You can’t go near the literary press lately without hearing mention of Nathan Hill’s sprawling new novel, The Nix, widely praised as a comic epic on par with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Novelist John Irving, to whom Hill has drawn comparisons, goes so far as to compare the novelist to Charles Dickens. Such praise goes too far, if you ask Current Affairs editor Brianna Rennix. In a caustic review essay, Rennix unfavorably measures not only The Nix, but also the postmodern novels of Wallace, Pynchon, McCarthy, Franzen, and DeLillo, against the baggy Victorian serialized works of writers like Dickens and George Eliot. “Books like Middlemarch,” she writes, “took seriously the idea that novels had the power to transform human life, not merely—as seems to be the goal of a lot of postmodern novels—to riff off its foibles for the purpose of making the author look clever.”
It’s possible to appreciate Rennix’s essay as a reader of more ecumenical tastes—as someone who happens to enjoy Dickens and Eliot and all the authors she dismisses. There’s much more to the postmodern novel than she allows, but there are also very good reasons particular to our age for us turn, or return, to Dickens.
In the TED-Ed video above, scripted by literary scholar Iseult Gillespie (who previously made a case for Virginia Woolf), we get some of them. For all the fun he had with human foibles, Dickens was also a social realist, the greatest influence on later literary naturalism, who “shed light on how his society’s most invisible people lived.” Unlike many novelists, in his own time and ours, Dickens had the personal experience of living in such conditions to draw on for his authentic portrayals.
Nonetheless, Dickens’ did not allow his enormous popular success to blunt his compassion and concern for the plight of working people and the poor and socially marginalized. The engrossing, highly entertaining plots and characters in his novels are always pressed into service. We might call his motives political, but the term is too often pejorative. The “Dickensian” mode is a humanist one. Dickens’ did not push specific ideological agendas; he tried, as Alain de Botton says in his introductory video above, “to get us interested in some pretty serious things: the evils of an industrializing society, the working conditions in factories, child labor, vicious social snobbery, the maddening inefficiencies of government bureaucracy.” He tried, in other words, to move his readers to care about the people around them. What they chose to do with that care was, of course, then, as now, up to them.