A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce and Impermanence

I’m going to touch on something that I’ve discussed briefly before but which I think is worth reheating into its own post. Here are the best selling books in the US from 1912, which is (for those of you for whom math is not a strong suit) 100 years ago.

1. The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
2. The Street Called Straight by Basil King
3. Their Yesterdays by Harold Bell Wright
4. The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Davies
5. A Hoosier Chronicle by Meredith Nicholson
6. The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
7. The Just and the Unjust by Vaughan Kester
8. The Net by Rex Beach
9. Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick
10. Fran by J. Breckenridge Ellis

Questions: How many of these have you read? How many of the author names do you recognize? How influential have these books been to modern literature, or at the very least, the literature you choose to read? Do you think these authors believed that their works would, in some way, survive them? I think it’s fair to say that outside of a small group of academic specialists or enthusiasts, these books and their authors don’t have much currency.

This isn’t a slight on the authors or their works, mind you. If you look up some of these authors, they’re pretty interesting. Gene Stratton-Porter was an early conservationist and owned her own movie studio. Meredith Nicholson was a US diplomat to several countries in South America and central America. Howard Bell Wright was reportedly the first author to make more than a million dollars writing fiction, and this was back in 1912, when a million was worth more than $22 million today. I don’t doubt at least some of these books were well-regarded as art. And I would imagine, author egos being what they are, that at least a couple of them imagined that we would be talking about their works today, a hundred years later, as influences if nothing else.

We’re not. Now, I imagine there’s at least a couple people out there shaking their fists at me, wondering how I could not see Stratton-Porter (or whomever) as a towering figure in American literature. As noted above, I cede there is possibly academic or specialized interest. I’m talking about everyone else. I feel pretty confident of my basic knowledge of early 20th century literature, if nothing else than through my interest in HL Mencken, who was one of the preëminient literature critics of the day. If I’m coming up blank on these names and books, I feel reasonably confident in suggesting most readers these days — even the well-read ones — will do similarly.

If you’re a writer, this might depress you. If the best-selling books of 1912 are largely forgotten, what chance do your books have in 2012, especially if they don’t scale the heights of sales these books have? Surprise! Probably little. I mean, it’s certainly possible they will survive: Neither Theodore Dreiser nor Sherwood Anderson got near the year-end bestseller lists between 1910 and 1919, but they are still taught and discussed, and in their way influence literature today. But, yeah. Don’t count on it.

And that’s fine. Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages. The ages will decide who is doing that on their own; you don’t get a vote. I understand the temptation is to try to write something that will speak to the generations, but, look, in 1912 they hadn’t even yet invented pre-sliced bread. If you aim for being relevant to the future, you’re probably going to fail because you literally cannot imagine it, even if you write science fiction.

Forget even sliced bread; you can’t imagine the values or interests or views on the world that people might have a century from now. Human nature as defined by biology doesn’t change much over decades or centuries but the culture sure does, and it’s a moving target in any event; there’s no end point in attitudes and opinions. If I tried to explain a woman’s place in 1912 United States to my daughter, she would explode with outrage. If a writer in 1912 tried to write specifically to my daughter (or anyone’s daughter) 100 years hence, the disconnect would be impressive. If I tried to write for a thirteen-year-old girl in 2112, the same thing would happen.

If you must aim for relevance, try for being relevant now; it’s a context you understand. We can still read (and do read) Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dickinson, and I think it’s worth noting Shakespeare was busy trying to pack in the groundlings today, Cervantes was writing in no small part to criticize a then-currently popular form of fiction, and Dickinson was barely even publishing at all, i.e., not really caring about future readers. In other words, they were focused on their now. It’s not a bad focus for anyone.

Will your work survive? Probably not, but so what? You won’t survive, either. 100 years from now you’re very likely to be dead. Even if your work survives, it won’t do you much good. In the meantime that still leaves lots of people today to potentially read your stuff, argue about it, be inspired by it (or react against it) and generally make a lot of noise about it. You might even make a living at it, which is a bonus. Focus on those people today, and on today’s times. Enjoy it all now. Enjoy it while it lasts. Then when it’s over, you can say you had fun at the time.

109 Comments on “A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce and Impermanence”

  1. Gene Stratton-Porter wrote A Girl of the Limberlost, which was one of my wife’s favourite books at one time. But she also wrote Her Father’s Daughter, which turns out to be the most shockingly racist thing I’ve ever read. And I don’t just mean it was racist in that oh-it-was-a-different-time kind of way that so many things are; I mean it was really, really racist. So much so that I don’t feel comfortable giving the details.

    I don’t have a point to make; I just thought I’d mention it.

  2. I have not read The Harverster, but I did read Gene Stratton Porter growing up. I loved her novel Freckles! I can’t remember if I read Girl of the Limberlost (her other big title), but if I did, it didn’t make as much of an impression as Freckles.

    I don’t recognize any other names on the list, though. I think Porter is considered YA, and it seems to me that YA and children’s fiction (what we used to call “kiddie lit” in library school) does have a longer shelf life than adult fiction.

  3. I’ve read The Harvester many times (my great-grandmother had a good stash of Gene Stratton-Porter novels that have been passed down), and still find it enjoyable and much of it relevant today. My local library even has a copy. For the readers out there, it might be worth checking out these forgotten titles. I certainly will.

  4. Being from Muncie, of course A Hoosier Chronicle by Meredith Nicholson is fam- aw, hell, ya got me. I’ve never heard of it, it’s author, or any of these books or authors.

    For my legacy, am working up a basic 100 word biography of myself, inscribed on a clay tablet (those things last forever, properly fired), with a nice 3/4 profile view done in relief on top. Will include a couple different translations (modern Mandarin, biblical Hebrew) and maybe a copy of the periodic table and some basic mathematical bits cribbed from those gold nasa records. I’ll store it in a sealed ceramic jar, along with some tissue samples, the dried remains of some home brew, a modern bronze leaf bladed knife I’ve cast, some original Roman era coins, and my first iPod. If buried deep enough, it should survive for a few thousand years and may provide some grad students something to write about.

