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What the gorram Dickens?

Sunday, 9 October 2005

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.

Reader, I married him.

Monday, 25 April 2005

Law has worked out her bulletproof kink. And mine is horribly similar. I want UST, the angstier the better. I don’t care if it is het or slash, just give me the long smouldering looks and the “FFS! Just kiss!” reaction and that pairing is my newest pash.

Spike/Buffy? Yep.
Mulder/Scully? Yep.
Hawkeye/Hotlips? Yep.
Han/Leia. Yep. The scoundrel.
Mal/Inara? Yep. Although curiously without any desire to read fanfic of it.
David/Maddie? Yep. although likewise without the fanfic urge.
Bodie/Doyle? OK, I know I’m on my own there but yep.

But why? There has to be a reason these tortured romances appeal. I blame the classics: early exposure to Eliz./Darcy and Jane/Rochester have left their mark as strongly as Cinderella leaves hers (I was never a Cinderella fan). The other thing about that list is that it contains mostly Gamma males.

This article outlines the types of male romantic leads:

  • Alpha. Domineering and arrogant, a loner, broad chested with a muscular physique
  • Beta. Sweetly seductive, kind, gentle, have a good sense of humor, tend to be of average to slender build.
  • Gamma. Falls in between these two poles: he, like the Beta, tends to be more of average build although more likely to be an athletic type. He has a sense of humor, although usually it’s a sarcastic one. Similar to the Alpha he’s likely to be a fighter of some sort. He is more dominant than the Beta – but only in a seductive sense. Otherwise, like the Beta, he appreciates female strength and tends to be a loyal partner to a woman, and respects all strong women.

Darcy and Rochester are proto-Gammas. Reread P&P or Jane Eyre once you’re in your thirties and you recognise that Darcy’s pride is at least in part due to crippling social shyness (wonderfully brought out in the Firth Darcy – the real one, not the Bridget Jones’s Firth Darcy) and it was Rochester’s trusting nature that saddled him with Bertha. Rochester, especially, only gains Jane once he has been crippled and blinded: once he is reduced from an Alpha to a Gamma, he is worthy of her. I just read North and South (must get the DVD just to stare at Richard Armitage as he broods manfully) which owes more than a little to Pride and Prejudice. I wasn’t overwhemled by it as a work of literature. It has dubious use of dialectical speech and the heroine is frankly annoying in her pure goodness, although some of the playing between the rural and the urban in both Manchester Milton and London is rather nicely done. What dragged me though at high speed, though, was the UST. When will t’mill owner and the posh southern maid realise they are right for each other? It’s the same romantic narrative which, at its crudest, is a Mills & Boon novel. Yet the lit. versions – and the tv versions – are somehow acceptable to enjoy whilst M&B is, obviously, rubbish pandering to false notions of relationships and selling a damaging lie.

Can anyone recommend some well-written small-r literary romance which doesn’t follow the “girl meets boy, boy likes girl, girl rejects boy, girl realises she does like boy but thinks boy no longer interested, boy risks it again and is accepted” template? Preferably something sexy, with that wow pull which makes you stay up reading until 3am? Or is it impossible to break free of the pashes of gamma-male angsty romances?


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