What the Dickens?

Once again, John Freeman offers a preposterous essay. In bemoaning the ostensible popularity of The Sopranos, Freeman writes, “[C]ritics were calling Chase the Dickens of our times.” And from there, Freeman’s article can be summarized as followed (and it’s best if you read the next four sentences in a high-pitched voice to get the hysterical timbe right): Oh noes! The novel is dead! The sky is falling! The literary landscape is in trouble because of uncited empirical evidence!

Again, Freeman refuses or is simply incapable of citing specific examples to prove his thesis. Maybe it’s because calling out Michael M. Thomas or Alessandra Stanley — writers who both offered this not so unreasonable comparison — involves taking a stand against fellow New York journalists, something that runs counter to Freeman’s notorious streak of passive-aggression.

But no matter. If we examine the Dickens comparison to David Chase closely, it’s not as unsound as it seems. After all, Dickens’s work arrived in installments, much like television episodes, with Dickens often corralling mammoth plot threads as he wrote (ergo, his much cited tendency for coincidental run-ins) and tailoring his novels in accordance with reader reaction. Consider the case of The Old Curiosity Shop, surely the most reviled of Dickens’s works. (As Oscar Wilde once famously noted, “One would have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.) While Dickens’s close friend John Forster kept his editorial contributions fairly low-key in his Life of Dickens, it was Forster who read all of Dickens’s proofs and who gave Dickens considerable advice. Observing the close audience reaction to Little Nell, he pointed out to Dickens that he would have to kill her off.

With Forster’s hand in the Dickens editing process, what makes him any different from a script editor or a more benign version of an HBO studio executive? And with the great controversy over whether the Sopranos finale was any good, what makes the Sopranos finale any less different from the way people reacted to Little Nell’s death?

Further, if an acclaimed television series can’t be compared with a Victorian serial, then what the Dickens is David Simon doing recruiting crime novelists like George Pelacanos, Richard Price and Dennis Lehane to write episodes for The Wire? Surely, there is some convergence afoot. People like Simon wish to inject television with a more ambitious quality: the contained serial with deaths and developments that television has sometimes failed to live up to.

Unable to discover an explicit connection between the apparent fall of books and the rise of television, Freeman quotes the oft-cited NEA “Reading at Risk” study — an examination which collected its data in 2002. But what business does Freeman have drawing upon data from five years ago to contextualize a series of unsubstantiated delusions he views as a present-day problem? After all, it’s the “white-wine sipping yuppies” who are “talking.” Pretty soon, it will be the rabbits in Freeman’s walls confessing their unanimous preference for Edie Falco over Edward Falco.

And there is this preposterous leap: “To buy or not to buy, that is the question that defines these people’s outlook on the world, and so far only George Saunders and David Foster Wallace have adequately described the way this framework is murdering our language.” What of Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, with its hip-hop neologisms and affluent fat man protagonist? What of Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, which used a bitter divorce to comment upon said language? What of Mathew Sharpe’s Jamestown, in which an apocalyptic scenario is predicated entirely upon trade and communication? I could be here all day rattling off titles. Is Freeman simply not paying attention to the current literary environment?

There is no need to plunge further. Freeman’s piece is uninformed and hysterical poppycock of the first order — the kind of nonsense I’d expect to be published in a college newspaper, not The Guardian.


  1. Oh Ed, honey, you live in New York now, the city of psychotherapists. Surely you can find a therapist who can help you with this Freeman obsession?

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