  5. Excellent post. It’s always interesting to see what people were reading long ago and realizing that beyond a few instances, they are no long remembered.
    Gilmoure, that sounds like a really cool idea!

  6. Did the place you found this list give sales information? I’m very curious as to how many books you had to sell in 1912 to make the top ten, as compared to what it would take in 2012.

    As for those books, Gene Stratton-Porter was my mother’s favorite author, so that’s my excuse for knowing one of the top ten.

  7. I’ve heard of most of those authors, and read a bunch of Gene Stratton-Porter including “The Harvester”, but none of the other books on the list. *But* I’m a Gutenberg junky, so I also agree with all your points.

  8. I’d actually sort of enjoy watching Athena explode with outrage over outdated gender roles. Possible idea for the next video in the “Athena reacts to things that predate her” video series? I’m sure people would be more than happy to claim that you coached her on her response and everything!

  9. I occasionally scratch my initials in a rock, date it, and toss it into a pond. A couple thousand years from now, I’ll be a STAR!

  10. Two things….

    First, if a writer’s really upset by the idea that their work won’t be remembered 100 years from now they can always comfort themselves with the possibility that they will have had an indirect influence… that someone got into writing or did something else because of that writer’s work and IS remembered. This has the advantage of being very hard to disprove…

    Second I’d also like to say that “The Melting of Molly” would make an awesome title for a science fiction story.. Harumph…. (taps fingers… looks at Scalzi). I bet you could knock that out this week John. :)

  11. I looked up the wikipedia page on the novels from 1912 and the only one that stands out to me as today being considered “great literature” is “Death in Venice”. (I haven’t read it; I did see the movie.)

    So maybe 1912 wasn’t a great year in fiction writing.

  12. Matthew E: That’s how I felt about Moby Dick. I just could not get past the constant crap about good christian vs filthy savage which permeated the first pages. Maybe it gets better. I will never know.

    Melissa, that wounded like an interesting idea. The Salt Lake City library has 7 titles by Stratton-Porter, including Girl of the Limberlost on both paper and CD. It has The Winning of Barbara Worth> and Shepherd of the Hills by Bell (book and movie), None of the other authors are in the collection.

  13. JJS: See, I don’t consider Moby Dick racist by nature; it had stuff in it that we see as racist now, but it is possible to look past it, even if you can’t/won’t/don’t, and anyway race isn’t what itwas about. I kinda liked Moby Dick. Her Father’s Daughter is, to use the technical term, a Whole Nother Thing.

  14. The Winning of Barbara Worth was adapted into a movie; it was Gary Cooper’s first starring role.

  15. I think books written today have a slightly better chance of sticking around, just because they have electronic versions. It’s easier to save, store, and share. Just a thought.

  16. If you want your work to survive, consider genre fiction. F. Marion Crawford was a very successful novelist in his day, but he is probably best remembered today for his horror short stories such as “The Upper Berth” and “For the Blood is the Life.”

  17. Laura H:

    It’s not the ability to access the book that’s the issue, since among other things many if not most of the books on that list are available via Gutenberg or for sale in bookstores. It’s whether anyone bothers to read them.

  18. I like the ambition of going for the long view, though. It’s an ambition better suited for buildings and large statuary than for writing, but still. The problem is balancing that ambition with the knowledge that it’ll probably never come to fruition, and even if it does, you’ll never know.

    I wish I could find the source now for the story of a man who designed a particular medieval clock. Like any clock of the time, it was designed to mimic the various movements of the heavens as closely as possible, and though he did pretty well, he calculated that a phase shift would eventually creep in, and the clock would need to be recalibrated. So he left instructions for how to reset the clock–to be executed in several hundred years.

    The assumption that the clock would still exist is pretty foolish, but also pretty great. I believe the clock had been damaged and reconstructed by then, but it was still there.

  19. It’s good to be reminded every now and then that as a writer all I can do is write my very best and let the cards fall as they may. Thanks John.

  20. For anyone reading this post, 100 years from now we will have been dead for quite a while, probably for decades. And 75 years after that, or maybe less, for most of us there will be no one alive with any memory of us at all. My father sometimes says (though he probably got the quote from someone else), “100 years from now, all new people.” Leaving aside the statistically insignficant number of babies born today who will make it to 100 years old, it’s a useful point to remember. By 2112, there will be essentially a complete turnover in the human population. Which, as you point out, is fine.

    But kind of a drag, too.

  21. Although, there are some books that were written for girls of Athena’s age around then that are still being read and enjoyed by kids in the same age bracket. The Anne of Green Gables books are still around, and still comprehensible and not too jarring to read. Everything doesn’t last, but some things do.

  22. I notice that number 8 is “The Net” by Rex Beach. Not that I’ve read it, but the title suggests that maybe he called the future exactly right.

  23. I was just reading A Princess of Mars last month. The copyright date is 1912. It was released in serial from in All-Story Magazine. You might have some selection bias in just looking at books.

    This post makes me think you need a hug or a few minutes of licks from a puppy, John. I hope you cheer up.

  24. I recall reading a Harlan Ellison editorial about this very topic some time ago in one of his books of criticism, though he was referring to some other author with four names and a hyphen in it. The point being that authors who were household names and super-famous at that time are virtually unknown now.

    Of course I find it interesting how some of these authors aren’t known, but some of their works ARE. In some cases the work (or more likely, the movie based on it) is better known today than the source. It’s also interesting to see how some things disassociate: Charlie Chan is still a known character, but few people have ever read the original books by Earl Derr Biggers (for a great examination of Chan, Biggers and the complex racial questions involved, see Yunte Huang’s ‘biography’). My wife and I were perusing Netflix and (having recently watched The Thin Man), stumbled across William Powell in “The Kennel Murder Case”. We soon discovered authoer S.S. Van Dine’s character “Philo Vance”, a sort of American Hercule Poirot…and that he was once HUGE. Star of multiple books and seven movies…and virtually unknown today.

