Thursday, April 23, 2015

Increasing your odds of literary posterity

I have long been fascinated with the question regarding what factors are there which might predict which books succeed or fail. Which ones might not sell at all, which ones sell well for a couple of years but then fade out, which ones are runaway bestsellers, which ones last for decades and longer in print and which one last centuries? To make it concrete - Why, of the thousands of children's books published before 1970, is it that Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (first published in 1947) which sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year nearly seventy years later, indeed outselling virtually all but the hottest of bestsellers.

Or is it all a matter of chance and serendipity. I suspect that chance and serendipity play their roles, important roles, but it also seems to me that there are some underlying commonalities.

The Bizarre, Complicated Formula for Literary Fame is a book review y Joshua Rothman of a new book, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame by H.J. Jackson.
Jackson never denies the excellence of Wordsworth’s poems, or the brilliance of the novels of Jane Austen, whom she also writes about. But she does show, convincingly, that a number of other factors, some of them quite bizarre, help literary fame to endure.

Take Wordsworth: it helped, Jackson shows, that he wrote so many different kinds of poems. During his lifetime, people enjoyed reading long, philosophical poetry, and many readers, including Wordsworth himself, assumed that poems like “The Excursion” would insure his fame. Later, though, when tastes in poetry changed, it was the shorter poems in “Lyrical Ballads” that kept his readership from dwindling. It was another stroke of fortune that Wordsworth happened to write poems suitable for children; they could be included in textbooks, gaining him new generations of fans. Many of his poems take place outside England, but, early on, Wordsworth became associated with the Lake District; as a result, for hundreds of years, tour guides, travel writers, and other people interested in the cause of Lake District tourism have kept him in wide circulation. Moreover, because his poems contain so much vivid nature imagery, they lend themselves to illustration. Illustrated books tend to sell well. (Jackson is too serious a scholar to mention the perfection of Wordsworth’s name; I, unencumbered by scholarly sobriety, will note here that it’s a perfect advertisement for his literary greatness.)
Here's the code for literary greatness per Jackson.
From the examples of Wordsworth and a few other writers—Austen, Keats, and their almost-forgotten contemporaries, Mary Brunton and Barry Cornwall—Jackson derives a “checklist” of fame-enhancing characteristics. The first step, of course, is to be a talented writer, although you don’t have to be transcendentally great (“Longevity sets a high standard,” Jackson writes, but it’s “not stratospheric”). Once that’s out of the way, it helps to get along with your extended family, since, after you die, it’ll be your nephew who assembles your “Collected Poems.” It’s also a good idea to leave something artfully unfinished or unpublished—letters, a diary, half of a novel—so that your descendants can dig it up and, by publishing it, renew interest in you. (Don’t leave too much behind, or you’ll bury the good stuff.) She finds that a “shrine,” if you can manage it, is also a plus: “Choose a pretty place to live (or die) in,” Jackson writes, and “die young.” All these occurrences contribute to a compelling “personal myth,” which is worth a hundred good reviews.
Not having read the book but from other items in the article, along with my own elaboration, I would summarize differently. In order to achieve literary longevity you want to:
Write well

Write for many years

Write for many audiences

Write in many forms

Write on many topics

Write voluminously (but not incontinently)

Have many friends

Be involved in many communities

Be associated with at least one place/issue/community

Write about the quotidian as well as the unique

Engage people beyond the literary
Nothing is guaranteed but I suspect that these attributes substantially increase your odds for literary posterity.

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