Here’s something interesting. Last year right around this time, one of the better online literary distractions involved looking up the bestselling books on the day of your birth. This week John Scalzi took a look at the top sellers from 1912, a hundred years ago (and anyone who thinks they might want to get a crack about my birthday in here, just skip it).
Off the top of my head, 1912 sounds like it might have been a good year for books. And, in fact, that year saw Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, and the original German edition of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. But popularity doesn’t necessarily speak to a work’s status as a classic, or any powers of endurance at all, as it turns out. The bestsellers of 1912 are as follows:
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
As Scalzi points out, none of the ten titles or authors are exactly household words, even if you have a relatively geeky literary household. I recognize Stratton-Porter’s name—I’m pretty sure I had her A Girl of the Limberlost on my shelves when I was little, though I wasn’t very predisposed to reading anything with the word “girl” in the title. The rest of them, though, not so much. Which is definitely potentially depressing from a writer’s point of view. If best-seller status doesn’t confer any kind of relevance through the ages, then what does? Scalzi says,
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.
These books are all still in print in one form or another, many as public domain eBooks—now that would be a fun reading challenge for someone to take on—and a large number of them in large print, presumably for those readers who remember them fondly from days a little closer to their publication. But as he helpfully points out, we’ll all most likely be gone in another hundred years anyway. Although as readers and reviewers it’s always fun to second-guess the canon, as writers it’s our job to just… write.
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.
What’s interesting, if you think about it, is that as often as not it’s genre that tends to hang in. You have the thinkers for the ages who’ve maintained, sure—your Thomas Manns, your Bertrand Russells—but also, if we’re looking at that same year, a heavy dose of Westerns, mysteries, and adventure stories. Not to mention, regarding pretty much any year you pick, YA and children’s literature. Endurance is a funny thing. You never know—another century from now, in whatever forum has replaced blogs, the same debate will probably be going on. “Oh sure, Freedom,” opinionmakers of the future will say. “It had its moment in the sun, but it was no Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.”
(Photo is Three Girls Reading, artist unknown, 1912.)