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Surviving the test of time

Sunday, February 27th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

Bestselling American Novels
# Title Author
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.

  1. Ray Bradbury
  2. Isaac Asimov
  3. Douglas Adams
  4. Arthur C. Clarke
  5. Robert Heinlein
  6. Piers Anthony
  7. Stephen Donaldson
  8. Neil Gaiman
  9. Tanith Lee
  10. Neal Stephenson
  11. George R.R. Martin
  12. David Eddings
  13. Susan Cooper
  14. Lloyd Alexander
  15. 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.

  1. Ray Bradbury
  2. Anne Rice
  3. Robert Heinlein
  4. Isaac Asimov
  5. Charles de Lint
  6. 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.

22 Comments »

  1. It is probably better to look at what was around 100 years ago and survived than what didnt. In other words, who are the HG Wells, Jules Vernes, and Mark Twains of the last few decades?

    I doubt Rice will make it 100 years.

    Heinlein maybe, but people will people still be whining about how he is ‘sexist/racist/whatever’?

    Asimov will probably survive as a name, but he will be the guy everybody claims to have read, but nobody actually has.

    And you missed Philip K Dick…not because anybody will read him, but because they will still be making movies (or whatever exists in entertainment…) using his stuff as the base.

    As a matter fact that is probably a better way to look for what will survive, what can stand to be mutilated into new media.

    Comment by TW - February 27, 2011 9:02 am

  2. I didn’t forget PKD. First, he died in 1982, so most of his books were published prior to the last 30 years. Second, it is already apparent that very few people read him anymore. Third, although the many movies would tend to testify in his favor, they are usually rendered so completely unrecognizable that I don’t think they can reasonably be considered a serious factor. I really like Mr. Horselover Fat and his VALIS books are among my favorite SF works. But although his name does spring immediately to mind, upon further reflection I think he is an unlikely candidate for literary immortality.

    I find it hard to credit Rice myself, especially since her books have been reliably tedious for some time now. She would be my candidate for Lovecraft status, given the power of her influence on so many other genre writers. Your comment about Asimov is an amusingly pertinent one, it made me laugh.

    Comment by Theo - February 27, 2011 9:19 am

  3. I don’t see how this proves or relates to your argument about the decline of fantasy. Particularly given my experience that it is the radical works, the works that challenge the society and genre of their day while still touching on the universal that tend to be remembered. But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if none of the people you list survive too long except amongst well read writers and critics/ scholars of the genre.

    Comment by sftheory1 - February 27, 2011 10:17 am

  4. “I don’t see how this proves or relates to your argument about the decline of fantasy.”

    Of course it doesn’t prove anything about the decline of fantasy. I didn’t claim that it did. But I should think it was rather obvious how this is at least tangentially related to the postulated decline of fantasy, especially if it were to turn out that none of the authors of modern fantasy survived the test of time.

    Comment by Theo - February 27, 2011 11:22 am

  5. Interesting list! THe rationale for the construction seems solid as well although I disagree with some of the conclusions. I’m more of a SF than Fantasy guy, and I might be a little fuzzy on your 30 year rule, but since the purpose of any list like this is to prompt discussion and err… counter lists, heh heh… here we go:

    Contemporary Writers Who Will Still Be Read in 100 Years

    Azimov – we agree on him, although his abilities (or lack thereof) in characterization may have been a result of his Asperger’s Syndrome (which makes him being an author of fiction at all somewhat of a miracle). Azimov is the Strategist of SF, so to speak.

    Douglas Adams – I think Adams has survived quite well in the short time since his death – he was one of the few Comedy writers in SF/F. The problem is he hasn’t been successfully imitated by other writers. In NCAA terms he’s a bubble selection.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley – Popular, well respected by other writers, fits the genre’s M.O. while managing to avoid being cliched.

    Ray Bradbury – we agree on the reason.

    Arthur C. Clarke – We agree on all points, including the negative ones about his personal life.

    Michael Crichton – Azimov with better skills at characterization.

    Harlan Ellison – If you restrict the list to novelists of course he’s off the list. But just from a writing standpoint, there is no better short story writer any genre working today, and his career spans back far enough (I think) to warrent inclusion.

    Philip Jose Farmer – The Riverworld series is beginning to show a life of its own, despite the attempt to kill its movie life with that last version of the story (the first film wasn’t bad for a TV movie). I am seeing the books in paperback at the used book stores I frequent as well.

    Robert Heinlein – We agree.

    Frank Herbert – Dune. For many it is the quintessential SF novel, which guarentees it will be remembered. Though its far from his best – I’ve re-read Under Pressure every 1 to 1 1/2 years since I first read it in my teens (I’ve done the same with Look Homeward Angel too). I’m 45. (I need a new copy though.) If Azimov was the Strategist, Herbert was the Tactician; a great character writer.

    Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – Critical darling, but warrents inclusion. Like Heinlein’s VALIS (and his other “trippy” novels), Vonnegut raised pseudo-psychodelic novels to an artform.

    Your thoughts? I would be also interested in a list of “beginners” Fantasy novels, both from Theo and the other readers. I’m somewhat familiar with Tolkien, Lewis, Bradley, Zelazny, McCaffrey, Brooks and Burroughs, but if they would be on your list for beginners, so be it.

    Comment by PapaBryant - February 27, 2011 12:24 pm

  6. While I very much love Dune and consider it to be very possibly the best SF novel ever published, I think Herbert’s inability to maintain or even approach that level in subsequent novels reduces the chances he will be remembered in time. I see him and Richard Adams of Watership Down in similar terms; one surpassingly great novel meriting classic status, but an overall oeuvre that falls short. Vonnegut won’t last, barely anyone reads him now and his works often smacks of a juvenile, dated, sixties mentality. Also, as I’m sure you know, VALIS was written by Dick, not Heinlein.

    Michael Crichton is an interesting notion. I can’t bear his books myself, but certainly he mastered the multimedia approach. I’m not sure there is enough substance to his works for them to hold up, however. I am dubious, very dubious, but have to admit that he could be an unlikely possibility. I tend to see him more as landing in the Thomas B. Costain category.

    MZB is possible because she is generally viewed as the best female writer in the genre. If she was male, I’d think her unlikely, but given the potential boost of an entire academic discipline, it’s a possibility. Another, more off the wall possibility for a female writer is Charlaine Harris. Not due to any literary greatness, but more in the Rex Stout I-know-exactly-what-will-happen-but-I-will-enjoy-this-every-time category. There is little question that Agatha Christie will still be read, so why not Harris? Certainly True Blood is easily the best TV adaptation of the Sex with Dead People sub-genre to date. As much as I enjoy Lois Bujold, I can’t see Miles Vorkosigan standing up all that well over the decades. And here’s another random notion. What about the late Brian Jacques of Redwall fame?

    Comment by Theo - February 27, 2011 12:44 pm

  7. Where will J.K. Rowlings place be? Is she the next Tolkien? Answering my own query, I would say no, because while she fits most of your criteria, I can’t say the Potter has a timeless feel to them. Caveat–I didn’t read past the third one, so this may be a faulty judgement.

    Then again, if you’re saying Harris will last, why not Rowling?

    Comment by Qiz - February 27, 2011 1:07 pm

  8. I should note that Rowlings books are written primarily for children, but they enjoy a widespread adult audience. And Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote for children and their works have lasted.

    Comment by Qiz - February 27, 2011 1:13 pm

  9. Yay! Jeffery Farnol! Prince of swashbucklers, behind only Rafael Sabatini. You can bet Howard read plenty of Farnol.

    I’m surprised Ursula K. Le Guin did not make any of the lists so far. I would put her ahead of MZB in terms of possible literary longevity.

    Comment by Nathan Long - February 27, 2011 1:56 pm

  10. A thought provoking post, Theo, and well written as usual.

    I’ve heard good things about Farnol’s swashbucklers but haven’t tried him, and I’ve read some Chambers, but like you I don’t know the rest of these folks.

    I second Nathan’s vote for Le Guin ahead of MZB.

    Incidentally, Nathan, speaking of old swashbucklers I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t, what think you of Weyman? I’ve heard that Under the Red Robe and several others hold up very well.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - February 27, 2011 2:23 pm

  11. I am not one for this literary eidolon ‘Immortality,’ however I am bored enough to get my bumble-puppy on here and make a few comments.

    First I find the absence of Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Moorcock odd. They seem to fit most of your qualifications.

    I don’t believe a writer needs ‘several notable works.’ A handful ( or just a couple fingers worth! ) has sufficed for pretty much every Idola Tribus out there.

    The Gods of Literature tend to subfertility.

    ( Bonus points if anyone can name 4 novels by Melville besides Moby-Dick )

    …I know why Gene Wolfe hasn’t been mentioned…Though I so like to imagine he will one day, be other than a ‘writers-writer.’ I am sure that is Wolfes’ fate though…

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - February 27, 2011 2:28 pm

  12. Howard, I have been desperately seeking anything by Weyman in every used bookstore I visit, but being old fashioned, I haven’t hunted on-line yet. I need to correct that and read him, he is supposed to be great – the father of Sabatini.

    Comment by Nathan Long - February 27, 2011 3:27 pm

  13. I don’t think Rowlings’s books will survive the test of time. I find them to be derivative, unoriginal, and nonsensically plotted. Their mediocrity can only be fully understood by reading Tom Brown’s School Days and comparing the depth of the character development to the tedious “Harry this” and “Harry that” of the Harry Potter novels.

