Roger Ebert responded recently to an article by Cynthia Ozick written in the New Republic. So goes my reading. I get my Ozick from Ebert, but that’s ’cause I’m reading where Ebert is writing. I don’t have a subscription to the New Republic (but, alas, I should). Anyway, he quotes from her a lengthy passage about writers no one reads anymore.
Death disports with writers more cruelly than with the rest of humankind,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic.
“The grave can hardly make more mute those who were voiceless when alive–dust to dust, muteness to muteness. But the silence that dogs the established writer’s noisy obituary, with its boisterous shock and busy regret, is more profound than any other.
“Oblivion comes more cuttingly to the writer whose presence has been felt, argued over, championed, disparaged–the writer who is seen to be what Lionel Trilling calls a Figure. Lionel Trilling?
“Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his “field”) is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados–or Trilling himself?”
Ebert goes on to talk about whether he’s read these authors, and he’s read all but two. Ozick goes on to ask the question of whose writing will endure? I’m not sure that’s the question to ask. After the Library of Alexandria debacle, who can say anything will endure? But can we say that we affected the minds of those who lived? Yes.
Ozick determines that Saul Bellow will endure, most because of the Adventures of Augie March, a book I know few of my friends will have read. I haven’t read it, and I should. But it did affect a whole generation. Ebert makes a comment about Hemingway, that we will know him for The Sun Also Rises and his stories, but little else (he’s quoting and agreeing with another friend). And true, Old Man and the Sea, though the Pulitzer winner, isn’t the book that endures. It’s his first book of stories, I think, and The Sun Also Rises that continue to be read.
The Fan Base
I will say that in Science Fiction and Fantasy they have developed the concept of the FAN BASE. And this actually keeps writing, and writers, alive. JRR Tolkien will endure for a very long time. So will Stephen R. Donaldson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, etc. The classics of Science Fiction are still being read by the fan base, by those who love science fiction and fantasy. They are suggesting them to their friends. They are voracious readers and they claim, quite knowledgeably, that you can’t know science fiction and fantasy without reading this set of writers, or that book, and at the conventions these writers are celebrated. Even ComicCon has such a large science fiction and fantasy base that these 30,000 people will all know a large set of names, not just the celebrities of the moment, but the masters and grandmasters of the genre.
It could be that you might dismiss the FAN BASE as those who feed on pulp, but I would argue that they know what they like, and they are assisting in the endurance of writers and writing and that cultivating a fan base is not a bad idea. Further, these “genre writers” are introducing them to many of the great works of literature, by quoting from, giving allusions to, works by other authors. Many of our first introductions to literature–Shakespeare even–was in a comic book, or in a science fiction novel. I’m not going to give too much more a spirited defense to the importance of Fantastic Literature, or say too much longer that, before Hemingway, authors had their science fiction novels and their literary novels and no one thought of the books differently: London, James, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, all had a novel where time travel or science fiction played a large role. Anyway, I have a larger point to make. Still, hold onto the idea that developing a fan base is important–because a fan base has been enthused by your writing, has been affected by your writing, and seeks to market you to their friends.