In Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly quotes Samuel Butler: “Any man who wishes his work to stand will sacrifice a great deal of his present audience for the sake of being attractive to a much larger number of people later on.”
For my part, I wouldn’t put this quite so categorically. I think there are many books, popular in their own time, which have lasted. And I think a few books that are popular today will still be popular in the years to come (the one coming most prominently to mind is The Corrections, which I continue to maintain is a work of genius). But we do often forget that many things we read were not at all popular when they came out. Or if they did achieve some acclaim, the amount was mild in comparison to the honors and applause heaped on books that are now forgotten.
In general, I’m not really worried about my literary reputation after I die (although given the perpetual copyright regime and low returns to labor that seem likely to predominate in neo-feudal Pikettyian, it’ll undoubtedly be quite a god-send for my heirs if my books continue to sell). But mostly I’m like, ehh, well, I’ll be dead. In the quote above, Butler goes on to say: “The world resolves itself into two great classes: “those who hold that honor after death is better worth having than any honor that man can get and know about, and those who doubt this; to my mind those who hold this, and hold it firmly, are the only people worth thinking.”
Translated away from these somewhat-foreign Homeric terms, the modern version of Butler’s ideas would be about integrity. There are people who hold strongly to ideals and those who don’t. In my case, I’d have to say I’m one who doesn’t. My ideas tend to change in tandem with those of my social set, and the only idea of which I’ve ever been absolutely certain is that there is no afterlife. (Which kind of takes a lot of the pressure off.)
I have noticed, though, that I find it very difficult to compromise in my fiction. This is going to sound absolutely awful and self-important, but I can’t put it another way: I find it difficult to write things that I don’t believe are true. And the more and more that I read, and the more sophisticated my thinking becomes, the deeper is my skepticism about many of the truths that commercial fiction tries to give us.
In some ways, it’s a godsend that I write fiction, because skepticism is at the core of storytelling. You don’t need to come down on any side when you write a story. In fact, when you write, the author often vanishes entirely. This is true even when there are omniscient, intrusive narrators. I’ve read more Trollope than I’ve read of many other authors, and he’s a very political writer, with decided opinions on a number of topics. These obviously come through in his writing, but in his best books, it’s very difficult to tell which is the right side. I’m thinking of The Warden, where he aptly portrays the kind and humane Mr. Harding…and he describes how Mr. Harding lives a wonderful, comfortable life on a bequest originally meant for the benefit of the poor.
You see this skepticism in many of the great works of literature. I was talking with a professor at Hopkins recently about the part of the Iliad where Achilles sits by the river and reflects that if he stays home, he’ll live a long life and be a great king, and his grandchildren will remember him, and maybe their grandchildren will as well, but then they’ll be forgotten. Whereas if he goes to Troy he’ll die young, but be remembered for a thousand years.
And what gives that scene such power is that the argument is so finely balanced. This is Homer, and the lesson people have taken for centuries is that glory matters above all, but there exists in the text a deep skepticism about whether or not to seek that glory.
But that’s the kind of thing that unsophisticated readers often don’t want. I visited a classroom recently and when speaking to the class, the teacher asked if I liked Star Wars (she loves it). I told her honestly: “I loved it when I was a kid, but nowadays all I can think is…this is a lie. Han and Leia and Luke aren’t special. They’re just lucky. There were a hundred thousand other people who set out to topple the Emperor, but they got killed by laser beams during the first scene. The only thing that sets our heroes apart is that the beams happened not to miss.”
I don’t think Star Wars will last for a hundred years, because it doesn’t contain any skepticism. (Note: I don’t feel this about all popular fiction. I think of the Hulk, for instance, whose anger both blinds and empowers him. Or Sherlock Holmes, who contains less humanity and passion than any of the criminals he pursues.)
What I find fascinating is that people who write not-very-complex stories don’t feel their stories less intensely than people who write more complex ones. Most of these stories are not potboilers: they are somebody’s passion. And maybe someday somebody will say the same thing about my books! They’ll say, wow, he really thought a lot of these books, and he wrote so intensely about the process of creation, but…they’re not very complex, and there’s not a lot there.
That’s why I don’t believe in posterity. I don’t know. I don’t know what survives. I don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. I’m pretty sure if I’d never heard Virginia Woolf’s name and someone handed me Mrs. Dalloway I’d be like, “This is all over the place.” Hell, I’m probably wrong about Star Wars. I don’t know. I just don’t know.