  25. I actually *have* A Girl of the Limberlost – and I’m in England! But I draw a blank on the rest of them. I think there may be something to carmen webster buxton’s point about children’s fiction having a longer shelf-life – E Nesbit is still read, for example (‘Five Children and It’). Although in fairness I can’t think of many other children’s books from then.

  26. Interesting post. I was just thinking how so few writers of yesteryear are remembered today. I mean, barring those considered classic from past centuries. People like Hemingway, Dos Passos, Maugham; Cabell are all but forgotten today. Luckily for mystery writers, their works seem to have a longer shelf life. Reprints of Christie, Chandler, etc. appear all the time along with remakes of remakes on TV. But then out of nowhere, a forgotten name like Jim Thompson pops up in a series of movies, both in the US and in France. You never know. ‘Tis a strange and wonderful world we live in. Mostly strange. For instance, I think people are the only animals that have to get haircuts. Good news for barbers and hairdressers, but a pain to most of us.

  27. No real argument with what you’re saying. Popular fiction does not long endure. Out of interest, though, and just in case 1912 was a statistical outlier, I checked other years. Here’s the list for 1917, only five years later:

    1. Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells
    2. The Light in the Clearing, Irving Bacheller
    3. The Red Planet, William J. Locke
    4. The Road to Understanding (not available), Eleanor H. Porter
    5. Wildfire, Zane Grey
    6. Christine, Alice Cholmondeley
    7. In the Wilderness, Robert S. Hichens
    8. His Family, Ernest Poole
    9. The Definite Object, Jeffrey Farnol
    10. The Hundredth Chance (not available), Ethel M. Dell

    Of those authors, I’ve read Zane Grey and H.G. Wells, and their influence on people I’ve read is considerable. I haven’t read Jeffrey Farnol, but I know that the young boy who was going to turn into Jack Vance devoured his adventure stories, so there’s another influence. I’d heard of William J. Locke,

    BTW, the (not available) above means that the title is not stored in Project Gutenberg, which means anyone with an e-reader or a computer screen can be reading them a few seconds from now. Out of homage to Vance, I think I’ll download a Farnol or two and see how they hold up.

  28. I wonder if that same mortality lends itself to faster cultural change. One could argue that a much longer lifespan would lead to a slower pace of change. On the other hand, some of the fastest cultural change has occurred in the last century, when the average lifespan increased dramatically.

  29. I just read the remarks about Moby Dick. No, it doesn’t get better and it’s a testament to rugged endurance that I read every word. I didn’t learn a lot about novel writing, but I’d make a great whaler, having been taught just about everything there is to know about this business. Unfortunately, I got into that too late so it’s pretty much wasted knowledge.
    So, being almost unreadable, why is Moby Dick the great classic that it is? Because there’s only one Captain Ahab and there will never be another. Can’t you just see him on the bridge (even uglier and more determined than Gregory Peck), his peg leg wedged into the small hole he has underfoot to keep him steady? A man possessed, so possessed he’ll sacrifice not only his own life but the lives of his crew and anyone else who gets in his way. Kind of reminds me of Hitler.

  30. I too have read and enjoyed several of Gene Stratton-Porter’s books, though not The Harvester. I think Carmen is right about the longer shelf life of YA; “Girl of the Limberlost” had a Wonderworks TV adaptation in the 1980s.

    None of which invalidates your point, of course.

  31. I finally got around to adding your Whatever blog to my favorites…glad I did; devoured a whole week’s worth immediately, instead of doing what I “should be doing”. I have been enamored of your particular brand of wickedly trenchant commentary since my son left “Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded” lying around my house. Several of my siblings & my 16 yr old niece glommed it up it over the annual T-Day visit. I asked for it for Xmas, but alas, no one took the hint. Re: your 1912 Top 10 Bestsellers list…I always look forward to F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s (alas, no longer, but column survives) “Curiosities” column at the end of each issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. Hope to one day stumble across once of those gems in a dusty bookstore.

  32. Chris Sears:

    “This post makes me think you need a hug or a few minutes of licks from a puppy, John. I hope you cheer up.”

    You’re misreading. I feel fine.

  33. cmalbrecht’s choices seem odd to me. I can find Hemingway and Maugham at any decent bookstore. Dos Passos is dated, but really only by history itself, and his influence is enormous (ever read Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar?). Cabell is a minority taste; his enormous popularity was due to Jurgen‘s being banned in Boston — but I still find him wonderfully quirky and cynical, and have at least one of his books on my Kindle.

  34. Hemingway is all but forgotten? Then why am I wearing his eyeglasses? Seriously, they’re Ernest Hemingway frames. I feel like I should go out and watch some jai alai and drink rum.

    I wonder how often writers disappear and are rediscovered. If something like the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series were to come along again, would a new generation be exposed to forgotten fantasy classics? (Is a similar series something that’s even possible today?) If Neil Gaiman recommends people read James Branch Cabell or Hope Mirrlees, do people go out and give their books a shot?

    It seems that it’s more possible in fantasy, horror, sci-fi or horror where there’s a more focused audience than mainstream fiction, but can you think of a forgotten bestseller being brought back?

  35. John,

    In 1912, $20 was 1 oz of gold (roughly – the “double eagle” coin). So $1M then is about $80M now.

    Joss Delage

  36. And that’s fine. Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages. The ages will decide who is doing that on their own; you don’t get a vote.

    Yes – changing tastes, literary fashions and the ways of the publishing industry are strange things. A few weeks back, we marked the bicentennial of the first novel by ‘A Lady’ (a.k.a. Jane Austen). I suspect you’d have gotten a one way ticket to Bedlam if you’d said in fashionable literary circles the authoress of Sense and Sensibility‘s six novels would still be widely read two centuries later while the likes of Frances Burney, Ann Radcliffe & Walter Scott struggled to find purchase outside college campuses.

  37. Laura, what you say is true. But if a book exists only in electronic editions, it is also easy to completely obliterate it by erasing files when someone decides it is no longer commercially viable.

