FROM THE PULPIT
MORE THAN A decade ago, when I was a bored postgraduate student, I became obsessed with the work of Kingsley Amis. I had read Lucky Jim before, and thought it not as funny as it should have been; but now I reread it and found it wonderful. So I star ted working my way through Amis’s other novels. Ver y f ew o f t hem were i n p r i n t : even a decent Waterstones usually had only Lucky Jim and The Old Devils. Online shopping was in its infancy, so I relied on second-hand bookshops to get the others. Even a visit to the most obscure market town car r ied a fr isson of excitement: would that battered little bookstall hold a dog-eared copy, of , say, The Riverside Villas Murder? Would this be the day I finally tracked down Amis’s James Bond novel, Colonel Sun? What all this reflected, of course, was the fact that shares in Amis were at a discount. He had died only a few years earlier, and his literary reputation seemed to be entering an inevitable eclipse. ‘He’s nowhere near as good as his son,’ said a friend of mine who worked at a big literary agency – a sentence that now seems as dated as, say, a prediction that Stephen Byers would be the next prime minister.
Ru l e s f o r L i t e r a r y S u r v i v a l
The agent Andrew Wylie has always maintained that i t makes sense for publishers to pay heavily for literary fiction, because people will still be buying it decades later. But this is only partly true. If you had bought s hare s i n George Orwell in, say, 1935, when he published A Clergyman’s Daughter, you would, admittedly, be laughing today. But what if you had invested in Marghanita Laski, or Elizabeth Bowen, or Elizabeth Taylor? Would your Muriel Spark shares be worth as much now as they were in 1965? True, your Golding and Burgess holdings, propped up by sales of Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange, would still be performing pretty well. But wouldn’t you rather have followed your neighbour’s advice and sunk all your money into Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie?
Few wr iters, I suppose, keep an eye on poster ity. Deep down, most are probably more worried about appeasing their editor, pleasing the critics and paying the bills. In any case, it is difficult enough to write a book that people of your own generation will like, let alone readers with values and expectations you can barely imagine. But for those who dream of being read decades after their death, there are a few obvious rules.
For while Martin’s reputation is bleeding from endless self-inflicted wounds, Kingsley’s stock has bounced back. Thanks partly to a hilarious collection of letters and an excellent biography by Zachary Leader, he has reemerged from the shadows. This summer Penguin republished One Fat Englishman, Ending Up, The King’s English and my particular favourite, Girl, 20, as Modern Classics. Next summer, Vintage Classics are br inging out The Green Man, The Alteration and Stanley and the Women, among others. Almost despite himself, KA is banging on the doors of the canon.
Fifty year ago, when Amis was being hailed as the voice of a generation and fêted by every editor in London, such an outcome would have seemed entirely natural. But tr iumphant success with one generation does not always guarantee popularity with the next. For reasons that are often quite obscure, literary stocks soar and plummet. One of my favourite authors of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, is Angus Wilson. Dur ing his lifetime, books like Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Old Men at the Zoo, The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot and Late Call were widely and enthusiastically reviewed. Had the Booker Prize been going then, it is quite possible that one of his books would have won it. But who reads Angus Wilson now? His books are available only as Faber Finds – which means you will never see them in a shop. Even his Wikipedia entry is pretty derisory. ‘A wearer of large, brightly-coloured bow-ties, he was one of the “famous homosexuals” at Bletchley,’ it says curtly. ‘Several of his works were adapted for television.’
By far the best way to ensure longevity, it seems to me, is to write a short book with a clear moral message, thereby improving your chances of getting on school syllabuses. How many copies of Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird, after all, have been sold to teenagers?
To be fair, though, this is a crowded market. So you might fall back on the second option: a slightly longer book that taps some of the social preoccupations of the day, but, more importantly, can be used to illustrate some very fashionable literary trend. That way you are more likely to get on a university reading list. And if you write in a self-consciously difficult, allusive way, then you get a bonus: people will write doctoral dissertations about you. Keep a picture of Angela Carter on your desk for inspiration.
If neither of these appeals, there remain two other possibilities. One is to write a book very firmly rooted in the here and now, saturated in contemporary detail and addressing the great social or political issues of the day. Hoping to show off their literary credentials, historians will ransack you for quotations. If you are lucky, your book will become a kind of emblem of your period, just as, say, Lucky Jim and Money are of theirs. Then there is a fourth option: a film deal. Tricky to arrange, admittedly, but absolutely pr iceless. Had it not been for Stanley Kubr ick, how many people would still be reading Anthony Burgess?
There is, of course, a fifth option. You could write a sincere, thoughtful book that people actually want to read. But even that is no guarantee of longevity. Just ask Angus Wilson. ❑
LITERARY REVIEW September 2011