Thursday, July 15, 2004

Anthony Trollope, Blogger

I'm currently trying to re-read some of the classic novels I could never read while I was an English major. (I read a lot of classic English literature in high school, when it wasn't assigned; but when I got to college, I found that I was so busy reading the assigned stuff in the various courses that there was no time for reading anything else. Which means that, like many literature students, I found there was no time for reading while enrolled in a literature program.) I've re-read most of Dickens' novels, and am now trying to get through a novel I constantly tried and failed to crack: Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

Trollope's a writer I often find more appealing in to talk about than to read. His virtues are easy to recount: his realistic characterizations of both men and women; his ability to convey a sense of what life is really like among small-town clergy or Members of Parliament; his no-nonsense storytelling and prose. He's the anti-Dickens, and in his Autobiography, he made sure everyone knew it:

I do acknowledge that Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, and others have become household words in every house, as though they were human beings; but to my judgment they are not human beings, nor are any of the characters human which Dickens has portrayed. It has been the peculiarity and the marvel of this man’s power, that he has invested, his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature... Nor is the pathos of Dickens human. It is stagey and melodramatic... Of Dickens’s style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules—almost as completely as that created by Carlyle. To readers who have taught themselves to regard language, it must therefore be unpleasant.

That's all pretty accurate, but the things that drive Trollope crazy in Dickens' novels are the things that make them such good reading: the exaggerations, the melodrama, the willingness to make up his own rules of grammar and language. Trollope doesn't defy grammar, doesn't deal in stagey farce and melodrama, doesn't turn his characters' dialogue into some kind of surreal parody of the way real people speak. He has a story to tell and he tells it, as simply as possible; when he addresses us directly it's not to confuse us as to how we should read the story (which is what Thackeray's authorial intrusions do) but to reduce ambiguity by telling us how he wants us to read it. If the story is a good one, and The Way We Live Now certainly has one of his better stories, it's entertaining reading. But because of the plainness of his writing style, of his narration and dialogue, there's not a lot there to hold the interest if the story lags, and at Victorian-era length, they often do lag. I think that's why Trollope's novels have been so successfully turned into mini-series; the TV shows may not do justice to the novels, but they're effective because if you separate the story and characters from the prose, with Trollope, you haven't really lost much. Whereas with Dickens, if you lose that distinctively ungrammatical writing, you're left with the outline of standard farce or melodrama, which is why adaptations of Dickens' work often make it seem so... well... unimpressive.

Anyway, to explain the title of this post, I'm thinking of Trollope's famous explanation (again in the Autobiography) of how he managed to write so much while working a full-time job as a surveyor for the Post Office:

By beginning at that hour [5:30 a.m.] I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast. All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary labourers,—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours,—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom,—and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself,—to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.

A guy working at a full-time job, who writes a certain amount every day before he goes to work? He may have written about fictional people, but then, most of us bloggers are writing about people we don't know (politicians, celebrities). I think A.T. would fit right into the blogging culture.

Finding an equivalent in modern popular culture, I guess you could say that Anthony Trollope is King of the Hill -- realistic, down-to-earth, deceptively simple -- while Dickens is The Simpsons -- wackier, given to flights of fancy and wild exaggeration. It's not a perfect analogy because I like KotH a bit better than The Simpsons, but it'll do. I guess that since William Bulwer Lytton has become a byword for bad writing, he can be the equivalent of Family Guy. That's unfair to WBL, who was actually a good writer, but I just wanted another chance to bash Family Guy.

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