Sunday, June 10, 2012

Wherein I Inadvertently Insult Dickens Without Meaning To. (Sundays With The Classics)

I am, according to my Kindle, about 94% done with Great Expectations and as I sat down to write this I thought "I don't really have anything much to say about it," which shouldn't surprise anyone who reads anything I ever wrote: not having much to say about something has never ever stopped me from writing; in fact, not having much to say about things is more or less the only thing my writing exists to prove.

I'm kind of torn between going on and on about how we choose what we read, on the one hand, and going on and on about how much of a soap opera Great Expectations turned out to be, with the kind of plot twists and turns that we would groan about if they weren't coming from Charles Dickens, so let me just abandon the whole how do you choose what you read line of thought wherein I was going to talk about how on Sundays I only read the classics but today I added in that I can read the comics on Sunday mornings (I get my comics on my phone now: I'm almost completely off paper and when I can afford a Kindle Fire I might never go back) but I'm really kind of sold on the soap opera thing.

So: The soap opera thing.  Man, is Great Expectations a potboiler.

Which I mean in a good way but which having looked it up I see is not considered a good thing, not at all:  According to Wikipedia, a pot-boiler is typically a story written by a hack writer and done just to pay the bills, something a writer whipped out to keep the pot boiling on his stove, a stupid expression if ever there was one because water is free (if you put that pot outside and it rains), but I suppose you have to pay for the wood or coal or whatever to heat the water, so maybe the expression isn't as stupid as it seems.

Weirdly, this site says that a potboiler was originally a stone that was heated up and dropped into a pot of water to make it boil back when pottery was too fragile to expose directly to fire, which doesn't seem possible.  How hot would a rock have to be, to be able to be dropped into water and bring it to a boil before losing all its heat?  You'd have to bring the water up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so the rock would have to be a lot hotter than that, because you're going to average out the temperatures, aren't you?  That seems scientifically valid, that if you drop a rock of mass X into water of mass Y, to get Y to 212 degrees X has to be a lot hotter than 212 degrees, with however hot the rock is depending on the amount of water you want to heat up.

But I digress.  A pot-boiler, I'm surprised to learn, is considered somewhat disgraceful, writing for money instead of artistic impulse being seen as somehow demeaning or making the writing less worthwhile, which is strange because Charles Dickens is considered one of the greatest writers ever...

...Bleak House, which I wasn't terribly fond of, ranks 12th on one list of the 100 most important novels ever,with Great Expectations at 16 and The Pickwick Papers 76th, so Dickens has three books on that list alone...

...and Dickens proudly wrote for money, trying to make writing a profession rather than the province of amateurs and gentlemen, breaking with tradition to do so, and Dickens is revered in English classes.

So why would a potboiler be considered a derogatory term?  It seems to be because we don't trust the masses:  If something is designed to be popular, we distrust it.  George Costanza wasn't going to dumb down Jerk Store to appeal to the masses:

and it's common, almost de rigeur, to assume that anything that's superpopular must also be watered-down, lowest-common-denominator type of stuff that doesn't have any redeeming qualities.

The converse of this is the Thirty Rock/Mad Men genre, which is assumed to be superhighbrow but which nobody watches.  The other day, I made a Mad Men reference.  I've never watched the show.  The coworker I was talking to hadn't ever watched the show, either, but she got the reference.  I don't know anyone who watches that show, or even anyone who's ever seen a single episode of it.

So we have two competing forces:  quality, which nobody pays attention to but everyone knows about, and popularity, which everyone knows about but which in an of itself is taken to mean that the thing you're dealing with is low quality:  you can be popular, or good, but not both, at least in the artistic world.  (Unless "you" are a Ridley Scott or Christopher Nolan movie.)

But Great Expectations really is a pot-boiler, in the best sense of the word.  The wrap-up to the book is phenomenally soap-opera-ish and over-the-top with revelations and twists and even some action and death and more:  Estella is revealed to be the daughter of Pip's actual benefactor, a complement to the fact that she was adopted by his assumed benefactor.  Orlick confesses that he actually did kill Pip's sister, Mrs. Jo, and tries to kill Pip, too, for getting him fired from Miss Havisham's and for interfering with Orlick's dancing himself at Biddy.  Magwitch is ratted out by Compeyson, who was Miss Havisham's mysterious suitor, the man who set this all in motion, really:  Had Compeyson not existed, Magwitch might not have gone to jail and might not have been recaptured when Pip fed him on the marshes, and Magwitch might not have given Pip his expectations.  Meanwhile Compeyson, not existing, would not have wrecked Miss Havisham, and she would presumably have not been looking for an orphan to adopt to wreak her revenge, so she would not have brought Pip to believe that he was being set on a course to marry Estella, and her family might not have become so estranged and Matthew Pocket may have been able to set Herbert up on his own business, so Pip's entire existence, as it was, is owed to the fact that Compeyson set up Magwitch, and then Pip is brought down again when Compeyson catches him trying to spirit Magwitch out of the country and although Compeyson is killed, Magwitch is mortally wounded, too...

...and there is a fine bit of social satire in the fact that the British government wouldn't delay Magwitch's trial a month for fear that he would die before he was sentenced to death for returning to England, and the care they take to keep Magwitch from being poisoned before he can be hanged, but of course, there's a reason, too, in that if Magwitch were to die before being convicted, Pip, rather than the Crown, might inherit Magwitch's estate...

...and it's all tied up neatly with some really great scenes, including Orlick's attack on Pip and his salvation by (among others) Trabb's boy, Pip being rescued by the very people who he used to resent and be mocked by, as Dickens lays it on in slathering layers of ending.

It's almost impossible to put down, and the ending of the book with Miss Havisham's fire and Orlick's attack and Compeyson's denouncing of Magwitch and the unraveling of Estella's lifetime is almost impossible to put down, and so for 151 years -- a century and a half -- Great Expectations has managed to not only exist, this book that Dickens wrote to pump up sales of his magazine (and which he changed the ending to, to be more crowd-pleasing, a happy ending meant to pump up sales done a century and a half before Fatal Attraction would do the same thing (so now, when people change the ending of a movie to help make more money, we can say they're being Dickensian) -- it's managed to not only exist but to be a page turner, a book that you can't help but want to keep reading to get to the end.

If that's what you get when you write for money rather than art, then everybody ought to write for money, and forget art.


Andrew Leon said...

We actually watch Mad Men and 30 Rock. We love 30 Rock. It makes me laugh hard. My wife likes Mad Men more than me, but it's not a bad show. It's not like she forces me to watch it.

I have a cousin that refuses to like anything that's popular. Even if it's something he already likes. For example, he liked U2 prior to Joshua Tree, but, when Joshua Tree came out and U2 became -the- band, he decided they were trash. If it's popular, it can't be good.

I like what I like regardless of what other people think about it.

Lara Schiffbauer said...

I want to make money writing. It's as plain as that. If I make money writing, that means I did something right. I have long been frustrated with people who "write for the art" because all of the arts are dependent in some way on people enjoying it. Playing music by yourself isn't fun. I guess I'm an entertainer, and not an artist. I can live with that. ;)