What the gorram Dickens?

As my penchant for Lost continues, and going to see Serenity again caused a Firefly marathon, I started to think about modern television and classic literature. More precisely, I started to compare Joss Whedon to Charles Dickens. Both write long, complex narratives with a clear beginning, middle and end which are released in a serial format. An episode of Firefly is very much like a chapter of Great Expectations. Only with more funny.

A quick google reveals that the process of following a Dickens novel is highly similar to following an entire (American) season.

Most of Dickens’ novels were serialized in 20 monthly installments, or numbers. They were usually bound in green paper, and — after the first two monthly installments of THE PICKWICK PAPERS — always included precisely 32 pages of text, two engraved illustrations, and, usually, 16 pages of advertisements. The final installment of a novel was double size, including more text
— from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/dickens/life_publication.html

This compares rather neatly with the 22 or 24 episodes of a season, even down to having the double episode finale. Of course, Whedon got a bit over-excited towards the end of Buffy and the finales started earlier and earlier into the season until you started to wonder if the entire thing was finale. Lost will obviously be following a similar structure, with season 1 now having moved into the middle part of the story. New Who is running to UK season lengths (13 episodes instead of 22 or 24) but also worked with the drip-feed storyline. A chapter a week, to keep you coming back, but each chapter relatively contained. And, just as Victorian readers paid for their partworks to be bound or bought a subsequent prebound edition to read in one or two sittings, we preorder ourselves the boxsets and have marathon watching sessions.

One of the reasons I started thinking these similarities was because I think Whedon etc are very good serial writers. I dislike the assumption that a film deserves more kudos than a tv series. Whedon really scores when he’s given the time to nuance his characters: the time scale the narrative plays out on really suits him.

There’s a rather interesting essay here about how the serialisation of fiction changes the nature of its creation:

Serialization deconstructs the single author as sole creator, and does so as part of a larger collaborative project within which the serial is framed.

Thus amateur and professional readers of serial fiction are encouraged to speculate about the story and the characters, to project the future, and to offer the writer advice.
When Is a Book Not a Book? Oliver Twist in Context

All of which could apply as equally to the modern tv serial writers as to Dickens, Gaskell and Conan Doyle. There is even Victorian discussion about issues of copyright and of ideas theft (something which ties this back to my own interest in looking at the literary antecedents of modern fanfic and the rise in the idea of copyright at the same time as the industrialisation of Britain – see the odd post in my readingblog):

When a magazine serial becomes popular, it gets copied, imitated, pirated, plagiarized, often before the story has been completed in manuscript, much less in print. Such imitations and anticipations rob the original producers of the story of some of their revenue and some of their options, both for the story and for merchandising the product. Hence Dickens and others were deeply concerned, when Oliver Twist was being published, about passing legislation to strengthen copyright.

It’s one of those horrid clich├ęs people spout that if Dickens were alive today he would be writing soaps. I’m starting to suspect it would be far more likely that he would be convincing networks to give him a 22 part series of his own.

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