Literary critics like to write about the importance of an author and his/her work, but many of them seldom put it quite that way. They write about themes and styles and relationships and relevance, but, most of the time, when they write about an author, they’re only guessing as to whether an author will really have a lasting influence over readers and culture and whether anything written by that author will resonate or last beyond the author’s lifespan.
Because critics seldom seem to consider history, although they’ve doubtless read about it, readers tend to forget little things like the fact that Shakespeare was NOT the pre-eminent playwright of his time, and that Beaumont and Fletcher ended up interred in Westminster Abbey long before the Bard did. Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for literature, but few today read anything of what he wrote anymore, except for The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, and a handful of poems.
Publishers and booksellers tend not to care as much about potential influence, but about sales — or popularity. And, of course, our current media culture is all about instant-popularity. So… in the field of fantasy and science fiction, the media tends to focus on the mega-sellers like Harry Potter or The Wheel of Time. Certainly, both series have sold well and inspired many imitators, but how well will they fare over time in influencing readers and overall culture?
Will either approach J.R.R. Tolkien? Or for that matter, Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelley?
Tolkien was both popular and influential, to the point that a great many of today’s popular fantasy writers are not influential at all. They’re merely imitators, using pale similarities, that include trolls, orcs, faerie, variations on European feudalism, and the same kind of vaguely defined magic as Tolkien employed. These writers have sold a great number of books, but exactly what is their influence, except as extensions of the approach that Tolkien pioneered?
Poe could be said to have pioneered the horror genre, with a relevance and an influence great enough that movies have been made and re-made more than a century after his death. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has long outlasted her considerable output of scholarly and other works and is perhaps the model for the nurture/nature conflict horror story.
What works of today’s F&SF writers will outlive them?
As has been the case with all cultures, while all of us who write would like to think that it will be our works that survive, in almost all cases, that won’t be so. That realization may well be, in fact, why I intend to keep writing so long as I can do so at a professional level. That way, if my works fall out of favor, I won’t be around to see it. And if they don’t, well, that would be an added bonus, even if I wouldn’t know it.
Still… what factors are likely to keep a book alive?
Some of them are obvious, such as an appeal to basic human feelings with which readers can instantly identify. Other factors, such as style, are far more transient. Shakespeare’s work, with its comparative linguistic directness, has fared far better than those writers whose style was considered more “erudite.” And with our mass-media-simplifying culture, I have great doubts that the work of writers whose appeal to critics is primarily stylistic will long endure. Works which explore ideas and ideals and how they apply to people are more likely to last, but whose works… I certainly couldn’t say.
For all that the critics write, with their [sometimes] crystal prose, I have to wonder just how many of them have accurately predicted or will be able to determine which works of today’s authors will still be around — and influential — in fifty years… or a century.