Besides the usual shit-ton of memoir (Foreskin's Lament, which is a really funny and horrifyingly accurate portrait of the type of mental torture I've been putting myself through for the past few years, and by "few" I mean "decades' worth"; also Portrait of the Addict As A Young Man, totally salacious but with beautiful writing), I've been reading a lot of Dickens lately, sort of going back and forth between the two genres. I'm into the less popular novels now, the Martin Chuzzlewits and the Dombey and Sons -- the thicker the better, I find. I like to see a longitudinal study of several intertwined lives over ten or twenty years; I like watching the kids, with their terrible parents or their wonderful uncles, find their way to adult personalities, systems of morality. It's like watching six seasons of a really good cable drama, one episode after the next.
That's what I want to do in fiction; show characters evolving episodically over a long period of time. Let you experience everything the character does and thinks and feels as a kid, and watch how those experiences shape that person, understand every one of their thoughts and actions from the inside. But it's not children's literature, or maybe it is. I was at a picnic with a four year old not too long ago, and I showed her my copy of Our Mutual Friend, showing off how many pages it is. "Yeah," she agreed, "but it's got pictures."
Charles Dickens helped found Urania Cottage, a home for what they used to call fallen women. Then he put characters based on some of them in his books. Does that make him an exploiter? Am I?