Booking Through Thursday: Posterity

November 19, 2009 at 10:43 am | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

This week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

What an absolutely terrific, timely question!

John Irving was in town recently, and Trish and I went to see him.  He said he doesn’t think anyone is writing well these days, and talked about how his writing was influenced by Hardy and Dickens.  I have to ask how someone who spends a great deal of time writing books (long ones, too) has enough time left over to read a broad enough survey of contemporary literature to scoff at all of it, lock, stock, and barrel.  Stephen King writes significantly more, and he seems to have scads of time to compliment other writers and review newcomers’ work.

But I digress.

I think we’re going to have an embarrassment of riches 100 years from now.  Many of the books on our current classics list will still be read.  In addition, it seems there has been exponential growth in publishing in the last century, and with e-books there are comparatively few barriers for obscure authors.  The problem will be weeding through it all and producing a short enough list of stellar books that a large enough community of readers can enjoy and discuss them together.  (Look at the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and how many versions it’s already been through).  Part of what makes a classic is that it speaks to people on universal themes across cultural boundaries, and that’s harder to attribute to a book if only the writer and a half dozen readers know of its existence.

The other thing is that there have always been two brands of “classics” – the Masterpiece and the Broadly Appealing.  Dickens and Hugo, for instance, are always on the classics lists, but they were… kinda… hacks, weren’t they?  Joyce and Faulkner are also on the lists, but most people can’t force themselves through their stuff.  These two groups will continue to be read, but the Masterpiece list will tend to be read by a smaller, crankier group.

The real point of this question is to name some names, of course – who will still be around in 100 years?  I’m just going through what I’ve read and picking out names at random.  Marjane Satrapi.  Alexander McCall Smith.  Marilynne Robinson.  Ian McEwan.  Toni Morrison.  J. D. Salinger  (He’s still alive and I’m not convinced he’s not holding out on us).   Ray Bradbury.  Richard Russo.  Annie Dillard.  Cormac McCarthy.  J.K. Rowling.  Kazuo Ishiguro.  Salman Rushdie.  Margaret Atwood.

It pains me to look through my list and have to pass over most of my favorite authors.  There are also several authors I suspect will be read, but can’t add here because I haven’t yet read any of their books myself.  Mostly I think the “new classics” lists are going to be adjusted more and more frequently, and they will contain more single works as opposed to authors’ entire oeuvres.

You know what would be great?  If everyone argued out a ‘100 for 2109’ list.  1,001 is just too long.  The trick is, you have to decide which “current” classic authors (i.e. Dickens, Austen) are going to wind up being cut.

With modern medicine and nutrition, it’s possible some of us reading this will actually still be alive in 2109.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?

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  1. Completely agree that there are two brands of classics. I too left off some of my favorite authors, but I feel better because you included at least two of them on yours (Marilynne Robinson and Richard Russo). Wonderful including Marjane Satrapi, because I think graphic novels will become more prevalent/relevant.

    • I think all books should be graphic novels, but there aren’t enough artists to go around! The other problem is that I’ve never seen a graphic novel that didn’t have major punctuation problems.

  2. Hmm. I really don’t think that many authors will make the classics list in the future. Here is mine

  3. Yes! Dickens was a hack but he was a popular one. The addition of Dickens in the question immediately made me think of Dan Brown. My full answer is here.

    • You see exactly what I mean. Is a book a classic because it touches people, regardless of time or circumstance? (Yes) Or is it a classic because it’s a monument of brilliant artistic achievement? (Yes) Do the two categories sometimes not overlap very much? (Yes)

  4. Good choices! McEwan and Irving made my list.

  5. I think your comment about which currently “classic” authors will be cut is exactly right–that’s the really interesting thing. There certainly are a number of previously “classic” authors who are already fading. I think the translatability of novels into films/TV/electronic media of some unimaginable kind is probably the key.

    Austen films very well. So does Shakespeare. Dickens too, in fact. Their stories get modified and adapted and retold in new and interesting ways all the time. Authors whose works just don’t appeal in that same way will have an increasingly hard time of it. I’d already say that an author like Henry James, once indisputably a “classic” American author, has dropped off the cultural radar. I hate to say it, but someone like Mark Twain will have a tougher time hanging onto a top spot (Sawyer just isn’t that interesting a film–ends up feeling very Dennis the Menace–and I’ve never seen a film of Huck I thought really worked). As much as I like F. Scott Fitzgerald, none of his books really translate to film successfully (or at least they have yet to do so), and I can see him diminishing into the status of “novelist we all read once in high school (Gatsby) and never think of again”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, alas, is already there. I think this is a very broad and general rule, with likely multiple exceptions both ways. But I have to believe it matches the trend of society.

    • I think certain books translate so well to film because all the long, detailed descriptions can be summed up with costumes and scenery. Entire pages on mountains and pastures can be done in seconds with one screen shot!

      Some authors like Twain may get bumped because of outdated racial imagery and unfashionable dialect writing. In my list of authors I think will make it, I excluded anyone whose major works had to do with WWII or the Vietnam War, because I think these will be less topical a century from now. That may be even more the case with 19th century issues.

      I think Gatsby will make it, though.

  6. I have to be honest, I’ve never really liked Dickens and have had zero interest in him. But I am curious as to why he is a hack?

    I think your list is great. There are so many that are timeless that it could be a bit of a crap shoot as to who remains 🙂

    • Great question – I’m so glad you asked! I looked up a quick dictionary definition of ‘hack’ and came up with ‘a writer hired to produce routine or commercial writing.’ Dickens wrote for popular periodicals and was paid by installment, so it was to his pecuniary interest to drag out his storylines and make them a bit soap-operatic to draw in readers and boost sales. While he promoted socially progressive messages, he did tend to go for the cheap and easy emotional moments, the cliffhangers, and the technicolor drama – the lowest common denominator.

      That said, I love Dickens! I just don’t think he’s renowned for subtlety.


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