Tag Archives: Popularity

Writing for Posterity

The longevity of our books is something that few of us think about, in the dispiriting scrabble to get published in the here and now. As William Saroyan observed:

Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.

Contemplating which successful and influential books published in the last thirty years will become classics, revered through the ages, it’s easy to be swayed by titles that sold in their millions, but surely there should be more to a book’s worth than earning money. J. K. Rowling’s books contain life lessons that will be relevant through time, whereas E. L. James output will swirl down the plughole.

A classic is a book that has never finished what it has to say.

Italo Calvino

A salutary thought is, that many books that are lauded as classics probably wouldn’t get published these days, initially rejected by literary agents, the gatekeepers of publishing, for being too slow to start, too long, too wordy with a confusing plot populated by unbelievable characters.

Image result for literary agent cartoon

What made me think of this post, was researching the life of a forgotten mid-20th-century writer called Robin Hyde. I came across one of her poems in a newsletter, which prompted me to order her only book in Cornwall’s library system. It’s a novel called Check To Your King, which was first published in 1936. It hadn’t been borrowed from the reserve stock at library headquarters since 1996. Robin Hyde had a sad life, but was productive as a writer, until she ended things when the struggle became intolerable.

She wasn’t as successful as she should have been for the huge effort she put into her writing, but even wildly popular authors disappear into the mists of time:

Some writers achieve great popularity and then disappear forever. The bestseller lists of the past fifty years are, with a few lively exceptions, a sombre graveyard of dead books.

Carlos Fuentes

With my own writing, any ambition I have is confined to maybe making a few quid, while entertaining crime fiction fans and making them think a bit about the issues I raise about life in the early 21st-century. The idea of writing for posterity, of being mentioned in the same breath as masters of the crime genre, such as Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, James Lee Burke and Elmore Leonard, is laughable to me.

How about you?

Will your gravestone become a place of pilgrimage for legions of loyal fans?

How do you feel about having your biography written by some nosy journalist?

Will your family be squabbling over the rights to your work, after you pass?

I like what one of my writing heroes Richard Brautigan said:

It’s Only a Book!

After editing my fifth Cornish Detective novel, followed by making a monkey of myself by returning to querying and self-promotion, I’ve been staying sane by writing a novella about 21st-century rural witches. To assist future writing efforts, I’ve been working my way through published crime authors’ series, trying to read them in order, to see how they tackle the story arcs of their characters.

After noticing that some of these series have run to a dozen or more titles, I had the rather chastening thought that I’m constructing a trap for myself. I’ve written science fiction, historical and ghost stories, as well as poetry, song lyrics and flash fiction, but should I ever achieve success with my crime novels, I’ll end up pigeon-holed. Hence, why writers invent pen names.

Image result for pen name writer cartoon

Some authors achieve success with one particular character, with the rest of their work unheard of. A good example of this is Georges Simenonfamous for 104 Maigret crime novels and short stories, but he wrote a total of almost 500 novels in his lifetime. All in all, he was a very busy boy, as in 1977 he claimed that he’d made love to 10,000 women in the 61 years since his 13th birthday!

Nathaniel Hawthorne summed up this predicament well:

It is a good lesson—though it may often be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of literary fame … to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of all significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.

It helps to get real…it’s easy to become precious about writing. A book is a consumer item. As with any form of art, some titles are revered, becoming that overused cliché Classics. Others are disposable consumer items, as memorable as a microwavable ready meal.

As Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes observed:

Some writers achieve great popularity and then disappear forever. The bestseller lists of the past fifty years are, with a few lively exceptions, a sombre graveyard of dead books.

I’m an avid reader, visiting my local library once a week, as well as buying paperbacks at the nearby charity shop. I get through three novels every week. Sometimes, I go online to peruse my borrowing history to find who wrote a book I enjoyed, to see if they’ve written any more since. What shocks me, is how many of them I’ve forgotten reading, unable to recall much, if anything, of the plot. It makes me realise how books are ephemeral.

So, why am I writing? The clever (and honest) answer is because I can’t not write: the stories are in me and they’ve got to come out—like lava from a volcano.

To my great surprise, I’ve written in what I hope is a commercial way, creating stories that lend themselves to being adapted into a television series. I’m reassured that there’s a precedent for my Cornish Detective series, as W. J. Burley wrote twenty-two Inspector Wycliffe stories set in the county and adapted for television in the 1990s…still shown ad nauseam on Freeview. I’ve rarely been motivated by making money in my careering work life, but I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.

I’m not looking for immortality from my novels, though if they do get turned into a television drama, my Inspector Kettle might be annoying viewers for decades!

Why do you write?

Are you doing it to entertain youngsters?

Do you yearn for fame and fortune?

Or longevity?