Thursday, June 5, 2014

Paying Charles Dickens

Thursday, June 5, 2014
Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill
Loretta reports:

A commenter on one of my recent posts wrote:  “Paid by the word, that was done in my youth when I wrote a newspaper column. Are you saying that it wasn't done in Dickens' time, or that it was not done with Dickens?”

The idea of Dickens being paid by the word may be based on misunderstandings about his career as well as the 21st century view of his prose style.

Dickens started out as a freelance reporter, and these men were penny-a-liners, often viewed as hacks.  He was soon hired, though, for a regular salary.

His fiction followed a different route.  For his first few published fictional pieces—which eventually became part of Sketches by Boz—his only pay was the delight of seeing his work in print.  But not long thereafter he was paid an extra two guineas a week for these sketches.

He received one hundred pounds for the copyright to the Sketches by Boz printed to that point, then £100 for the second edition, then £150 “for a new volume of previously uncollected sketches.”  For The Pickwick Papers, he was to provide 1-1/2 sheets (16 pages of finished product) per month at 9 guineas per sheet.  The rates soon went up.

By the 1840s, he received an advance of £1800 for American Notes. In 1863,  “he proposed that [his publishers] pay him £6000 for the half copyright throughout and outright" for Our Mutual Friend

As to his verbosity: We 21st C authors are expected step briskly into the story, and to keep digressions and subplots to a bare minimum.  Not at all the case in his time.  Readers had longer attention spans; they wanted big stories and lots of detail.  But he told big stories and conveyed detail in a lively way, and his style seemed fresh and vibrant and modern to his readers.  His early newspaper pieces sometimes make fun of the over-ornate style of the time—and it’s a joke he uses again and again in his fiction, especially in portraying hypocrites, humbugs, and windbags.

While there seem to be an infinite number of Dickens biographies, I relied for the above information on two I had close at hand, Fred Kaplan’s Dickens: A Biography, and Peter Akroyd’s Dickens.

Image courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the information page there.


Historical Ken said...

Thank you for pointing out that readers in Dickens' time had "longer attention spans; they wanted big stories and lots of detail."
I have explained this to many of our contemporaries who claim that the books of the 19th century are too wordy, detailed, and boring.
I explain to them that they need to remember there was no TV, movie, or even radio or recordings of any sort to show or tell of the 'minor' details we take for granted in this "instant gratification" world of sight and sound we are in today, and that so many people relaxed and enjoyed a book rather than devour it.

Lil said...

"Big stories and lots of detail"—that's what makes Victorian novels such perfect vacation reading. You can relax and enjoy the trip.

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