I don't often use this blog to comment on current affairs, but a recent news story about Dickens illustrates the problems with modern-day journalism so well, it's hard to pass up the opportunity to point it out.
A letter from Dickens to author Florence Marryat has recently been discovered and is going up for auction. In this letter, Dickens rejected a piece that she submitted to All the Year Round. Apparently she had asked him to provide an extensive critique of the piece, which he emphatically declined to do: "Surely that is scarcely reasonable. . . . You have no idea of the labor inseparable from the editing of such a Journal as All The Year Round, when you suppose it within the bounds of possibility that those who discharge such duties can give critical reasons for the rejection of papers."
Various papers, reporting on the finding of the letter, chose, as papers will too often do, to sensationalize it. The Telegraph headlined it "Unseen Charles Dickens letter reveals rude retort to fan"; the Independent, "Never-before-seen Charles Dickens letter reveals rude response to fan."
A few problems with this take on things:
- Marryat was not a "fan," at least not in this context. She was an author submitting a piece, and Dickens was responding to that submission, not to a fan letter.
- While Dickens certainly could have phrased his response a little more tactfully, he was absolutely right. As an editor myself (I don't just mean here, I mean in my day job), I can back him up on this. Some writers make unreasonable demands that editors have no time to comply with, even if we had the inclination.
- Also, Dickens was under no obligation to accept Marryat's story, and was fully within his rights to give her his reasons. Again, this is standard editorial procedure.
- As the Independent goes on to observe, "Miss Marryat appears to have been undeterred by Dickens’ condemnatory note however, going on to wrote 68 novels during her lifetime and even dedicating one to Dickens." If she wasn't put off by the "rude" letter, I'm sure she would have felt no need for today's papers to have gotten all hot and bothered on her behalf.
But sensationalism presumably sells more papers and gets more hits than reasonable, responsible journalism. Which, as I said, is a sad sign of its decline.