characters of English fiction. And he is stuck in a world of freaks and caricatures. Estella, Magwitch, Jaggers, Pumblechook are among Dickens’ more grotesque creations. It is a great novel because it blends and contrasts the two models of the world and comes up with something entirely new. As Pip grows up, moves to London and experiences disappointment he learns how the world works.

Dickens’ characters may not be real in the way we feel we are real, but they are real in the way we feel other people are real. (Wood knows this. In The Nearest thing to Life he describes one of his old teachers as ‘A sweet, innocent child, really, a Dickensian character.’ How unreal can he actually think Dickens’ characters are?)

Walk around London or the home counties and you will find these people. They are perhaps more marginal than they once were, but there are plenty of Pumblechooks out there. Think of Wemmick’s house with the flag pole. People still do that. They also live with their aged relatives. Not always, but it’s real. There are still old ladies in the public galleries of court houses who seem crazy. Trials can be interminable. Not often, but when they are Jarndyce seems apposite. We don’t have debtors’ prisons, but plenty of lordly old men are waited on by their daughters.

And the distinction starts to become difficult to maintain. The Handmaid’s Tale is a systems novel, and speculative, and contains much that is Dickensian. But Offred is a wonderful character in the sense Wood approves of.

Penelope Fitzgerald comes in for high praise from Wood in his book The Closest thing to Life. And yet, she provides us with ghosts, rich old men with inherited china, comic old ladies who run theatre schools. And her early books are micro-systems novels, carefully examining the small societies they are set in: a coastal town, a Chelsea mooring, the BBC, a theatre school.

The wonder of fiction is that is contains such variety. The false dichotomy between Eliot and Dickens operates like many other false binaries to show us that we ought to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, empirical rather than ideological. Novels are a medium for telling stories. The Odyssey is an epic poem, but in a prose translation it reads much like a novel, a highly speculative novel full of flat characters with nothing to tell us about consciousness. When we look at whether good fiction is Dickensian or Eliotesque we have to accept that it is both.

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