On Wednesday, my English professor expressed his confidence that Ian McEwan, the assigned author, would still be widely read in fifty years. It’s a theme my professor brings up often: the future relevance of the books we read in class. He has also predicted that The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s critically-acclaimed novel about a Latin American dictator, will be less likely to be remembered in the future. However, making guesses about the longevity of a work might be a fool’s errand. As it turns out, people’s predictions are usually inaccurate.
The Smithsonian Institute recently drew attention to a 1936 article from the publication Colophon that presented the results from a poll asking readers to predict which contemporary authors would be widely-read classics in the year 2000. Of the authors listed in the article, I’ve only read two: Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay (both poets). Half the authors I haven’t even heard of, such as James Branch Cabell and James Truslow Adams. Notably absent from this list (to name a few) are William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pearl S. Buck, Earnest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, and Langston Hughes, who had all published their “masterpieces” by 1936 when the poll was conducted.
Perhaps more interestingly, neither the authors we now consider as glaring omissions, nor those that actually made the list in 1936 (except for Sinclair Lewis), were on Publishers Weekly’s best seller list in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This suggests that people knew most mainstream fiction wasn’t going to be widely read in eighty years, but were unsure of which experimental fiction would last.
Maybe this is a good thing. It means 50 Shades of Grey, by E. L. James or John Grisham’s latest novel will not actually be offered to my grandchildren as books that defined the era in which we live. But, if the best sellers, and respected literary figures of the 1930s did not end up defining their generation, who endures? If you had asked me three weeks ago, I would have listed some of the literary fiction writers I love and respect: Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Toni Morrison, Dave Eggers, Cormac McCarthy, Nicole Kraus, Michael Chabon. I now realize, however, that it’s not as simple as saying that a certain author is considered a great writer now, so he or she will be in the future. Moby Dick, a standard on “Best Books of All Time” lists, was not only a flop when it came out, but it also wasn’t even considered Herman Melville’s best work.
I wonder where the disconnect happens. Do different generations have simply different standards for quality, or is it hard to recognize the “voice of a generation” when you’re in that generation? It is difficult to assess the work we read now in terms of its ability to capture the trend of an era. I don’t know if Ian McEwan will be read and studied in fifty years. I don’t even know if he’ll be read in thirty. Maybe the authors that will come to define our generation have yet to be discovered by us. Or maybe we’ve discovered them, but they’ve already been dismissed.