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Posts Tagged ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

Ditching Dickensian

April 30, 2014 | by

Giving the lie to a critical crutch.

dickens-drawing

Illustration: Robert Ingpen

Copies of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch now bear an impressive gold foil sticker declaring it the “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE.” Before that accolade, though, critics had already branded the novel by using and abusing the adjective that’s launched a thousand blurbs—Dickensian. Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of the word in appraisals of the novel, such assessments are rarely issued without caveats. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan apologetically notes that the term “is one of those literary modifiers that’s overused”; in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King somewhat ruefully acknowledged that he wouldn’t be the last to employ Dickensian to describe Tartt’s novel. He was right.

For all this critical concurrence, it’s less than clear what we mean by Dickensian, or, for that matter, by any adjective with a particular author at its root. Francine Prose leads her review of The Goldfinch with this very question: “What do people mean when they call a novel ‘Dickensian’?” As Prose notes, a number of answers present themselves—Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length. (I suspect one rarely means the relatively slim A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times when one labels a novel Dickensian.) In other words, the proliferation of the senses of Dickensian makes one wonder if it, or other such words, are critically useful at all. As Cynthia Ozick has recently complained with regard to Kafkaesque—another perennial—the word “has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke.” Read More »

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Staff Picks: Sexual Humiliation, Advanced Style

March 16, 2012 | by

“No one wants to be called a penis with a thesaurus. For an English-language novelist, raised and educated and self-consciously steeped in the tradition of the Anglo-American novel, in which female characters, female writers, and female readers have had a huge part, the prospect of not being able to write for female readers is a crisis. What kind of novelist are you if women aren’t reading your books?” Elaine Blair on DFW, sexual humiliation, and that obscure object of desire, the woman reader. —Lorin Stein

I’ve been reading and rereading galleys of The Poetry of Kabbalah, an anthology of Jewish mystical verse translated (and massively annotated) by Peter Cole. This is ambitious poetry. It combines liturgical solemnity with outrageous flights of metaphor, and Cole’s versions match the originals step for step. About the Poems of the Palaces, a series of hymns from the first millennium, Cole writes that it is “a poetry written for men who would become like angels, serving and praising God. It is not a poetry of ‘personal voice’ or ‘a meter-making argument’ with a ‘self.’ Rather, it is a verse rooted in the magical power of letters and words.” —Robyn Creswell

I was so excited when Ari Seth Cohen's Advanced Style landed on my desk—my love of the blog is no secret and being able to peruse these grandes dames at my leisure is even better! —Sadie Stein

Here’s an example of why some people need actual bookstores: if I hadn’t seen it sitting there at the Strand, I'd never have picked up Babbitt—and what could be better for a bad mood on a Saturday night with a cold? —L. S.

If you are like me and springtime puts you in a whimsical, dancing mood, try The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Though I am too timid (and clumsy!) to dance like that myself, I live vicariously through their twirls and sashays through Central Park. —Elizabeth Nelson

The huge, knotted automobile parts now on view in the John Chamberlain retrospective at the Guggenheim each look like brushstrokes made massive, three-dimensional, and wonderfully kinetic. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn

The Wilder Quarterly is the perfect thing to read in these early days of spring: the Brooklyn-based magazine is a stylish paen to all things green and growing and donates part of proceeds to the Fresh Air Fund. —S. S.

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