    What she did succeed in doing, however, was creating a fantasy world of sufficient appeal to children that they wanted to live in it. That is a genuine accomplishment and is where she compares respectably with the likes of CS Lewis and Ann McCaffrey. But I think even McCaffrey’s work is more likely to prove lasting than that of Rowlings.

    I don’t actually think Harris’s work will last, but as a mystery writer, I think she might have a better shot than Rowlings does as a fantasy writer.

    Comment by Theo - February 27, 2011 3:45 pm

  14. MZB is considered the best writer of fantasy by women?

    Comment by C - Foxessa - February 27, 2011 4:15 pm

  15. Great post. Gives a lot to think about, including the nature of literary longevity and the fickleness of history, as well as the gap between popularity and literary worth.

    I don’t think I can every read anything by Clarke again now that the disgusting rumors are apparently proven as truth. Makes my skin crawl.

    Glad to see Tanith Lee on the list. And I’m absolutely positive William Gibson will be taught/read/discussed in a hundred years. At least the first half of his career, even if his latest work is becoming less and less relevant, the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies alone have secured him a place in literary history.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 27, 2011 8:32 pm

  16. >MZB is considered the best writer of fantasy by women?

    No disrespect to MZB, but I much prefer Tanith Lee for that consideration.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - February 27, 2011 8:33 pm

  17. As I said in the other post: this is a really intriguing idea, and inherently science-fictional. To really figure out who’ll last a hundred years, one has to consider what sort of society will be around in a hundred years, what sort of thing we’ll be likely to be reading in that context, what copyright will look like … a lot of things start to come into play.

    First off, though, is the question of what it means “to be read.” I mean, responses on this thread show that Jeffrey Farnol’s still on some people’s radar; there is in fact a Jeffrey Farnol Appreciation Society —

    http://cres1.lancs.ac.uk/~esarie/farnol/farnol.htm

    — so who knows? I vaguely remembered the name Gene Stratton-Porter, and Wikipedia tells me that A Girl of the Limberlost (which is the book I almost remembered) is “a classic of Indiana literature”. So if a book is remembered in a certain place, by a certain subset of readers, does that count?

    I mean, you seem pretty categorical about Dick and Vonnegut both fading away now, while to me they’re clearly writers still being read — Dick was recently reprinted in the Library of America, which is pretty major. Both writers are commonplaces on University curricula (which may not be what you meant by ‘still being read’), and both I think are generally known to readers in general. I’m not saying they’ll necessarily last a century more, but they’d seem to me like good bets. Why do you think they’re not being read?

    Secondly, I think it’s reasonable to ask whether the past, specifically the past of 100 years ago, is an effective guide to the present, and to the future 100 years from now. The trend seems to be toward increasing availability of almost everything, Does that help a writer’s survivability, or make it easier to get lost in all the noise? And: was what the publishing industry was doing 100 years ago equivalent to what it’s doing now? 100 years ago there was no TV, no talking film, not even much radio. Books were mass media. Everybody read. Have the changes in the book market affected what might survive and why?

    Looking at the factors you suggest as important, I’m in general agreement with 1, 2, and 4, though I think 1 (not necessarily a best-seller) and part of 4 (the “amount of mass popularity”) are contradictory; I agree with the ‘not necessarily a best-seller’ part, and the critical respect part. I have to admit I don’t see the relevance of 6 and 7; I agree they’re not likely to hurt, but are they necessary? Having a ton of books out didn’t help Farnol, and doesn’t seem to have hurt J.D. Salinger (and arguably Tolkien, as much of what’s been published by him came about as a result of the success of The Lord of the Rings). I’d like to agree with 3 and 5, but I think almost any book can be said to have some kind of originality and some kind of timeless element if you’re prepared to go looking hard enough. What I mean is: it’s easy to look at a book and say ‘this survived, therefore it has a timeless element,’ but I don’t know if it’s possible to predict what people 100 years from now will think is original or even timeless. Put it this way: you and I would probably say P.G. Wodehouse meets that standard. It’s not likely most people in 1930 or 1940 would have called his work timeless, and possibly not even original. (Not saying it isn’t original; just saying people at the time might not have recognised it.)

