Get off the shelf, sluggard!

I’m reading a Dickens biography (Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, by Edgar Johnson, Simon and Schuster 1952), and found a remarkable thing.  Dickens’s first novel was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, written — as were most of his novels — as a serial.  He wrote each month about 12,000 words, and this formed a chapter that went into a monthly magazine.


Here’s the rub.  The first four issues — even, for a while, the fifth issue — of The Pickwick Club did miserably.  Johnson reports that things were so bad that even for the fourth installment, which eventually took off, they printed 1500 issues for provincial distribution, and 1450 were returned to the publisher.

Then something happened.  People fell in love with the character of Sam Weller, who appears in the fourth installment.  Word got around.  People started requesting the earlier issues.  And it was all good news from then on.   Eventually, Pickwick was such a sensation that there was even an explosion of Pickwick merchandise (Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes, etc.), along with endless copies, knock-offs, and theatrical piracies.  But for four months, even into the fifth month and installment, Dickens’s novel looked to be a certain failure.  Only a more patient time, and Dickens’s immense force of will, together prevented its cancellation long before its explosive success.

It is hard not to notice that today, The Pickwick Club likely would have been a failure.  The big bookstores would pull a book before it racked up four months of bad sales (suppose, for example, that The Pickwick Club had been intended to appear as a trilogy of volumes, which was also a common practice then).  Sure, a genius like Dickens would try again.  But maybe not with The Pickwick Club, and so a comic masterpiece would be lost.

The economy of art has become accelerated; works must be instantaneously successful.  (Perhaps this is a trend throughout the economy; nowadays, employees are not supposed to be trained, they are supposed to arrive at their job already experts.)  The question, of course, is what might we lose — and what have we already lost — to such demands?

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