Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Fame, lasting and fleeting

Which would you rather: to be a rich and famous novelist during your lifetime, then sink into obscurity for ever, or struggle while alive and then have everlasting popularity and prestige? Galsworthy or Austen?

I doubt the best-selling vampire and zombie novels will be more than curiosities fifty years from now. Harry Potter just might become a classic, though in my opinion the later books are less entertaining than the early ones. Room, Before I Go To Sleep, and Gone Girl seem to me, gripping though they are, unlikely to last. What do you think? Nominations for lasting/non-lasting contemporary novels in the comments, please.

I hesitantly believe that long term, the public has excellent taste. Shakespeare is valued and Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher all but forgotten. But ... a book has to be published, even if it doesn't sell well during the author's life, to have any hope of becoming lastingly popular. Paintings don't have this problem - see Van Gogh. Had Jane Austen's novels just been circulated among her family, she would be unknown today, to the great loss of the reading public. Which makes me wonder how many terrific books which failed to find a publisher in the last half-century languish in drawers or forgotten in attics, never to find their readers. Thanks to Jeff Bezos, this is far less likely to happen these days.


writenow said...

What a great question, Lexi.

I choose option (c): Achieve modest success while alive so your struggle is manageable, ensuring that you don't quit or starve to death; and THEN achieve the legacy every writer desires and be on all the university lit courses' required reading lists in future.

Is that too much to ask?

Lexi said...

Hmmm...I'm interested to know whether you think that after death, you will be in a position to know that your books feature on university literary reading lists. Because if not (and given that it's not possible to enjoy the prospect of such uncertain success) it doesn't seem to me you'd be getting anything out of it.

writenow said...

No, I personally don't believe in life after death, so I wouldn't know whether I made a lasting impact on the world of literature. But wasn't a posthumous legacy one of the choices you presented? Since (in my opinion) no dead authors know of their lasting legacy, I'd like to enjoy at least enough success while alive to fully pursue my writing goals, then (if it is an option), leave a lasting literary legacy post-death. I may never enjoy the fruits of my legacy, but I would still choose the legacy if given a choice! To me, that is the closest any one of us can come to life after death.

Stephen said...

Lexi, I agree that being discovered after one’s death seems to offer scant comfort. But that ought to be better than never being discovered!

I vote for being truly satisfied with one’s own work, regardless of how it’s received, now or later. On the other hand, since we’re often our worst critics that pleasure too is elusive.

Nominations for lasting significance are going to change over time. A great many contemporary novels are worthy portrayals of life as it’s lived today, but future generations may make selections based on their view of how our era relates to theirs. Still, in terms of both social/historical significance and quality of the prose, I might suggest The Persian Bride, by James Buchan or The Human Stain, by Philip Roth.

russell1200 said...

It is hard enough to accomplish some sort of worthwhile fame (infamy is a bit easier) at all. The fraction of enduringly famous authors is so tiny that they approach the odds on winning lotteries, or high school basketball players becoming Hall of Fame NBA stars.

Lexi said...

Writenow, offering posthumous fame as a hypothetical option doesn't mean it has value to the posthumously famous person - but like Stephen, I'd take anything I can get :o)

Stephen, I've been on writers' sites and noticed that the worse the writer, the more pleased he seems to be with his efforts. I haven't read the two books you suggest. I'll take a look.

Russell, you may be right. Writing for publication is a crazy enterprise, whichever way you look at it.

quantum said...

This makes me think of Richard Feynman accepting the Nobel prize.

"He did not want to receive the prize because he thought that the theory was its own prize, but accepted it because had he refused it he would have gotten even greater publicity."

I think he might have had tongue in cheek when saying that! LOL

Lexi said...

I don't know - you made me look up Richard Feynman, and I found this video: He seems to have been genuinely pained by his Nobel Prize, though perhaps he came to terms with it.

I'm not like that, I fear. I'd love to be a Dame. And the robes you get with the Order of the Garter would really suit me...

Fiona Pearse said...

Its a good question, Lexi. If I could choose between money and fame, I'd take the money. I guess I'd rather enjoy life than leave a lasting impression. Call me shallow!

Lexi said...

Me too, Fiona.

Anna Hunt said...

I've been mulling this over for days, Lexi, and have settled on this: I'd like to hear my great grandchildren say 'Grandma was second only to Charles Dickens' but as the chances of that are terribly slim, either being able to hear it or it being true, I guess I'd opt for fortune and just a little fame.

Perhaps I should be buried with an ear trumpet hatchway just in case.

Lexi said...

Not sure my posts warrant that much mulling, Anna. I note those of us who express an opinion are going for the pragmatic option.

Alexander the Great would have voted for everlasting fame; but then he had fame and fortune while alive as well, and probably knew he'd be remembered after his death.

Iain said...

