|Bestselling American Novels|
|1.||The Broad Highway||Jeffrey Farnol|
|2.||The Prodigal Judge||Vaughan Kester|
|3.||The Winning of Barbara Worth||Harold Bell Wright|
|4.||Queed||Henry Sydnor Harrison|
|5.||The Harvester||Gene Stratton Porter|
|6.||The Iron Woman||Margaret Deland|
|7.||The Long Roll||Mary Johnston|
|8.||Molly Make-Believe||Eleanor Abbott|
|9.||The Rosary||Florence L. Barclay|
|10.||The Common Law||Robert W. Chambers|
How many of these writers or novels do you recognize? They are the 10 best-selling authors of exactly 100 years ago. I am a reasonably well-read individual, and I have to admit that I have never heard of any of these books or any of these authors except for Robert W. Chambers, who also wrote the ur-Lovecraftian collection of short stories entitled The King in Yellow. One of the things that became clear in last week’s discussion about the literary decline of the fantasy genre, (or, as I would argue, the literary decline of the SF/F genre), is that very few of those involved in the discussion appeared to fully realize just how unusual it is for literary works to survive 70 years, as the works of Robert E. Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien have, let alone 100. Nor, as should be readily apparent from the names and titles on this bestseller’s list from 1911, should one be inclined to confuse book sales with literary longevity, let alone immortality.
Howard never made the American best-selling lists. Tolkien did, but posthumously, as The Simarillion claimed Publisher’s Weekly #1 spot in 1977, four years after his death. In fact, if one peruses the best-selling lists of the past century, one would erroneously conclude that the most influential fantasy writers of the last 100 years were Mary Stewart, Anne Rice, and possibly, if one squints a little bit, Jean M. Auel. And while there may be a case to be made for Rice, who laid the foundation for the explosion of Sex with Dead People that has all but taken over the genre, very few read Stewart or Auel anymore despite the fact that Auel’s most recent number-one bestseller was published only 21 years ago. (I understand that Auel’s books might technically count as historical fiction, but they are essentially fantastical in terms of both its imaginary setting and its writing style, moreover, their success played a significant role in the development of fat fantasy epics in the Robert Jordan mode.)
So, there are a few factors we should keep in mind in considering the question of what writers of the last 30 years are likely to be read in the year 2111. 1) They may be a best-selling author, but probably won’t be. 2) Adaption into other media is a definite indicator. 3) Originality in either structure, style, scope, or setting helps. 4) Critical respect, if not actual acclaim, is an advantage, although there must be an amount of mass popularity as well. 5) There should be some timeless element, which in most cases will be something that speaks to the essential and unchanging truths of human nature to the extent that such things can be said to exist. 6) The author must have published several notable works, even if only one will remain well-known. 7) A particular appeal to juveniles appears to help considerably.
Before taking these factors into account, I would have initially listed the following authors from the SF/F genre as those whose literary works I thought were most likely to survive the test of time. As with all such lists, it likely says more about the tastes of the list-maker than the quality of the literature, but one has to start somewhere.
- Ray Bradbury
- Isaac Asimov
- Douglas Adams
- Arthur C. Clarke
- Robert Heinlein
- Piers Anthony
- Stephen Donaldson
- Neil Gaiman
- Tanith Lee
- Neal Stephenson
- George R.R. Martin
- David Eddings
- Susan Cooper
- Lloyd Alexander
- William Gibson
However, once one begins to examine the various factors observed from past works that have survived and remained relevant, it rapidly becomes apparent that many of these writers do not come close to meeting one or more of the seven factors listed. Ray Bradbury alone meets every point. Asimov was not particularly original and his style was pedestrian at best. However, his prolific nature helps considerably and the combined impact of Nightfall and Foundation should suffice to see that he is remembered. Adams speaks brilliantly to the timeless truths of human irrationality, but humor does not always travel well over time and if he is remembered it will likely be as more for the philosophy encapsulated in his writing than for the writing per se. Clarke’s standing has already faded considerably since his death and if the posthumous reports of his admitted paedophilia are eventually substantiated, as such things often are over time, the reputation of great works like The Nine Billion Names of God will likely suffer as a result. Heinlein should survive as well, indeed, one could say that he already has because it certainly isn’t his later works that stand today. As for the others, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that it is my personal affection for their work that has caused me to list them as possible candidates for literary longevity. Revised as per the factors I derived from my review of past bestsellers, I have reduced the list from 15 to three and added three more authors who were not on the original list.
- Ray Bradbury
- Anne Rice
- Robert Heinlein
- Isaac Asimov
- Charles de Lint
- Terry Pratchett
As for non-genre writers, my view is that Umberto Eco tops the list as he meets all the factors except the juvenile element. So, who will be the Howard of 2111? Or the Tolkien? Or, more intriguingly, the Lovecraft? Only time will tell.