Books · Writers

The Great Slush Pile of History

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.

Yours for just $114.18!
Yours for just $114.18!

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. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Sibling rivalry: Anne, Emily and Charlotte. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

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?

Re-blogged from Authors Electric.

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7 thoughts on “The Great Slush Pile of History

  1. Very thought provoiking, as ever, Mari. Interestngly, ‘Moby Dick’ is one of the few books I just couldn’t finish, though I leafed through for the details of whaling; so, of course, I’ll never review it. I read ‘The Forsyte Saga’ and couldn’t see it’s appeal at all, despite my scorn for ‘the sancticity of private property’.
    Sadly, I think it’s Horrible Heathcliff’s weird admiration cult that has led to the enduring popularity of ‘Wuthering Heights’. In some ways, I think Anne was better than both Charlotte and Emily. I was very impressed with ‘The Tenant of Wilffell Hall’.
    I’d nominate Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series as a possible future classic. I think you will write one too.
    Patrick Hamilton was another brilliant writer who has sunk into obscurity. I think his work is too dated but not yet old enough to be intriguing to people yet, but given another two or three decades…

    1. Hello Lucinda, and thanks for the comment, though I think your confidence in me is almost certainly misplaced, sadly! I’ll have to check out Lochlann’s work. I’m not aware of Patrick Hamilton, but I’ll look out for his books.

      I think Anne’s been unfairly overlooked in many ways, too, but this may still change. I couldn’t get into “The Forsyte Saga”, either, just as I couldn’t bring myself to finish “Moby-Dick”. This may be due to my own shortcomings, rather than those of the books in question, though…

  2. I’ve just remembered, as I ploughed through ‘The Forsyte Saga’ (did Galsworthy really believe that people wouldn’t know Irene was his wife from his way of writing about her?) I recalled a limerick I’d heard on a repeat of the later part of the televsion version of it:; ‘An angry young husband called Bicket/ said turn it around, and I’ll kick it…’
    I was really disappointed that it wasn’t in the text, where the episode of the impoverished wife taking to nude modelling is treated without humour…
    I’m, sure you’ll be swept up into Rebecca Lochlann’s Bronze Age world. I’m an addict.
    Yes,

  3. Great post, Mari. I could compose an entire post in reply! I can think of some mid-twentieth century writers whose work I think will last, but it becomes almost impossible to tell close up. Much of what I read is in translation, and since the insular British are generally uninterested in ‘foreign stuff’, there’s little chance that they’ll be reading any of it a century from now. As I’ve remarked before, part of the reason for my reading translated works is that the English language literary scene seems so moribund. I’d have thought there are some US writers who have a better chance of lasting. But it’s arbitrary, anyway, just as it is now in terms of who gets published.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul – and please do write a post in reply, if you wish, because I’d be interested in your thoughts! I agree that it is, for the most part, probably entirely arbitrary: apart from anything, how can anyone know what will continue to strike a chord with readers in a future that is unknown? There are a handful of contemporary and C20 writers who I really do hope will enjoy a lasting appeal, but whether or not they in fact will is in the lap of the gods…

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