Novelists Ngram

Here’s another of those nice Ngrams.
I was thinking about the decline in the reputation of John Galsworthy – from Nobel prize-winner to also-ran. (This was sparked by reading a book about him written by a friend, Hermon Ould, written shortly after Galsworthy’s death. It’s a hero-worshipping tome that makes its hero sound very dull indeed.)
So maybe an Ngram could chart what happened to his reputation. An Ngram, for those who missed my previous post, is an ingenious Google device. You enter some search terms and the software zips through all the Google-scanned books that were published in the various years of the century, and it gives you a chart showing numbers of mentions:
So I entered John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce, to see what happened to the reputations of two Edwardian realists and two modernists.
Here’s the chart. Click on it to see it properly.

novelists ngram

So we get Arnold Bennett sailing above the others until his death in the mid-thirties, when Lawrence, who had died in 1930, overtakes him as a subject for comment. Lawrence peaks round about the time of the  Lady Chatterley trial in the sixties, but goes in decline after some feminists in the seventies began to strongly question his sexual politics. Joyce, from a slowish start, creeps up to be the modernist novelist, firmly ensconced on all university reading-lists.

Galsworthy, meanwhile, gets his modicum of fame, which dwindles continually after his death in 1934. Which shows, I think, the limitations of Ngrams as charters of reputations. They track mentions in books, not in journalism or other media. At the end of the sixties, all England was talking about the BBC adaptation of the Forsyte Saga, the TV event of its time.  The tie-in reissues became very healthy sellers, and there was a great deal of press coverage – though clearly this did not translate into references in printed books.

So one needs to take Ngrams with a pinch of salt as indexes of levels of interest. Books mentioning writers tend to be aimed at a small, professionally-interested audience, and to favour particular types of writer, such as James Joyce, the academics’ favourite.

It would be interesting to see a similar graph of actual book sales for these writers, and to compare it with the Ngram. My bet is that in terms of sales Lawrence would go to the top in the sixties, and would probably stay there.


  1. Posted June 12, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Plot Michel Foucault against Dan Brown and you get some idea of the limitations of this method in tracking popularity.

    • Posted June 12, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      You’re right. But it’s quite useful for tracking the vagaries of intellectual fashion.

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