If a lot of people are celebrating and generally making a hoo-ha about something or somebody, you can bet your finest silk garment that someone will in due course pop up and start throwing cold water. Just so, with respect to Dickens today on his bicentenary - and John Sutherland. I don't get it. Nobody is obliged to read Dickens, much less to like his books, and nobody has to join the party. So keep out of it if that's your preference. But the cold water? Let those who want to enjoy the man's books do so, why don't you.
I mean it's only Charles Dickens. Once you go beyond expressing your own lack of enthusiasm to mount a general case against the size of the party, you're bound to perpetrate some folly or other. And so Sutherland does. Thus, by a reference to Julian Barnes's winning of the Booker for The Sense of an Ending, he (Sutherland) has a pop at 'elevating [Dickens] above all the others as "the champ"'. This reflects, so he says, an 'ethos of competition' in which if some win, others lose - like all the superb novels that didn't win the Booker and so became 'certified losers'; and, by implication, like all the other Victorian novelists who weren't Dickens. Come on, already! You can think - as I do - that The Sense of an Ending was a worthy winner without devaluing any other recent book. It's a literary prize (and everyone knows, or should do, how that works), not some golden ranking in the Hall of Eternity.
Similary, it is Dickens's bicentenary year. It might therefore be OK for those who want to mark it to mark it, and without buying a fat pig. This doesn't, not in any way, entail disrespect for other English novelists. Me, I'm celebrating Dickens's birthday, even though I wouldn't rank him above Jane Austen. I'll celebrate her birthday too. Sutherland, by listing 10 Victorian novels, 'as good as, or better than, anything Dickens wrote', cautions us against forgetting the others: Eliot, Middlemarch; Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge; Brontë, Jane Eyre; other Brontë, Wuthering Heights... My goodness, who knew? But let me point out one relevant consideration if you're talking comparisons, as Sutherland plainly is here. Set Charles Dickens against Emily Brontë, just for example, and he enjoys a certain advantage over her. No, it's not that he's male; and it's not that Wuthering Heights can't compete against many of Dickens books and come out a winner. Through no fault of her own, Emily Brontë completed only one novel. Dickens created a fictional world so large, so abundant and so perceptive about the human predicament that he still speaks across the generations and in every language. The cold water just splashes back at those who throw it.