    In terms of the lists you suggest, there are names I agree with and names I don’t. I’d say, though, that if Douglas Adams doesn’t last, I doubt Terry Pratchett will. But, while it’s a good point about humour varying over time, we do still read Wodehouse, Wilde, and even Jerome K. Jerome. I think Clarke’s paedophilia, true or not, probably won’t have an impact; the personal lives of Wagner or Burroughs or Byron didn’t stop them from becoming popular (to varying degrees, but still). Actually, the same thing’s probably true of Heinlein; whether he lasts or not, the further we go from the time he wrote, the easier it is for a contemporary reader to say ‘oh, well, it’s racist/sexist/jingoistic, but then he was a man of his times.’ I actually think Gaiman’s got the best claim for literary immortality of anyone in either of your lists, just perhaps not for his prose; his Sandman comics are pretty clearly not only phenomenally popular, but important to the history and development of comics. That is, Sandman’s something anybody who’s interested in the medium is likely to read at least a bit of (Alan Moore seems a lead-pipe cinch to last, as well). Non-genre … I suspect Salman Rushdie’s a good bet, as that ‘Booker of Booker’ win for Midnight’s Children seems in line with the way that novel’s stood up. Beyond that, who can say?

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 27, 2011 9:19 pm

  18. Interesting the slightly different takes we have on Frank Herbert. Was Dune your first taste of Herbert? I ask only because I came to read Dune after reading Under Pressure and I wonder, since your opinion is simular to other critiques of Herbert I’ve read, if this might color my take on him.

    VALIS, Dick – (cue the Homer Simpson impression) Doh! …. Brain problems. I read the book for a Religious Philosophy class as an undergrad.

    Charlaine Harris? Interesting choice, and I agree why – she’s doing the “in” thing but she does it so well. Only read the first two books in that series, but they were interesting. Not familiar with Brian Jacques, but will look up.

    Going outside novels and short stories, what do you think of Alan Moore (besides him being certifiably insane)? Possible that he is the only comic writer that survives 100 years? Or will Frank Miller join him in that distiction?

    Comment by PapaBryant - February 28, 2011 12:06 am

  19. Theo, you seem to have left out some historical considerations.

    For example, the popularity of science fiction rests on a peculiar fascination with science and technology as somehow determinative of human nature and of the structure of society, not to mention a widespread, unwarranted belief in the ability to “scientifically” predict scientific discoveries. If science, society, or mass belief were to take an unexpected turn, all this might pass away. The authors who would remain might then be those who seem in the future to be emblematic of their age, regardless of their quality.

    Fantasy authors, in that sense, probably have a better chance of surviving the storms of history, insofar as they are more likely to address timeless themes in a way that won’t seem hopelessly anachronistic, regardless of what changes.

    Like it or not, academic tastemakers in the future will also be making decisions about what is canon and forcing it on their pupils. That will have more to do with the priorities of the educational establishment and with their need to discern some abstract literary trend to teach.

    Finally, of course, if a work isn’t widely available in the future, it will get lost among the billions of other works from this period. I would speculate that most works which are neither public domain nor frequently pirated will be largely forgotten.

    Comment by David the Wake - February 28, 2011 1:19 am

  20. I do think being read in academic settings still counts as being read. There are plenty of people who will smirk and say English departments are where books go to die, but there are also forgotten books and forgotten authors who have been brought back embraced by the general public through a process that began with a handful of obsessed scholars who added those books to their students’ reading lists. Zora Neale Hurston is the best example of this phenomenon.

    So authors like Bradbury and Le Guin, who are widely taught, will continue to be read, and Hope Mirrlees’s comeback will get pick up momentum as genre geeks with a foothold in academia keep adding Lud-in-the-Mist to their syllabi. The “Season of Mists” movement of Gaiman’s Sandman fits so beautifully at the end of an Intro to Mythology syllabus, I’d bet on Gaiman’s longevity even if there were no other reason to think he’d still be with us.

    Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeleine L’Engle will probably go on being widely taught in elementary and middle schools for long enough that, even if they’re displaced from the schools before the century runs out, there will be enough adults who read and loved those books as children to keep them alive.

    And I concur with the commenters above who would name Le Guin as the most important woman fantasy writer.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - February 28, 2011 1:31 am

  21. David the Wake up there caught some of the reasons for my ennui with again, the ‘literary eidolon, Immortality.’

    I repeat the hope of glory for Le Guin, ( Alan ) Moore, Herbert, Dick and Gaiman.

    I am least concerned about, Dick, Le Guin, and Gaiman. Yes, even over Herbert…

    Out of those I hope most for Moore. Alan Moore is an amazing writer.

    Note I did not say Comic Book/Graphic Novel, I simply wrote ‘writer.’

    I shouldn’t have to justify that…

    I add that Thomas Ligotti, has a shot in the dark for this, though he is woefully overlooked in his lifetime.

    PS: Further note that my opinions on these false prophesies do not reflect, any personal favouritism. I ‘stood up’ for several writers I do not particularly enjoy, and or admire.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - February 28, 2011 5:58 pm

  22. and what about one of my favourites Richard Matheson? and, though I haven’t read him, J.G. Ballard? and classical authors like Alfred Bester and Robert Silverberg?
    Michael Moorcok of course and Stephen King as pointed above

    Comment by francisco72 - March 1, 2011 6:04 pm


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