16 November 2013

The Death of Posthumous Fame

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I suspect that more and more libraries will refuse donations of papers, especially if the writer isn't unassailably famous. My guess is that thanks to the information explosion in the Internet age (not to mention the fact that more and more documents are electronic rather than actual paper), it will become uncreasingly unlikely for even the most talented and successful writer's reputation to outlive him or her.
Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 (64 years), Hemingway in 1961 (52 years), Steinbeck in 1968 (45 years), Truman Capote in 1984 (29 years). What author under 50, if any, do you think will still be a household word, at least among the educated, that long after his or her death?

How much even of these memorable authors’ lasting fame is due not to their books, but to the movies made of their work? I know Gone with the Wind was based on Margaret Mitchell’s book and The Wizard of Oz on L. Frank Baum’s; To Kill A Mockingbird came from Harper Lee’s novel and The Help from Kathryn Stockett’s. How many movie adaptations of novels have you seen in the last twenty years for which you can name the novelist? How many of these will you be able to name twenty years from now? How many do your children know?

The first voluminous volume (760 pages) of Mark Twain’s autobiography came out in 2010. An author whose reputation has proven extremely durable, he deliberately stipulated that it would not be published until a hundred years after his death. so that he would be free to write whatever he wanted without fear of reproach or litigation. Having a sneaky taste for gossip served up cold, I went out and bought the book, making it a birthday present for my husband as a good excuse. Although the prose and some of the anecdotes were delightful, the hundred-years-cold tittle-tattle had gone tepid and congealed.

It’s not that Samuel Clemens did not have an interesting life. According to Biography.com, “When he was 9 years old he saw a local man murder a cattle rancher, and at 10 he watched a slave die after a white overseer struck him with a piece of iron.” He worked as a printer, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, and a prospector for gold and silver, the latter endeavor leaving him flat broke. So he became a writer—some things never change! He was a celebrated public speaker and humorist as well as an author for much of his career.

Twain chose to avoid the tedium of a chronological record (“Chapter One: I was born...”) and jumped in wherever his fancy took him. His style, both literate and anecdotal, is so good that I was moved to read some delicious passages out loud. But what even an iconoclast like Twain found shocking a hundred years ago produces no more than a yawn from today’s reader. It’s not a matter of sex or obscenity, with which it’s getting harder and harder to shock the 21st-century reader. It’s not even overt atheism. (You can find some lively debate by googling, “Was Mark Twain an atheist?”) Most of the so-called scandal consisted of his exercising his satiric wit on various popular preachers of the day whose names are otherwise long forgotten.

My prediction: In 2113, no one will remember a single writer who’s alive today, not even JK Rowling, and certainly not James Patterson, who last time I heard had written or cowritten one of every 17 books sold in the USA. Will people still read? I'd like to think so, but Americans will be lucky if reality TV has not driven life to imitate the art of The Hunger Games and if entertainment doesn’t consist of teenagers fighting to the death on the 22nd-century equivalent of public television.


  1. Interesting column, Liz! That's a shocking prediction you've made ("In 2113, no one will remember a single writer who's alive today")--I hope you're wrong, but I have a feeling you're right.

  2. Good points, depressing predictions. "Among the educated" is the key here. What will an education consist of, in a hundred years? In the old days you had to speak Latin and read Greek to call yourself educated.

  3. And if you didn't, Kate, people couldn't believe you hadn't plagiarized what you wrote. They're still attributing Shakespeare's work to Marlowe for just that reason.

    John, if there's one, JK Rowling might be it. The best children's books are amazingly durable.

  4. Wonderful title, by the by. My guess is that a writer like Steinbeck or John O'Hara is more likely to survive than Hemingway, because their writing is less about attitude than it is about customs and cultural models---in other words, they'd be read for the history, as might Dickens. I agree with Elizabeth, too: a book like CHARLOTTE'S WEB might still have legs.

  5. This is assuming, of course, that the grid stays up. If the grid goes down (sunspots, satellite failure, terrorist attack, space wars, whatever), then what will survive is what is in hard copy. And those hard copies will suddenly become precious again... So, it may well depend upon what some of us have stashed in our libraries.

  6. David, my point is that Dickens's reputation may be safe, but authors living and publishing today have already missed the boat. Eve, that's a big if. The obsolescence of accessibility is the fatal flaw in the new technology.

  7. Your post poses an interesting question, Elizabeth, and one which frankly stumps me.

    However, given Eve’s natural supposition that nothing which transpires in the future will happen in a vacuum, I find myself left with another question:

    Given the increasing number of longevity-extension breakthroughs currently being made, and extrapolating the rate of this progress over future years (barring cataclysmic disaster), I wonder how many current writers will be "remembered" one hundred years from now, simply because they'll still be alive and writing.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking article!


  8. Dix, what an optimistic hypothesis! A propos, have you read Lois McMaster Bujold's CRYOBURN? It's a mix of character-driven speculative fiction and galactic political thriller--a brilliant and delightful romp through some of the implications of longevity due to cryogenic technology. Too many writers is barely the tip of the iceberg!

  9. LOL Elizabeth, I haven't read it, but it sounds like I'll have to! I get the idea this is a book in which the denizens of an overloaded earth need what Daniel Boone supposedly cried out for: "Elbow Room!" Sounds like my kind of SF read. LOL


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