I fell in love with Charles Dickens during a graduate class. Up until that point in time, my exposure had been limited to George C. Scott ‘s small-screen Scrooge and my sister’s faux-cockney interpretation of Nancy in the fifth grade production of Oliver Twist. But Bleak House – with its dark sarcasm, intricate plotting, and larger-than-life characters – struck a writerly chord within me. And as I learned about Dickens the man, his life and career taught me some valuable lessons as an author and content promoter.
Lesson One: Forge new paths
Dickens started his writing life as a journalist. And like most Victorian authors, Dickens relied on the good graces and funding of publishing patrons to get his early works printed. But as his career gained momentum, he shifted to serving as editor for periodicals carrying his stories and even invested in publishing his own work. As such, he became the first successful author to control not just the content, but the form and means of its distribution. The father of self-publishing would certainly be doing some interesting things in e-pubs today.
Lesson Two: Leave the reader wanting more
Starting with the release of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens pioneered the serial novel – monthly or weekly installments (i.e. chapters) of fiction distributed either independently or through periodicals of the time. As such, he was a master of the chapter as an art form – self-contained, suspenseful, and always leaving the reader looking forward to the next installment.
The rise of e-readers, mobile, and social media have given new life to the art of the serial, and new opportunities for writers to reinvent the craft.
Lesson Three: Always market yourself
Serialized novels were cheap, easy to mass produce, and for the first time, brought fiction to the masses. Consequently, they also helped to make Dickens the biggest celebrity of his time.
But distribution and content weren’t the only driving forces behind Dickens success. Self-promotion played a significant part in the Dickens mystique. He drew huge crowds in England and America doing theatrical readings of his work. In 1867-88, during his second American tour, Dickens performed 76 public readings in a six-month span, an achievement modern authors rarely come close to (David Sedaris notwithstanding).
Lesson Four: Capitalize on your struggles
There’s a reason that Dickens could depict the struggles of the destitute and downtrodden in Victorian England so vividly. His childhood was spent in and out of school, and at the tender age of 12 he found himself working in a boot-blacking factory to support his family after his father was sent to debtors’ prison. Dickens seldom spoke of his childhood traumas, but they gave characters like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Mr. Micawber a realism and accessibility to his contemporary readers.
Lesson Five: Use your powers for good
A vocal advocate against child labor and for social, legal, and justice reform, Dickens used the power of popular fiction to shine a spotlight on government and class system abuses and promote social change. He was also one of the first advocates of international copyright law for authors.
Today marks the 201st birthday of Charles Dickens. For some more Dickensian pleasures, visit these fine links: