Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Golden oldies triumph again -- maybe

The Times has a piece about the publishing plans of Nonsuch, a company based in Stroud (i.e. outside London) and part of the Tempus Group. Nonsuch intend to republish a few authors who were huge sellers around the time of Dickens but who have long since dropped out of sight.

The thinking seems to be: these books were once huge sellers, even bigger than Dickens. Dickens is still a big seller. So, these writers could also be huge sellers, all over again. All we have to do is set them before the public.

Chief candidate for this resuscitation process is one Judge Haliburton, once the literary 'lion of London' and originator of such quips as 'the early bird gets the worm' and 'getting blood out of a stone'.

Hmm. Well, we shall see. There are indeed lots of books which were once huge sellers but have now dropped out of sight. And the reasons why they have disappeared are often mysterious. But they have something to do with the style in which they are written, the assumptions on which they are based, and changes in the way we do things. It does not by any means follow that just setting them before the public once again will produce any interest whatever.

All of which is loosely related to a long-held theory of mine that the so-called classics become classics not because of any supernatural skill or genius on the part of their authors (hugely talented though they no doubt were), but because, as a result of a set of entirely unpredictable circumstances, these books somehow remain able to speak to us, even after all these years.

In other words, those writers who survive the test of time are not, and never were, 'better' in any meaningful sense than those who were also all the critical/commercial rage at the same time. They just survive and become revered as a result of randomness: a factor which, as I may have remarked before, plays a significant part in publishing.


Anonymous said...

I agree. Shakespeare was crap. King Lear's popularity is down to no more than chance. Ditto Chekhov; just plain rubbish (chance, once again). Joyce? Lucky buggar! He got lucky, that's all.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I agree with you that Chekhov may have been crap, though how many Brit and American authors have tried to emulate the neuroses and sexual psychopathia of uf Steppe
But Shakeseare crap?
You are crap.
How do you spell philistine?

Iain said...

With reference to Ivan's comments, I would refer you to the GOB's comments on the dangers of using irony in communication.


Iain said...

I seem to have screwed up the link in the above posting. Try this one.

Anonymous said...

I think GOB's theory breaks down because he doesn't see that most classic writers, or at least *some* classic writers, were not 'all the rage' in their own time. A long process of continued appreciation and evaluation results in the list of classics, not the workings of blind chance. He's confusing two things: his own frustrations as a writer who has not been lucky in the mad (and to some extent random) current market in fiction, and the evolution of a decades / centuries-long process of defining literary excellence. Two different things.

Anonymous said...

the more I re-read the entries above, the more I wonder who is using irony and who isn't. Am I missing a whole layer? (it has been known)...

Peter L. Winkler said...

Let's see now. The classics become classic because they somehow retain the ability to speak to readers today.

Yet, GOB says these classics are no better than other books which were once as successfull in their own day but are now forgotten.

So it's all random chance.


Isn't a book that continues to speak to readers today, clearly better, at least along the dimension of relevance to the reader's concerns, than the books that time forgot? Presumably, they no longer speak to readers.

So it isn't randomness after all.

Anonymous said...

of course, randomness cannot be disproved in this case, because there are no objective criteria to be used as non-random measures. it's a great gambit for GOB: he can never be wrong.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I do believe James Branch Cabell said about the same thing on these matters, but, I think, better. The snow falls on the published and the
relatively unpublshed?...I'm probably confusing Joyce with Cabell?...it has been so long.

Grace certainly falls on Anonymous if he is the same writer who
made the (crapulent?) comment about Shakepeare.
Thank you Iain, for the link. Anonymous obviously has high reading comprehelsion because it seems he can't find that much admonishment from Grumpy on people who use irony in communication.
Are we to pillory good old Ogden Nash?
Malt does more than Milton can
To show the ways of God to man.

Malt does more than Shakespeare can?

Myself not the most elegant of writers, I should have really said that Anonymous' observations seemed, uh, crapulent to me.

Anonymous said...

I am now terribly confused. Is anyone here making, 1) a serious comment against GOB's silly assertion that the classics emerge as a result of a random process, 2) irony is or is not a good or bad thing, 3) anything else? Being in this blog is like having an argument with several (other) drunk people...

Iain said...

Let me return to the fray. My earlier comment related simply to Ivan's trashing of the first Anonymous comment. I was pointing out that Anonymous's "I agree" was ironic: he was himself trashing the GOB's assertion that randomness determines which books survive and which do not.

And having got that out of the way, let me now fire a broadside at the GOB himself.

Provided only that a book finds a publisher, it has its chance to earn a place in literary history. Whether it succeeds is not a random matter. (Come to think of it, this may now be changing, but I'll return to that later. For now, I speak of books published long ago.)

What keeps a book alive is admittedly hard to define, but what kills it is not: it will die if it loses relevance, or if it's just plain bad. Let's look at a couple of examples.

Shaw's Arms and the Man is frequently revived, but Widowers' Houses seldom. It's not that the latter is a weaker play; just that it confronts an issue (slum landlordism) which is not nearly as hot today as it was when Shaw wrote. Arms and the Man, by contrast, tackles the myth of military heroism, an issue which has never gone away.

Now look at George Eliot. Why has Middlemarch worn so much better than Daniel Deronda? Here we are not dealing with what's hot and what's not. It's simply that Middlemarch is a vastly superior work.

No, Your Grumpiness, randomness don't call no shots here.

Sadly, it may be different today. (Note, I say may: Harry Potter and Captain Corelli have a thing or two to say on the matter.) So many books are now being published that it seems quite possible that great work might simply drown in the ocean: a terrific novel by an unknown won't get the marketing budget essential to guarantee serious attention.

Still worse, it is now almost impossible for a real unknown to get published at all. And anyone who believes that nothing worthwhile is ever lost as a result must be . . . oh, I don't know . . . a publisher?

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

"I'm afraid I'm giving you an awful lot of trouble," said Alice.

Anonymous said...

Excellent examples, Iain. Here's a neat theory for you: there are so many bad books published that a half decent writer is in effect entering a lottery in trying to find a publisher for his work. How has this happened? The PC! When it was a matter of writing by hand, or typing; then correcting by hand, and re-typing (you ever do that? three weeks full-time per draft for a n ave. novel!). We can now all type so FAST - I mean 3000 in a hour - that it is simply quicker to write and edit a book. More people who in earlier times might have falen by the wayside are now getting to 'THE END', more are thus encouraged to send their stuff around, and the many bad works thus launched upon the world clogs up the highways. There!

Anonymous said...

I agree, Iain. As for the difficulties of a 'real unknown' getting published, I guess there's the increasiongly popular routes of self-publishing and POD. Do we, perhaps, need a new mechanism of criticism for such books? I must say, one rarely hears of them being reviewed in the trad media.