On the Survival of Writers’ Reputations

Ted Gioia, introducing his reconsideration of John Fowles:

Here’s the truest test. Wait until ten years after their death, and see if anyone still talks about their books.

You need a decade for the hype to dissipate, for the eulogies to fade from readers’ memories. Class reading lists have now been updated. The old book reviewers have been replaced. No publicist or agent is working the room. The chatter at fashionable cocktail parties has moved on to other books. Only a great author can still hold readers after a decade’s absence.

And what does this measure tell us? Well, Saul Bellow (died in 2005) has clearly fallen from grace. Even a centenary celebration and publication of the first volume of a major biography couldn’t hide the defensive tone of Bellow’s advocates. When Bellow’s name is mentioned nowadays, it is as often to dismiss or criticize as to praise. I question the fairness of this turn-of-events—I rank Bellow as one of finest authors of his generation—but can’t deny that his reputation has taken a huge hit.

On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut (died 2007) will certainly survive the ten-year-test. He is not only read and quoted, but is still treated as an iconic figure of the counterculture.

I do not agree that ten years is enough to assess a whole authorial reputation—often writers become classics when they are discovered to have something their grandchildren or great-grandchildren need, a need their parents never felt. Shakespeare was admired, with qualifications, in the eighteenth century, but canonized and even worshipped by the Romantics. If I had to guess, I would say that in the long run, the difficult and unpleasant moralist Saul Bellow—who wrote some of the greatest English prose of his century and whose occasional or even structural ugliness came from a genuine, besmirching engagement with the real—will live on while a more historically local and facilely correct-thinking figure such as Vonnegut (not that I have ever been able to read him) will eventually fade. As Auden famously wrote in his elegy for Yeats,

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives,
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Auden eventually cancelled these stanzas from his elegy, finding them too politically smug, too full of self-righteous leftism. But, by reminding progressive readers that the reactionaries Kipling, Claudel, and Yeats are superb writers, they make an internal critique of self-righteous leftism and are valuable as such in the present. We cannot be reminded too much, if we are writers or literary critics, that politics fades but literature remains. No matter how many times I read the information, I can never remember if Dante was a Guelph or a Ghibelline. Maybe in a thousand years no one will be able to recall whether Bellow was a feminist or an anti-feminist! If that shocks you, think how shocked Dante would be that we are not at all touched by his partisanship but think only of his imagery.

(There is, of course, the nearly Chestertonian paradox that a political or religious passion seems to produce greater literature than does a merely art-for-art’s-sake posture—the religiously reactionary Dostoevsky and the politically progressive George Eliot are grander figures than the aesthetes Pater and Wilde, and, for that matter, the dangerously irrationalist Yeats is better than the sweetly reasonable Auden—but that is a topic for another day. I touched on it in this piece on Cynthia Ozick’s essays.)

By the way, Gioia makes a convincing case for John Fowles; I plan at least to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman someday. (Almost certainly before I get to Paul Claudel.) I do recall my father once telling me that, sucked in by the Fowles hype in the 1970s, he stayed up all night to read The Magus and still had no idea what it was about in the morning! But that is paying the novel a compliment in my book, given that Pater’s “addition of strangeness to beauty” remains my literary ideal.

2 thoughts on “On the Survival of Writers’ Reputations

  1. Thanks for this post.

    I would like to add a few thoughts about the Chestertonian paradox you mentioned (Chesterton was one of the great minds of all time, alongside such luminaries as Emerson, Belloc, and Tolkien):

    1. The aestheticist impulse, in its emphasis on the aesthetics of art, is generally admirable. To focus on the aesthetic aspects of art. Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, and Vladimir Nabokov are some of the greatest writers ever. And their work is in the aestheticist tradition; also, Harold Bloom, one of the greatest literary critics of our time, is a thoroughly Romantic aesthete, and his defense of the Canon and his theory of poetry is largely based off of aesthetics as much as it is based off of influence.

    2. That said, I would agree that those who strive for more than “art for art’s sake” tend to be greater. Victor Hugo is one of the most aesthetically indulgent and beautiful of stylists. So are Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Leo Tolstoy. Yet in their art all of these strove for greater purposes, whether religious or political or social or even personal. The aestheticists are still great, but those who strive for me than aesthetics are greater. Even if their aesthetics aren’t the greatest – Fyodor Dostoevsky and Theodore Dreiser come to mind – they are still great.

    3. That said, I do tend to side strongly with the aestheticist camp in many respects, as a good aestheticism represents the best trait of literature, which is to resist reductionism. A healthy aestheticism is an effective weapon to combat the reductionism so common in much of bad literature.

    So, as for my literary sensibilities, my sympathies are classical-romantic-aestheticist.

    1. Thanks for your nuanced comment! I suppose one way to resolve the conflict is to say that aestheticism is appropriate to criticism while allowing that the creation of art may require an animating passion of some extra-aesthetic sort (which criticism should account for, but which need not determine critical judgement).

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