Posterity

On April 3rd, 1929, the Manchester Guardian printed the results of a competition that it had organised. Readers were asked to predict which living novelists would still be read in 2029, and the winner was the competitor whose list most nearly matched the general consensus.
Since we are now four-fifths of the way towards 2029, the rankings make interesting reading; for novelists currently basking in critical approval they may be salutary reminders of the unpredictability of fame. Well over a thousand Guardian readers entered the competition, by the way, so the results can probably be taken as accurately reflecting the taste at least of educated liberal opinion in 1929.
The top six novelists were
Galsworthy                  1,180 votes
Wells                               933 votes
Bennett                         654 votes
Kipling                           455 votes
Barrie                             286 votes
Walpole                        233 votes
Well, Galsworthy is still in print, and I’ve recommended the Forsyte Saga to my daughter as a good way of whiling away long cosy hours of breast-feeding. I don’t think he features on many academic reading lists, though. Wells and Bennett have their devoted followers, though there is more interest in Wells’s ideas than in his fiction, I think, and Bennett still seems to me the most under-appreciated of British novelists. Kipling is a great unignorable fact in English literature, but his name is at least as likely to produce vilification as praise. And Barrie and Walpole? Barrie is now a one-play man; Peter Pan continues to enchant, even when debased to panto. But have you tried any of his novels lately? The Little White Bird is positively creepy.
And Hugh Walpole, I fear, has quite disappeared from critical fame, and I can’t see him ever regaining it.
Those six were the winners, but the MG also prints the scores for writers who didn’t make the top selection. The first woman on the list is in seventh place:
Sheila Kaye-Smith      198 votes
Whatever happened to her?
(Update:Since writing this post, I’ve read Kaye-Smith’s Little England (1918), and I can thoroughly recommend it.)
Here are the next few:
George Moore             165 votes
Bernard Shaw              110 votes
Conan Doyle                101 votes
R.H.Mottram                 79 votes
John Buchan                  63 votes
D.H.Lawrence                 61 votes
Chesterton                     60 votes
Aldous Huxley              50 votes
The appearance of Shaw among the novelists says more about his domination as playwright and controversialist than about his novels, all of which are early work (though well worth reading). Mottram’s excellent Spanish Farm books get him on the list, but they have long been (unjustly) out of print. Doyle and Buchan are still not only in print, but are read for pleasure, not because they are on academic reading lists.
A bit lower down the list, Rose Macaulay gets 41 votes, which is five fewer than Hall Caine. I’ve just read Macaulay’s Keeping Up Appearances (1928) and I can’t understand why she isn’t a hugely popular classic.
E.M.Forster gets 31 votes, and Virginia Woolf only 21, the same as Edgar Wallace. James Joyce is in the list of those who get fewer than ten votes. I wonder how the good folk of 1929 would have reacted if told that eighty years on these would be writers arousing vastly more critical interest than their current heroes.
There is a long list of forgotten and near-forgotten names who managed to scrape a handful of votes each. Among them, though, is Max Beerbohm, whose Zuleika Dobson is definitely still read, and E.F.Benson, whose comic novels were helped back into print by a television series.
There is an even sadder list of writers who garnered just one mention from the Guardian readers. Flora Annie Steel, where are you now? Yet in the middle of that list is P.G.Wodehouse, still a solid seller, much-loved and widely regarded as a classic. And as for the novelist of 1929 who, judging by the display of her work in bookshops, is the most genuinely popular eighty years on – she gets no votes at all. That’s Agatha Christie, of course.
Funny thing, literary fame.

9 Comments

  1. Posted October 12, 2009 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    It’s always instructive to read the publisher’s catalogues printed at the back of many books just after the war. Often no more than 1 author in 50 rings any sort of bell and many have ceased to exist altogether judging by their non-appearance on ABE. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi as they say.

  2. Posted October 12, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Perhaps in our more or less post-book age the more appropriate gauge would be: which of these writers’ work is most often adapted for film & TV drama? In which case the giants of 1929 would seem to be Doyle, Christie, Wodehouse, Barrie, and Forster. In terms of books still popularly read as books I would think that Huxley’s Brave New World would be hard to beat.

  3. The Shadow
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been fascinated by the way an apparently top rated author can vanish completely from the bookshelves within a few years of their death. I have a fondness for old thriller authors like John Creasey or Dennis Wheatley, and am only too aware of how few people have read them nowadays. My theory is that one remains in print for a number of reasons. Bram Stoker is still remembered because he created one of the great icons of the modern era-Dracula. Had he not written that book, we would most likely have never heard of him. One book can be all it takes…

  4. Posted October 15, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    W.H.Auden wrote ‘Many books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.’
    Those that stay in the reading memory are those with something special, I suppose. But how can a writer be as respected as Sheila Kaye Smith obviously was, and then disappear from the world’s consciousness?
    I’ve now got hold of her ‘Little England’, and shall report on it before long.

  5. Roger
    Posted October 16, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the writers who best reflect the common opinions and viewpoints of their time are both the ones who are most popular then and the ones who disappear most quickly afterwards.

  6. Nemo
    Posted October 18, 2009 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    While the fiction H.G. Wells was writing in the 1920s may have fallen into obscurity his science fiction from just before and just after the beginning of the 20th Century is widely read and the present decade has seen major film productions of THE TIME MACHINE, a not-terribly-successful at the box office version very faithfully adapted from the original by H.G.’s great-grandson Simon Wells, and WAR OF THE WORLDS, a financially successful, not-as-faithful to the original version adapted by Stephen Speilberg.

  7. Roger
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/oct/26/how-our-literary-tastes-change for Guardian’s own comments

  8. Posted November 4, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    “Bennett still seems to me the most under-appreciated of British novelists.” Oooh – which one to start with?

    • Posted November 4, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Read ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’, an amazing novel. You will not be disappointed.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] I found this fascinating. Poll results from Guardian readers of what authors they thought posterity would remember. From the 1920s. They were, shall they say, well off. […]

  2. […] Galsworthy hot, James Joyce not The Guardian, 26 octobre 2009 et Posterity, de George Simmers, 12 octobre […]

  3. […] love Galsworthy and for that matter Wells.  Here is the article.  Here is further commentary.  By the way, no one back then voted for Agatha Christie, who is now probably the most […]

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: