The social role of the writer changes from generation to generation, but at no time in the history of literary culture have novelists and poets faced more competition for the attention of their readers than they do today. Before visual media took over as the primary means of storytelling, however, many writers enjoyed the measure of fame now given to film and pop music stars. Or at least they did in the age of Charles Dickens, whose tireless self-promotion and populist sentiments endeared him to the public and made him one of the most famous men of his day.
Dickens was “a great showman” says Alain de Botton above in his School of Life introduction to the author of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and too many more great books to name. He was a natural celebrity before radio and television and, to the dismay of his more high-minded colleagues, “entertainment was at the heart of what Dickens was up to.”
But Dickens used his public platform not only to advance his career, but also to “get us interested in some pretty serious things: the evils of an industrialising society, the working conditions in factories, child labor, vicious social snobbery, the maddening inefficiencies of government bureaucracy.” Then and now, these are hardly subjects readers want to be reminded of. And yet, then as now, great storytellers can make us care despite our apathy and desire for escapist pleasure. And few writers have made readers care more than Dickens.
His “genius was to discover that the big ambitions to educate a society about its failings didn’t have to be opposed to what his critics called ‘fun’—racy plots, a chatty style, clownish characters, weepy moments, and happy endings.” Yet Dickens didn’t only seek to educate, de Botton argues; he “believed that writing could play a big role in fixing the problems of the world.” In this he was not entirely wrong, despite the anti-political sentiments of so many aesthetes who have argued otherwise, from Oscar Wilde to W.H. Auden.
Though he opposed many working class movements and had no “coherent doctrine” of social change, says Hugh Cunningham, professor of social history at the University of Kent, Dickens “helped create a climate of opinion” by emotionally moving people to sympathise with the poor and to take action in controversies already raging in the zeitgeist. In this role, Dickens preceded dozens of writers who—like himself—began their careers in journalism and sought through fiction to motivate complacent readers: naturalist novelists like Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser, and muckraking realists like Upton Sinclair all owe something to Dickens' mode of social protest through novel-writing.
De Botton goes on in his introduction to explain some of the biographical origins of Dickens’ sympathy for the afflicted, including his own time spent as a child labourer and his father’s confinement in debtor’s prison. The conditions Dickens and his characters endured are unimaginable to most privileged readers, but not to millions of people in poverty around the world who still live under the kind of squalid oppression the Victorian poor suffered. Whether any author in the 21st century can bring the same kind of sympathetic attention to their lives that Dickens did in his time is debatable, but De Botton uses Dickens’ example to argue that art and entertainment can “seduce” us into compassion and taking action for others.