On Literary Fame

Here’s one to ponder, from The New Yorker: “Why is Literary Fame so Unpredictable?” — “Is there any way of knowing which of today’s books will last beyond a generation of readers, which will avoid being relegated to winsome curios or turgid pieces of historical sociology? Are there any discernible patterns? And why is it so difficult to predict literary futures?”

Why? Because predicting is very tricky business, and most predictions are probably going to be wrong, especially the ones that attempt to forecast what fickle human nature will be like in 20, 50, or 100 years.

In terms of the literary fame question, Moby Dick is a popular example, but a useful example nevertheless —

“When first published it was viewed as an insane grab-bag of religious allegory. In Lawrence’s time, it was the first novel to show Europe where the hands stood on the clock. Later it would be a source text for the New Critics, then the litter box for post-colonial theorists. In 1927, Moby-Dick’s status all but assured, E. M. Forster devoted to it a long, cautious appraisal in Aspects of the Novel, and Melville’s greatest work, as we today know it, was born 76 years after its initial publication.”

A bestseller is no indicator of lasting fame, and selling best isn’t even prerequisite that a book end up with the distinction of being remembered and reprinted as a “classic” some day. The Great Gatsby, after all, was not The Great American Novel (whatever that means) when it first appeared, much to Fitzgerald’s despair. The words in the book don’t change, but the readers reading it always do —

“Why do best-sellers rarely survive the “tooth of time”? One theory is that many best-sellers simply weren’t very good or interesting books in the first place; they were empty calories without nutritive value. Or perhaps every generation simply reinvents the best-seller list for its own purposes, with its own temporal glosses, essentially publishing new versions of previous best-sellers, as if by some secretly determined formula.”

I’m not sure what percentage of this article I actually agree with, but, who really does know why some things last and others don’t? (As Tom Vanderbilt conjectures, “The first rule might be that there is no rule.”) What predictors of bookish legacy shall we go from? Book prizes? Not particularly. Film adaptations? Nah. Another guess:

“Relatedly: it’s not how many read you but who reads you. … What keeps a book alive is future books talking about it”

This whole discussion reminds me about an interesting semi-recent book about bestselling books. Ever since I read the New Yorker article, it’s been driving me crazy trying to remember what book that was.

Anyways, on the topic of books about bestselling books, John Sutherland did a great treatment of the topic: Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction.

OUP even has a sample of the book, which you can check out here.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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