Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Great Slush Pile of History - Mari Biella

Recently I read The Black Douglas by Victorian novelist S.R. Crockett, whose works have recently been republished by Ayton Publishing. Being introduced to Crockett was an interesting and enlightening experience. Here we have an author who was, in his lifetime, as popular as Dickens. Just over a century later, he’s largely forgotten (though he might be about to make a comeback, thanks to Cally Phillips and Ayton Publishing). Crockett seems to be one of the victims of changing literary tastes, a writer whose standing in his lifetime has not been reflected in the years following his death.

Nor, of course, is he alone. There’s a story that the readers of the Manchester Guardian, asked in 1929 to predict which contemporary authors would still be read in 2029, chose John Galsworthy. They weren’t entirely wrong, of course; Galsworthy is indeed still read, and still has plenty of admirers. However, BBC screen adaptations of The Forsyte Saga notwithstanding, he isn’t quite as popular as he once was.

So why do some writers manage to squeeze into the Literary Hall of Fame, while most join the ranks of the also-rans? Well, talent plays a huge part, obviously. But much else comes down to pure chance. Does an author have a loyal (if, perhaps, small) readership? Does he or she have influential admirers? Does his or her style of prose and choice of material continue to resonate with readers in an unknown future? Is the Moon in conjunction with Saturn at the time of the author’s death? (I jest, of course, but given the number of utterly random factors at play here you might as well take that as a defining reason.) The future is, obviously, unknown. How can anyone possibly guess which conditions an author will have to meet in order to enter that elusive literary afterlife?

Of course, present popularity is no indicator of future staying power. The Great Gatsby, notoriously, sold relatively few copies when it was first published; Moby-Dick did even worse. Out of curiosity, I looked up some of the bestselling novels in the first random year that popped into my head, 1923. That year’s literary phenomena included The Mine with the Iron Door by Harold Bell Wright, The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini, and Wanderer of the Wasteland by Zane Grey. These books are still read – The Sea-Hawk, in particular, seems to have its admirers – but none seem to have entered into the public consciousness in the way that their near-contemporaries – All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, A Passage to India and, of course, The Great Gatsby itself – have.

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Just as the most promising and well-liked pupil in the sixth form often goes on to lead a life of dull inconsequence, while the nerdy outcast ends up being the highest achiever, so an author’s present success is an unreliable indicator of their future staying power. (And, of course, being a writer is a bit like being at school. There’s an in-crowd that seems utterly impenetrable to outsiders; there are oddballs and misfits; there are prizes and competitions, and the dual tyranny of conformity and popularity. But I digress . . .)

Another example? I give you the respective careers of the Misses Brontë, Charlotte and Emily. Both sisters are still vastly popular, of course, and have more than earned their places in the literary pantheon, but during their lifetimes Charlotte was, undeniably, the superstar of the family. It helped that she lived longer and wrote more books, of course, but she was both critically lauded and commercially successful. Compare this to Emily’s rather less impressive career trajectory: she died with just one completed, published novel under her belt, and under a pall of both relative commercial failure and critical misunderstanding. “The only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it,” said reviewer James Lorimer of Wuthering Heights, “is that it will never be generally read.” (To carry the school analogy a bit further: Charlotte was the universally adored and respected Head Girl, while poor, awkward Emily – albeit redeemed slightly by her association with her big sister – was one of the misfits.)

Sibling rivalry: Anne, Emily and Charlotte

How different things look today. Charlotte is still read and admired, of course (along with that constantly overlooked Brontë sister, Anne), and there are still those who prefer her, but in death Emily is the rock star, and Wuthering Heights the most popular and well-liked of all the Brontës’ novels.


So which contemporary writers will avoid being thrown onto history’s great slush pile? I don’t know; I doubt anyone does. I wouldn’t even like to hazard a guess – not only because I might end up looking like an idiot, but because, being a jinx (the sports team I support will invariably lose), I’d automatically ruin their chances. Does anyone out there fancy nominating their own candidates for literary immortality?

4 comments:

Lydia Bennet said...

Aw a lovely post and nice of you to give Cally's labour of love a boost! Of course there were fewer writers and artists etc then, nowadays there are lots, and those with the clout to get into the media a lot and have huge printings and sales perhaps statistically stand best chance of posthumous success and longevity - but as a quantum physics student I know how much randomness influences events! We are lucky to have Shakespeare, our descendants might be less lucky to have Katie Price as something to remember our era by!

Reb MacRath said...

Wonderful post. These days, more and more writers bank on the ultimate Good Career Move: a tragic life or spectacular death. (Would anyone, today, read Mishima--if not for his gut-splitting finale?) It's also humbling to remember that one of the most popular and loved of all Roman poets, Catullus, would have been completely forgotten today--if a Medieval monk hadn't chanced upon the only surviving copy of C's work. Writers can better their chances in some ways--but short of pursuing the miseries that might lead to an Oscar-worthy weepie, there is no way to be sure.

Lydia Bennet said...

Good point about Catullus - and of course Sappho only survives as a few tiny scraps of poetry, it's mainly her contemporaries' eulogies that ensure her status. It makes you wonder, how many brilliant writers have vanished completely from the past. we are lucky to have what we do, going back so far.

Reb MacRath said...

Yes, Val, Sappho is a sad example. Hard to tell from the fragments we have but she must have been one of the great ones...and we owe it to ourselves to try and intuit what's been lost now to ellipses...Readers who've had any Latin at all are far luckier with Catullus. There's a real wealth of translations. Take one or two of those...add in a literal Loeb translation..and then sample a poem or two in the original--just to get some feeling for the poem in once-living Latin. Ah, but still, whole civilizations have vanished without leaving a trace of their wonders.