  38. @ John Scalzi: re Mykal Burns quote: That doesn’t make much sense to me. If someday I get bored enough for long enough to decide to kill myself, well, I can do that. But it’d be nice not have the choice taken away from me in advance.

    Yes, sometimes I find myself bored. Does that make me wish I had died in infancy? No. Usually it makes me look for something to read.

  39. Synchronicity: not 24 hours ago, I was weeding our shelves, and I carefully set aside my wife’s copy of Gene Stratton-Porter’s Freckles so it wouldn’t accidentally get taken to the used bookstore.


  40. In 1912, $20 was 1 oz of gold (roughly – the “double eagle” coin). So $1M then is about $80M now.

    Well, not exactly. Tying general price trends to one commodity doesn’t provide an accurate picture. It’s the overall level of prices that determines how the value of the dollar changes.


  41. @Jack Lint:
    I wonder how often writers disappear and are rediscovered.

    More often than you might think – as I’ve said elsewhere, one the success stories of indie publishing in the UK is Persephone Books which was set up to “reprint neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers”. I’d never heard of Dorothy Whipple but her nine novels published between 1927-1953 were considerable critical and commercial successes in the UK. But like a lot of writers on the Persephone list, Whipple’s style and subject matter went out of fashion between the end of the Chatterley Ban and the Beatles’ first LP (to quote Philip Larkin). Now, she’s not exactly elbowing Steven King off the top of the bestseller lists but most of her books are back in print, getting reviewed and selling well.

  42. HL Mencken’s “My Life as an Author and Editor” was written and then withheld from publication until after his death. Likewise Mark Twain’s autobiography had a 100 year stipulation for complete publication. Many other autobiographies have also had similar publication histories.

    Agatha Christie originally planned on releasing the last stories for both Poirot and Miss Marple until after her death, well after they were originally written. She only relented at the end of her life when she had really stopped writing. Not after her death, but time had passed intentionally.

    Many Philosophers, David Hume for instance, withheld publication until after death. Generally because they did not want the blow back while alive.

    Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” was also withheld for posthumous publication, and O’Neill didn’t want it performed.

    Hell, every writer who writes a suicide note, is writing for the future.

    Sometimes writing for the future instead of the present can give the writer either greater freedom because they are less worried by the consequences which may befall them in life, or it provides an intentional coda as the case in Agatha Christie- and one that really can’t be changed a la Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes, the writer really does understand the context of their present when making the decision to write for the future.

    Yes, Prognostication is generally a futile act. Every reader, living or not yet, will have the ability to decide relevance for themselves, and in groups make a rolling attempt at cannon. People and Cultures do change over time. There is nothing wrong with writers however try to speak into that future when they know that there are many writers from the past who still speak to them. Any work is frozen in the time it was written. Blog posts from yesterday do not necessarily speak for today, but trying to write so that the relevance is less ephemeral is not a bad goal.

    Is the present audience a valuable one as you put forth, definitely. But it does’t have to be a false choice between that and the future.

  43. Well we’ve established that many famous authors of the day are unknown now, but what proportion of those authors who are still well known now were famous then. It appears that Zane Grey and H.G. Wells seem have done pretty well at getting and staying famous. Was All-Story magazine a big deal when A Princess of Mars was published? I was under the impression that Dickens magazine serials sold pretty well, but J.S. Bach is probably more famous now than when he was alive, and there was a time when he was pretty much completely unknown.

    I also find myself thinking about the Heinlein Biography, “Learning Curve” and Heinlein’s aspiration to be published in the ‘slicks’ like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post which were a big deal at the time. I’m guessing that the few Heinlein stories published in the Post briefly made Heinlein as famous as an episode of the Big Bang Theory. Did more people read those stories then than in the totality of various printed Heinlein collections?

  44. From the 1917 list, I know four authors; H G Wells (natch); Eleanor H Porter (wrote Pollyanna); Zane Grey (Westerns) and Ethel M Dell (hot(tish) romances – still in my local libraries in the 1970s). I doubt if I would casually known of any of them unprompted though, except for H G Wells.

  45. I am finding some interesting authors on Gutenberg (and elsewhere) by way of their influence on writers I am familiar with. My delight in Robert E. Howard’s stories has led me to Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb–boy, did REH borrow a lot from Mundy! My fondness for Elizabeth Peter’s “Peabody & Emerson” mysteries led me to the real-life inspiration for Amelia Peabody, Amelia Edwards and her travelogue, “A Thousand Miles Up The Nile”. Having found out that she was a best-selling novelist in her day, I plan to find out if her novels are as witty as her travelogues.

  46. Going back to the main point; yes, most literature is impermanent; it’s written for its time and doesn’t usually survive that. So the writers that *do* survive – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens – managed I think to pull off a degree of permanance by both writing for their time and (in some way) for eternity. We recognise the people and situations in a way that makes emotional and intellectual sense to us today (which is why Shakespeare, in particular, can survive modern re-stagings, I suppose). But very few people indeed can do this; that ability to tap into eternity is probably the mark of a genius. There may be modern writers who can do the same, but we can’t really tell at present. Come back in another 100 years…

  47. MatthewHughes: I’ve read Jeffery Farnol! He was also an influence on George Macdonald Fraser; wrote swashbuckling adventure stuff. He was great. I’ve got a dozen or so of his books I’ve been able to track down, and I haven’t stopped looking.

