FROM THE PULPIT
going to be a young critic called F R Leavis. Academics, critics and biographers have often colluded in the firming up – and sometimes the invention – of literary reputations. I
WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT
OLIVERGOLDSMITHONCE wrote a ‘Reverie’ in which he imagined standing in an inn yard, trying to board ‘a small carriage, Berlin fashion’ that would take a few choice passengers to the Temple of Fame. Two hopeful men of letters (names withheld, but easily recognisable by most readers in 1759 as Arthur Murphy and John Hill) were refused entrance by the driver of this ‘fame machine’; Smollett, Johnson and Hume all got on board. Goldsmith himself tried to gain access by showing the driver a copy of The Bee, the magazine in which his odd little fantasy appeared. But The Beewas his undoing; the driver took one look at it and told him to buzz off. Who’s in, who’s out and who’s dropped off the fame machine as it shuttles to and from the Temple of Worthies is as difficult to determine as ever. Who would have thought, back in the 1970s, that Anthony Powell and Angus Wilson would fall completely out of fashion? I never got round to reading them then, and feel no compunction to do so now, though locating copies of their books might afford a certain antiquarian pleasure. Even V S Pritchett and Iris Murdoch are in eclipse, despite the biographies and critical studies and the sight of Kate Winslet naked in the biopic. Every generation does its own forgetting: in the early 1900s Marie Corelli and John Galsworthy were the super-sellers, now rarely read, rarely even in print. Who among our bestselling contemporaries will become the unread authors of the future? Dan Brown, certainly, but – dare one think it? – J K Rowling? Ian McEwan? Will Stephen King outlast Salman Rushdie? Huge acclaim in one’s lifetime is no more a guarantee of lasting fame than huge sales. George Meredith was the most venerated author of his generation, not just a bestseller with The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Evan Harringtonand The Egoist, but the Victorian media’s equivalent of a literary saint. On his eightieth birthday, two emissaries from the Society of Authors went to Meredith’s home near Box Hill to read a formal address; the King sent congratulations, having already awarded him the Order of Merit; the papers all covered the event. Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Hardy, Stevenson and Henry James were among his many ardent fans and emulators: he was a true writer’s writer. But now he has vanished without trace: no TV adaptations, no dazzling auction prices, no place, as far as I’m aware, on any university syllabus alongside his old admirers. Nothing, indeed, has had so much bearing on literary reputations in the last century as the invention of English Literature as an area of study and the exclusive-club aspects of ‘the canon’. Perhaps that was Meredith’s only significant failure in an otherwise unimpeachable literary career: not realising that the next driver of the fame machine was
was at a meeting of women writers recently where someone thought fit to eulogise the late Tillie Olsen, setting off a series of corroborative replies. But no one, even in this sympathetic group, could bring themselves to describe Olsen as a great or even good writer; the adjective that kept recurring was ‘brave’. For those who don’t know, Olsen is famous for struggling for years with writer’s block, having written one promising short story in the 1940s. She published a short collection of stories in the Sixties and compiled a collection of musings on the subject – oh, irony! – of Silences, but apart from an unfinished novel, that was it. Her whole career was about what it’s like to be frustrated in one’s craft; the topic earned her more grants, prizes, fellowships and lecture tours than you would imagine possible. It was a surreal riff on how to have a full-blown literary reputation without actually having to produce much literature. Authors, naturally, tend to worry about the whims of posterity and take comfort from stories of slow-burning fame, revivals, republications, or, best of all, posthumous ‘discovery’. Look at Emily Dickinson, Hopkins, Traherne, they say; all unknown and virtually unpublished in their lifetimes. Look at the whole of the Virago Modern Classics list, lovingly rescued from obscurity. Look at Jane Austen. She was out of print in the 1820s, and not much read at all (certainly not much in comparison with the global phenomenon she has become) until the first biography came out, fifty years after her death. OK, she didn’t make the best decision in leaving all her manuscripts to her sister. A board of trustees, containing one or two well-known networkers and perhaps an MP, might have got the whole Austen brand in the shops a few decades earlier. Even the best authors can make use of a leg-up into the fame machine. There are lessons to be learned here for the writer anxious to maximise his or her chances of lasting renown, which I can perhaps summarise in the following plan. One: don’t leave your papers to a pyromaniac, minimalist or aggrieved rival. Two: don’t leave the ‘Life’ to chance. Grow your own biographer. Nephews and nieces may be suitable, but acquiring a guileless juvenile devotee is by far the best stratagem. Three: nagging your publisher over tedious issues such as the availability of your deathless prose is always counter-productive. Set up a trust fund instead to keep at least one of your books in print through a private press. You might also consider having Masses said for the improvement of your Amazon rating. Life is short, but art can be pretty short too. Take action now.
LITERARY REVIEW October 2007