Whether ’tis nobler to be alive’n’rich, or dead’n’famous? No-brainer if yer arsk me. But then, I’m an atheist.

Contemporary novels which might stand the test of time? It’s a good question, because the best (though, I suspect, not infallible) indicator of a book’s quality is its longevity. But to judge the stature of a novel written today is like trying to gauge the height of a mountain when you’re at the foot of it. You need distance before you can tell. Nonetheless, I’ll tentatively suggest that Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses might last.

You give the titles of three recently-published novels which have made a splash, but which you think unlikely to survive infancy. Well, a little googling reveals that the authors of all three are members of what I term “the publishable classes”. Would we even have heard of them otherwise?

How many fine novels might be mouldering in attics, never to be read by anyone? A lot, trust me. (And trust yourself, because I’m pretty sure you’d say the same.) Although the vast bulk of self-published, vanity-published and unpublished novels are worthless, it would be naive to think that nothing good ever fails. We have the evidence now, in the form of many successful works which, but for digital publishing, would never have escaped the attic.

I have twice read works the greatness of which was so apparent to me that I could be certain that I wasn’t succumbing to the natural tendency to value what we are told to value (on pain of having your fingers warmed, as one of my teachers used to put it): King Lear and Wuthering Heights. (It concerns me that these are two of the most bonkers works of literature ever written, but I’d better be honest.)

It is in truth almost impossible to tell which seed will grow, and which will not. If John Grisham had not bought up the remaindered copies of his first book and hawked them himself, he would be just another failed novelist, and I wouldn't have written this paragraph.

You know better than any just how arbitrary and unfair the system is. Who would ever have heard of Lexi Revellian if the Kindle had not appeared at the crucial moment? No agent rejected you because your work just wasn't good enough (though the less reflective might have thought that was their reason): they rejected you because they didn’t think they could sell your work. And they were probably right: Lexi Revellian? Who she?

And finally, a word of apology. I first read “I honestly believe that long term, the public has excellent taste”, but what you wrote was “I hesitantly believe that long term, the public has excellent taste.” My apologies for thinking that you had perpetrated a meaningless adverb. “Hesitantly” is good, and shows that adverbs are not always bad things. Good work, Lexicon.

Q: I distinctly recall killing you in a duel months ago. Lie down, dammit. And if you’re not prepared to do that, at least keep your rotting paws off Richard Feynman, whose name reflected his nature. I’m in full agreement with him on the subject of honours, and only wish that someone might give me the chance to prove it.

quantum said...

Do I feel a rippling in the aether? I think that loser Ian must be trying to escape from his parallel universe!
According to Quantum Theory I have to observe him in order for him to materialize.
I think I will continue to ignore him! LOL

On a more serious note I should say that I am a huge admirer of Feynman's Physics and have used many of his mathematical methods in my own research. Thanks for the link Lexi, I hadn't seen that before and he does give a feeling of sincerity in the video.

I think that most academics in all disciplines (including writers) crave recognition for their work. At the time of the prize award, Feynman was very famous in the physics world. He published his work in the top journals and had already achieved huge success and publicity. The Nobel Prize was just the icing on the cake and to make those comments about publicity seemed to me to be uncharacteristically ungracious. I think he was really just expressing a dislike of prizes. As long as people recognized and used his work, he felt that that was sufficient reward. He was an amazing character.

Lexi said...

Iain, that's not a comment, it's a blog post.

We have a consensus thus far - take the money while in a position to enjoy it. Don't know that I agree about Wuthering Heights - the characters are all so disagreeable I've never managed to read it all. (Not that I've tried very hard.) I prefer Hamlet to King Lear myself.

I did have an agent for six and a half days, who was full of enthusiasm for Trav Zander until reason prevailed and she dumped me.

Q, in my experience writers are a particularly needy bunch. Hence the worrying way many will sign a grotesquely unfair contract for the sake of 'validation'. I'm sure it's a tiny minority who can resist reading their reviews to see what readers think. Mark you, readers matter a lot more than agents and publishers.

Parish Spinster said...

As usual, I'm shamefully late to the party but I'll throw in my twopenn'orth anyway. ;-)

What's wrong with art for art's sake? Writing for the sheer pleasure of making a new universe out of words. That's got to count for something, surely?

(You can tell I've given up all home of lifetime affluence and posthumous acclaim, can't you?)

Richard Feyman was the finest Nobel Laureate to play the bongo drums. And, going back to Lexi's original post, I must confess to a soft spot for Kit Marlowe, since I wrote much of the Canterbury Marlowe walking tour guide!

Lexi said...

Writing my first novel was pure pleasure, but once you have made money from books there is no going back, I fear.

I like Marlowe too (studied his plays for S level Eng Lit) but he was out of luck being a contemporary of Shakespeare.