  48. An aspect of this that I’ve been musing on a good bit here lately is that, not only is short-term popularity fickle, long-term is as well. To borrow from another field, there was a recent Sporcle quiz listing the highest chart position of various well-known rock bands — one example that sticks in mind is The Kinks, whose highest position on the Billboard charts was #7 (and that was Come Dancing, a fine enough song but not exactly typical of their output). Meanwhile, Paula Abdul had multiple #1 hits. I can’t guarantee how either of them will be thought of in 25 years, but the thing is that, even if you switch to apples and apples, I can’t tell you why, say, My Sharona is in the Official Playlist For Every Oldies Station On Earth and Can’t Put a Price on Love isn’t. There are gatekeeper functions involved, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

    Switching back to literature, one of the things that the early days of the Internet allowed me to do was to track down the novels of Augusta Evans Wilson for my aging grandmother a decade or so ago, as she remembered her mother’s copies fondly. What I’ve read of Wilson isn’t particularly to my taste — a bit too purple at times — but then I think the same of Jane Austen, and there’s a lot to like about the notion of Wilson being remembered. She was the first female American author to earn over $100,000; she was the first professional novelist from Alabama; she was well ahead of her time in her treatment of women and their education; she managed to publish Macaria in the North during The Great Unpleasantness, pretelling Cold Mountain by more than a century. So why is she essentially forgotten outside of the English department in Tuscaloosa while Austen is a household name? Beats me.

    Similarly, tieing into Our Good Host’s interests above, why is Mencken revered while Stephen Leacock is all but forgotten, with the possible exception of the silly, “He jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions” line? Leacock reads like such a clear influence on Groucho Marx, for example, that you’d think he’d be more a part of the canon.

    The good news about all this is that it does do wonders for us Gutenbergphiles as we find these gems.

  49. @Mike:
    I also find myself thinking about the Heinlein Biography, “Learning Curve” and Heinlein’s aspiration to be published in the ‘slicks’ like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post which were a big deal at the time. I’m guessing that the few Heinlein stories published in the Post briefly made Heinlein as famous as an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

    Perhaps, but in their heyday the top-tier magazines also paid damn well. IIRC, Edith Wharton was paid $15,000 by Scribner’s for the serialization rights to The Custom of the Country – which was a pretty impressive chunk of change in 1913. And, yes, any writer who says they wouldn’t get a thrill from being published in a mass-market magazine that reached millions is a damn liar.

  50. Funny, I have 3 Gene Stratton Porter books, albeit inherited from grandma but several acquaintances have noted my copy of ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ as a title they are familiar with.

    Notwithstanding your point though is valid. I always attemt to make the same point, but in reverse. People are always going on about how entertainment from the past is sooo much better because there are all these great songs and movies back then and there is so much drivel around now. I keep telling them that what we are actually seeing is the ocean of time washing away 90% of what was around back then and leaving the few resistant nuggets of classics behind. Just as much rubbish round back then as there is now, but nobody ever believes me!

  51. @WizarDru

    I also watched the Kennel Club Murders for the same reasons. I had heard the name Philo Vance, but that was about it.

    It makes me wonder if the authors on John’s list will have a better chance to be read in the future than in the period between when they were bestsellers and today. Sort of a Long Tail argument I guess.

  52. I think it’s pretty much impossible to attempt to write something “lasting” and often the most lasting books are not the most popular ones at the time of printing. All you can do is write the best book you can, and know that you won’t ever know if you wrote a classic, or something that will fade away, in your own lifetime. It’s the nature of the business that it’s hard to tell what has staying power in the moment. That’s why it’s so funny when books get dubbed “instant classics.”

  53. I’ve read a few books of that vintage: L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (two of them belonged to my granddad when he was a boy) [Sky Island and Rinkitink in Oz , if anybody cares]). I enjoyed them when I was a kid.

    I read two of James Branch Cabell’s books, (Figures of Earth and The Silver Stallion) but his treatment of women was horrible. I got the impression he thought he was being clever, but he entered into the failure mode of clever.

    I’ve tried A. Merrit’s work as well (although he was a bit later)– he was a bestseller in his time, but his work leaves me completely cold.

    On the other hand, what Dickens I’ve read (Great Expectations, Bleak House), I’ve enjoyed, so YMMV.

  54. Regarding Moby Dick, I humbly submit that the key to being unperturbed by its dysfunctional characters is to accept that the story has no hero. Even Ishmael provides a flawed narrator who does nothing of substance to impede Ahab’s Pyrrhic quest. This is not a novel about people you are supposed to like or with whose world or world-views you are expected to agree. Not being disturbed by their behavior would be like watching Dexter and thinking, what a swell guy, those effers had it coming. That said, if you still don’t want to read the book, I highly recommend the movie adaptation starring Patrick Stewart…


    Barring that, here’s the much condensed version:


    Regarding my not-so-imminent legacy of towering achievement echoing boldly down the ages, I’d rather have $22 mil. I can’t spend posthumous recognition, and I have a better chance at being alive in 100 years if I’m filthy stinkin’ rich. But since neither is likely, I’ll take a quick crack:

    Dear Posterity,

    I realize nothing I could write would make the slightest impression on your augmented intellects. And, poor unsophisticated savage that I am, I can hardly record my meditations in the rich telepathic media doubtless relevant to you anyway. And though I support equal rights and liberties for all sentient beings, you may think me a Cretin for being unable to agree with your enfranchisement of flora, and so my kingdomist soliloquies describing the tastiness of plant life may turn the virtual acid in your simulacra’s progressive stomachs. That said, let me be the first to sell out my generation and era as a horde of uncivilized beasts. We are not worthy.

    Mir Jafar Quisling-Malinche

  55. I can honestly say that I know none of the ten. Not sure if that says more about the list or about me. I do read quite a bit, but not in that direction apparently.

  56. Boyd Nation @ 3.20

    Stephen Leacock is still read and enjoyed in Canada (his home country). We’ve got a literary award named after him.

    Another famous quote of his is the instructions of a party stalwart to the faithful on election day: “Get out there and vote! And keep on voting until they make you stop!

  57. Actually, I have read Stratton-Porter’s “Girl of the Limber-lost”. But then, my family had a cottage, and as you may or may not know, cottages are little time capsules that people live in for a couple of months a year. The copy of Limber-lost that I read in the 1970s was probably purchased back in 1912 when it was a bestseller.

  58. One thing about A Girl of the Limberlost that’ll strike us differently today: if I recall it correctly, it’s about a girl who wants to preserve a piece of property that has some wilderness and stuff on it that she loves, but her family doesn’t have the money to be able to afford to keep it. The solution? They discover oil on the property, so all they have to do is set up an oil well, and get rich, and the rest of the lot can remain intact!

