A question posed to me recently by the librarians over at www.stackedbooks.org. But which direction to go? The poetry of 1984. The royalties and merited popularity behind Harry Potter. The legacy of Lord of the Rings. The courage and scope of The Fountainhead or Moby-Dick. The brilliant so-simple-why-hadn’t-someone-thought-of-it-before concepts behind Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And then books like A Prayer for Owen Meany or Shadowland or The Chocolate War which I read over and over and over because everything’s exactly where it should be…
But the game/challenge here was choose the ONE novel I wish I’d written. And for decades, it’s been one book: A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens. Not even in my top hundred favorite books, yet every time I read it or even think about it, I frequently proclaim out loud: I wish I wrote this damn book.
1] The concept is clever. So clever. And simple. So so simple. Three ghosts (past, present, future) will visit you tonight and teach you about yourself (a self that needs some teaching). Such a powerful tale wrapped in a plot less complicated than most fairy tales or shaggy-dog jokes. The anticipation of what the next ghost will reveal… the uncluttered linear storyline… Some of our very best stories, the ones that last/resonate, can afford to be the most straightforward.
2] Christmas. I mean, wow. Smart. THE Holiday. And sure, you can dress up any plot by attaching it to a specific holiday, especially this one. But that’s not what Dickens is doing here. He’s doing specific things with the roles of tradition (on the holiday with the most traditions in a time (1840s) when tradition was flying out the door faster than you can say “Tiny Tim”) and promoting specifically Christian values on a major Christian holiday (in a time when Christian values were flying out… you get the point). This story HAS to happen on Christmas. Just like Michael Myers has to happen on Halloween.
3] Ghosts. (see #1 above). To my dismay, I remain unable to write a story without including something somewhere that’s a little peculiar, supernatural, fantastic, unexplainable… I try to write about “normal” people doing “normal” things and get bored with them all-too quickly. I spend the bulk of each day surrounded by normal people doing normal things; They’re also boring. As a reader and writer, I like a little seasoning in my fiction and incorporating ghosts as main characters and plot drivers adds just the right touch of fantastic to a story entirely about, ultimately, a normal man.
4] A CHRISTMAS CAROL has a point. It’s not written to be just entertainment. It was also written, during the greatest societal change in human history, to question/explore the rise of industry and its toll on social justice and the individual human spirit. I wouldn’t know what to write about if I didn’t have some underlying “point” to my tale. Not that you have to (or should) get up on a soapbox with theme, but to borrow a quote attributed to half a dozen brilliant authors: “ALL Art is propaganda.”
5] Scrooge is all of us. Ok, so maybe you’re no wrinkly pinchpenny but you’re here and human. So, it’s safe to say you also have a Past that includes some regrets and missed opportunities; a Future that you worry about; and a Present where you ignore/mistreat/misunderstand a lot of the people in your life. Good fiction is universal; it can speak to each of us. Make us look within ourselves. Regardless of any themes exploring the price/cures of the Industrial Revolution, this tale remains at its core a very human and familiar story. The ghosts, you see, haven’t just come for Scrooge…
6] Dickens’ writing. While this one’s a touch dialogue heavy, when Chuck takes a moment to work his magic, you see an absolute master at work. First line of the book: MARLEY was dead, to begin with. Readers are said to sometimes throw a book against the wall when it’s terrible. Writers, however, more often do it when the writing is so darn good, you wonder if you should ever bother writing again. One sentence can do that. Dickens has several in this little tale that endanger the walls.
7] 150 years after it was written, people still like this story. Proof of how well #5 and #6 were done. We still know these characters, their words, their struggles and joys. Yes, the story got plenty of help from countless plays and films over the years, but the actual book is still read, given as gifts, and enjoyed to this day. It will be on our shelves another 150 years from now. Hint: Not even people named Meyers will know who Bella and Edward are 150 years from now. For an Artist to create something that lasts and delights/touches generations is certainly a worthy goal.
A brilliant concept, skillfully written, a splash of magic, with social relevance and universal personal meaning, whose characters and story will keep readers entertained and thinking for, likely, a thousand years. Yes, that I would like to write.
Now, the question: Which book would YOU choose?