  59. @Boyd Nation:

    re: Leacock v. Mencken – could be a factor of nationality. Leacock was Canadian (as am I), and I know we read some of his shorter works in high school.

  60. Just read your link which mentions the 1907 best seller list, Meredith Nicholson is on both, Well done for her! She must have been popular then.

    I have a specific interest in women in early SFF, and I have uncoverd a pair of practically forgotten authors that were sucessful, Claire Winger Harris, who in her lifetime was the first woman to be professionally published in the SFF pulps, she placed third in a competition run by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Not well known now. Francis Stevens however was revealed (after Claire Winger Harris had died) to be a female. The first person to publish her stories in 1917 had given her a male pseudonym as he did not believe people would read it with Gertrude Barrows Bennet on it. Thank goodness for resurgence, Gertrude is now recognised as a pioneer in SFF and has had some recent reprints bringing her to the attention of a new generation.

    The point of the above stories is that time is unpredictable and you never know what the tide is going to leave, take away or even bring back.

  61. Books/plays that clearly and honestly describe people and the human condition (fears, aspirations, etc.) endure. ‘Popular’ books often rely on being ‘clever’ for their sales; their characters are shallow and uninteresting with no life to/in them.

    There’s always a market for honest stories — even some almost too painfully honest stories — so their authors are constantly being rediscovered. An example is Dorothy L Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels which inspired both Bujold and Niffenegger. Of the two, Bujold did a much better job with Miles than Niffenegger whose characters who are, in comparison, shallow/superficial. (This is opposite to lessons learned about the human condition which tend to be much more slippery in good stories than the jackhammer moralizing approach in this year’s top-10.) But what I as a reader consider to be ‘faults’, are probably what made Time Traveler’s Wife so popular to the broader reading public, the people who read and need to be seen reading whatever’s “in”. It’d be interesting to see which of these authors (Bujold or Niffenegger) is still read and enjoyed even in as little as 10-20 years from now.

    Every once in a while I pick up a NYT best-seller just to find out what all the fuss is about e.g, Time Traveler’s Wife, Da Vinci Code, Life of Pi, Bonfire of the Vanities, Wheel of Time etc. Nine-out-of-ten times, it’s a total waste of my reading time.

  62. @Craig Ranapia
    Yes, the Heinlein biography refers to Heinlein noting that the slicks paid better, and that was a very large part of the reason why he wanted write for the slicks. But they paid better because they had large circulations are were willing to pay more to get more desirable material, so presumably lots of people read those stories in the slicks. Are we disagreeing? We aren’t from my point of view.

    We recently watched Star Trek IV on cable and there is a scene where Kirk explains to Spock that 20th century people swore frequently, citing as examples Harold Robins and Jacqueline Susann. Spock’s reply is “Ah, the giants”. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092007/quotes?qt=qt0444270

    In a TV interview, actress Susan Sarandon predicted that history will be most likely to remember her for her role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, rather than for her five academy award nominations.

    These ‘predictions’ may or may not prove correct, but they are probably right in that the tastes of the future will prove to be difficult to predict.

  63. I’m hoping to never to end up as English class mandatory reading list essay assignment. Who wants immortality if it means generation after generation of bitter teens speaking your name as a curse.

  64. @ Musereader

    Meredith use to be a moderately common male given name. It comes from a Welsh word meaning “great lord” and is still quite a common last name in that particular country.

  65. I’m hoping to never to end up as English class mandatory reading list essay assignment. Who wants immortality if it means generation after generation of bitter teens speaking your name as a curse.

    On the other hand, if it happens in your lifetime, well, that can be a very good thing for your wallet. If you’ll go take a look at the Amazon SF&F best seller list at any given time in August or September, for example, a fair portion of it (I’d say somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2, from memory) is non-new material that’s part of the school canon. After all, every time a freshman English teacher requires all 150 of her students to go buy a copy of Fahrenheit 451, it boosts Ray Bradbury’s income in ways that most authors can only dream of.

  66. Some books just don’t stand the test of time. There’s a used bookstore in CT and it can be fun as all get up to go through the old sci fi paperbacks. I’ve found some going back to the 50s and early 60s but they are VERY hard to read. I’ve tried to read Frankenstein a few times and can’t get through it because of the dated style. Zelazny’s Amber books are my all time favorites but even his early work from the 60s can be real hard to get into.

    Even all those high fantasy books from the 80s belonging to my parents i started reading as a kid seem real dated to me if i go back and read them now. Some more than others obviously, but that’s what the style was back in the day. Thirty years from now.. hell probably less… half the stuff we’re reading brandy new is going to feel old and dated. That said, it kind of is fun to find that old one and read it with a point of view from back in the day.

    I can think of only one book over 50 years old that i would put in my top list, The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith written in the early 30s. And my copy is one my father bought used in the 70s. So it’s pretty ancient as far as paperbacks go and i can’t be rough with it.

  67. I didn’t know any of those writers.
    I loved the Shakespeare reference. I have nothing much against Mr Harold Bloom – and I reallly love Shakespeare – but Mr B’s preciousness can be irritating.
    Anyway, long before Stephen King got his medal and H.B. threw the hissiest of fits, I was studying English at the world famous University of Utrecht in Holland and as a part of my third year exam I wrote a paper on Shakespeare & King, more or less claiming they were in the same game. Not considering the subjective matter of talent and importance both men were:
    – writing (very efficiently) for a living, or hacks, if you prefer
    – heavily into what King described as either horrifying, scaring or grossing out the punters, especially through the use of extreme violence and supernatural themes & tropes and
    – actually quite bad at the whole business of plotting and especially ending stuff.

    My professor loved me for that one…

    (If that wasn’t clear already, I do love King as well. I’m not sure he would be much use as a sonneteer but his use of poetry in the Tommyknockers shows he has the vibe.)

  68. This whole post galls my future 200 year old cyborg self. DAMN YOU SCALZI for anticipating my untimely early death 100 years from now!!!

  69. Unlike most people here, I read a different author on this list: Anne Douglas Sedgwick.

    Admittedly, it was 22 years ago, so I don’t remember all that much about them, but I drew her name randomly from a fishbowl full of former best-selling authors for an academic paper in my junior year of high school. Honors English. Go fig, eh? Even in California, they did wacky things like making a teenager write a book report on three novels written by someone who died 45 years before they were born. It took me a while to track down the books in question. A very long while

    And I think that was the most educational thing about that entire assignment. It’s amazing to a 16 year old mind exactly how much trouble it can be just to track down a single hard-copy of a single book.

    Eventually, I found A Fountain Sealed at Loyola Marymount College and a veritable collection at the University of San Diego. I ended up acing the assignment, plus a couple of points of much-needed extra credit for my war stories. And after it was over, the most satisfying thing was watching the teacher permanently remove that name from the fishbowl so that nobody else would have such a hard and trying time.

  70. Enjoy it all now. Enjoy it while it lasts. Then when it’s over, you can say you had fun at the time.

    Ahhhh, phenomenology! The lived experience! Huzzah! Hegel rocks! Wooot!

  71. The names,the titles–complete blanks. The discussion made me think of “Ozymandias” by Shelley.

    Related: every time I visit a library or bookstore, I look at shelves filled with books and wonder how so many people were able were able to conceive them, write them, and get them published.

  72. I haven’t read “A Hoosier Chronicle” but Meredith Nicholson’s “A House of a Thousand Candles” has a special place in my heart. My 5 & 6th grade teacher took 15 minutes each day and would read to us. This was back in the mid 60’s in a little town in Nebraska. He read the whole book, changing voices and accents and really making it come alive in our heads. Even the kids that weren’t really into school settled down and listened carefully.

    Here’s the kicker to this little story. That teacher was my father. Yes, having your own dad as your teacher is rough but he had a way of pulling you into the story and making you want to keep reading. I learned the lesson so well that I have, like many of the rest of you, multiple bookshelves, filled to the brim, with boxes in storage that are rotated into the shelves.
    I asked my father for his copy once, and he said “no” but he did say I could read it any time I wanted. When I stumbled across a copy in a small antique store during college, I bought it immediately.
    I inherited dad’s copy in “93. Mom made sure she put aside for me. It’s on my main shelf, in the middle, flanked by the copy I bought in college and a third copy that I bought over the net last year to have one to read.
    It was reprinted recently by Indiana University Press, in a trade paperback format. Old and possibly forgotten? Yes, maybe so. Still, a good book that I recommend highly, even if you won’t get to hear Bates the butler’s soft Irish Brogue the way I will.

  73. Of those ten 1912 authors, I recognised the names of just three – two only vaguely – and have only read a book by one of them: in mitigation I am British rather than from the USA; my batting average might have been better with a UK list. Curiously, though, of the roughly 15,000 volumes in my house (more than half or which are SF or Fantasy) the book physically closest to me at this very moment (actually touching my left knee, as it’s on a shelf under my computer desk) is Gene Stratton-Porter’s Moths of the Limberlost, acquired because of my lepidopteral interests.

  74. I recognize Howard Bell Wright and Basil King. I’ve read both of them, too, though not the works listed here. Never heard of the others and I do have an interest in early 20th century literature. The Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1912 was Gerhart Hauptmann by the way. I’ve heard of him and even read one of his plays in school, but then he was a countryman of mine. How many others have heard of him, let alone read him?

  75. John, point well taken. But just because something isn’t on the top 10 list doesn’t mean it can’t survive the test of time. You are right, the author will be long dead, but his creation may live on. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs was published in 1912. Yes, that book is a big anomaly. That might not have been a top 10 title back then, but Edgar Rice Burroughs sold way more books (Tarzan and otherwise) than any of the authors on this list ever did.

    He sold more books than a lot of authors did, regardless of year. And he was one of the first to “go Hollywood”, but that was more circumstantial, aka being in the right place at the right time with the right story.

    Not to take anything away from ERB. He saw his chance and took it.

  76. Hah! I’ve had Princess of Mars on just about every form of portable since I got my first Newton. Never thought about how old it is.

  77. I haven’t read The Melting of Molly, but I’ve heard about it– “melting” is apparently an euphemism for “going on a diet.” Which might yield itself even better to a scifi short….

  78. I just read Dawn, H. Rider Haggard’s first novel (ca. 1883) and can confidently say that if he hadn’t written She and King Solomon’s Mines, he’d also be amongst the ranks of the Great Forgotten.

  79. @Mike:
    Are we disagreeing?

    I hope not – because that was an embarrassingly feeble attempt all round if we were. :)

  80. Several posters have mentioned ebooks from Project Gutenberg. I’ve helped prepare some of the those books, as a volunteer at Distributed Proofreaders. There’s some great stuff from the past that never made it into the canon or onto school reading lists. Lots of bad writing too, which can be just as amusing in its own way. Perhaps some of you might want to wander over to DP and see if you’d like to help.

  81. John, this was a good post. :) Basic truths, 101 – we never know what others will make of our work. And it’s not like the process of appraisal ever stops. Reputations and influence rise, fall, rise, rise some more, get dragged down by mole men, invent tunneling machines and escape to waiting ornithopters only to be abducted by the evil robots from the far side of the moon…and so on, through many editions of critical studies.

  82. I’m working on a long piece about the US bestsellers of 1900-1920 and have read all of these books (and a whole load of other equally forgotten ones). Thanks for highlighting this issue, John!

    It frosts my cupcake beyond all recognition when people are all “Oh, literature today is so crappy, the literature of the past was so magnificent” as if tons of potboilers weren’t being written and published every damn year since Gutenberg, generally outselling the books that would later be dubbed “classics” by boatloads. Dickens, George Eliot, and Mark Twain are among the very few writers who were bestsellers in their day and “classics” today.

  83. Interesting thoughts Mr. Scalzi.

    I tend to agree, in regards to any creative endeavor or artform. It also reminds me of how one of my favorite novels is obscure (Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo if you’re curious) and out of print now. Bear in mind it is not that old, as it was published in 2001, and even won the Philip K. Dick Award that year.

  84. As someone above pointed out, as I have recently to whippersnappers: Cultural preservation is Darwinian. We don’t listen to the crap classical music, we only listen to the Good Stuff. All the crap went by the wayside long ago. Then we apply Sturgeon’s Law….

    FWIW, I was zero/10 with the list.

  85. Heck, just do fifty years ago:

    1. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
    2. Dearly Beloved by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
    3. A Shade of Difference by Allen Drury
    4. Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk
    5. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
    6. Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler
    7. Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
    8. The Prize by Irving Wallace
    9. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
    10. The Reivers by William Faulkner

    1. The Porter is still in print. Bookscan has it selling eight copies last week.
    2. Lindbergh has an edition out: three copies last week.
    3. Goose egg on the Drury.
    4. Wouk, three copies of a 1992 edition.
    5. Franny and Zooey is of course still widely read: 301 copies across five editions last week.
    6. Fail-Safe had thirteen copies last week. The movie, which is great, probably occasionally shows up on TV still.
    7. No copies of #7 last week. Also, its movie version was terrible.
    8. Goose egg on THE PRIZE. Plenty of other Wallace titles are listed, but not this one.
    9. The Agony and the Ecstasy is doing okay! Ninety-five copies between two editions last week.
    10. Ditto Faulkner—56 copies of a 1992 edition moved last week.

    It helps, I guess, to be super-famous for something else, to write about an important historical subject (with a movie attached), or to win a Nobel Prize, I guess.

  86. I think Heinlein did a pretty good job of imagining the future. In the late 1930s, early 1940s his characters were using items (tech) that we use everyday.
    i.e. Flash the pizza = Nuke it.

  87. The basic truths here were brought home to me while I was just reading a historiographic study of Richard Hofstadter; once a great public historian, now rapidly becoming a period piece.

  88. What I find most interesting is that many of the books on the best-seller lists fall into, for me, one of four categories:

    1) Author I have never heard of and book I have never heard of
    2) Book I have never read, but seen movie/tv adaption of
    3) Book I have read
    4) Book I have never read and author I don’t know, but title was famous

    An example:

    1981 [30 years ago]: An Indecent Obsession by Collenn McCullough. [when checking who she was, I recognized works of hers that fall under #4, like The Thorn Birds and Tim, neither of which I’ve actually seen]

    1987 [25 years ago]: Tommyknockers, Presumed Innocent, Misery

    2009: Under the Dome, Stephen King.

    1972: [40 years ago] Jonathan Livingston Seagull: Never read, didn’t know the author’s name, but remember it being talked about incessantly.

    Mind you, I also note that in the last 10 years, I have only read TWO of the books on the top 10 seller list. So 2 out of 100 bestsellers. Although that figure is partly due to the Harry Potter series being excluded from the lists for some reason.

  89. John, great post. Here’s a few alternate opinions of mine:
    First of all, great Writing will survive, but the dreck will wash away. Secondly, regional works may not get the attention We think they deserve. (David L. Bristow’s “A Dirty, WICKED Town,Tales of 19th Century Omaha”, a hilarious & bawdy true look at a real life Sodom) but works that family members and friends recommend to us will be enjoyed for generations.
    Your tastes may vary, but I intend to read P.G. Wodehouse to my future grandchildren.
    And your books, of course.

  90. @ Adela:

    “I’m hoping to never to end up as English class mandatory reading list essay assignment.”

    I have a story, “Bearing Up,” in an Ontario Grade Ten reader. From time to time, students come to my web site hoping to answer questions about its theme or climax. I always give great answers, really great ones. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but I’m hoping they amuse whoever is grading the essays.

  91. It strikes me that the idea of writing for the ages is already proven to be a bad plan.

    Think about the year 2012 as imagined in science fiction written prior to 1970. Even if I limit it to the hard SF, there are still a lot of ideas in those stories that haven’t happened yet, or happened in ways nobody would have expected.

    I admit to a bias here, but I think that science is considerably more predictable than artistic tastes.

    As a side note, I imagine there’s some author somewhere who has thought, “I can’t believe that piece of tripe I wrote is still popular.”

  92. I’m giggling with the idea of trying to write a novel for a thirteen year old living in 2112. I doubt books will be around. I mean, music was banned, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that books would be too?

  93. @Jeffo

    “I’m giggling with the idea of trying to write a novel for a thirteen year old living in 2112. I doubt books will be around. I mean, music was banned, so wouldn’t it stand to reason that books would be too?”

    Damn you, Priests of the Temples of Syrinx!

  94. @JJS — You are misreading Moby Dick. Melville is making fun of racists and Christians in those early scenes with Queequeg. He was hounded his whole life by the fundamentalist Christians of his time, the Presbyterians, who considered Moby Dick profane.

    As for the long view, great writing will find it’s own way to survive over the centuries. Just worry about writing a great book and the rest will take care of itself.

  95. Looks like I’m not the only person (woman?) who inheirited a love of Gene Stratton Porter from her mother or grandmother. I’ve read these books all my life and still enjoy them, although they are certainly dated. I last read the Harvester about three years ago. It’s not science fiction, but has some clearly supernatural elements that would probably set it firmly into today’s “paranormal” category – ghosts and spirits but no werewolves or vampires.

    As to a comparison of monetary value over the last hundred years, I’ll stand with Heinlein on the “loaf of bread” value system. In 1912 a loaf of good bread (unsliced) was about a nickel. Today at the supermarket, it’s possible (but difficult) to find a basic, discount loaf for $1. That puts $1 million in 1912 as about $20 million today.

  96. I knew I’d heard of the first author! My aunt (a middle school librarian) gave me A Girl of the Limberlost when I was 13ish.

  97. That is so weird! A friend gave me a copy of The Harvester and it is sitting on my bedside stand waiting to be started. Gave me a bit of a start!

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