Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 1
Over the next six days I’m doing something different here; I’m going to publish a version of the talk I gave around the country on the subject of authors we have loved and misplaced. I started from a template and tended to spring off in different directions for each talk, depending on the mood of the audience. I think it’s insulting to give the same talk every time, so I have about fifteen versions prepared, and ad-lib from those so that nobody gets the same one twice. Then we end with a 20-minute Q&A.
These alternative takes on the subject are from many different viewpoints, graded for audiences by age and demographics. For example, the young tend to ask questions about ethnicity and gender, the elderly want to know why Neville Shute isn’t in it. The beauty of this approach is that you can gauge the audience’s attention and adjust your talk to keep them interested (ideally by shouting ‘Free tea and biscuits’). I once did an event at the old Blackwells in Bloomsbury on Halloween, and the staff served everyone punch. Unfortunately they had left it to a junior staff member to mix the concoction, and he had added several bottles of rum and vodka, with the result that the audience was completely pissed by the time I came on.
This talk is not the one I would give in London; it’s more aware of the rest of the country, which is why I’ve chosen it.
This project began over ten years ago when I was looking at my bookshelves, and thinking about my family’s shelves, and wondering why so many of the paperbacks we’d owned could no longer be found in bookshops. I suggested writing a column about it to the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday, and she loved the idea.
I wanted to understand:
Once there were popular novels almost everyone owned. Mum had Georgette Heyer, Dad had Eric Ambler, kids had Billy Bunter and Malory Towers and the Borrowers. They were the books that shaped imaginations and became touchstones in our lives. They were often hugely successful, but at some point many of their authors vanished from family bookshelves. What happened to them? If these books were any good at all, why were these authors forgotten?
I decided to find out, and embarked on a task that was ten years in the making. During that time the fates of some of the authors I looked into underwent significant changes. Some authors were rediscovered, others reappeared directly because I wrote about them. Many more vanished. A few of the living ones didn’t want to be found. The saddest lost books were those from writers whose publishers decided they were no longer fashionable. Some lacked confidence to begin with, and lost heart when their latest works were rejected. Certain problems kept reappearing; addiction, madness, poverty – and sudden wealth – all played their part.
It proved impossible to find any books at all from a handful of authors, so I had to leave them out. Some wrote under pseudonyms, or wrote for publishing houses that went bust. If you want to find your own forgotten authors, first ask your family about their favourite novels and short stories. Everyone who reads has a favourite author, and a great many of them have vanished, even very recent ones.
The modern popular paperback has an average life of six years. They’re cheaply printed on poor quality paper, it fades and falls apart in strong sunlight. Especially the ones which were printed after the war, when paper was scarce and expensive. That’s why novels were shorter then.
Books need love. They fall to bits unless they’re cared for, and e-books are even more ephemeral; they just get deleted. Also, there are too many bad novels published. It would be better if publishers produced fewer of higher quality. And I think we all know by now that the majority of self-published books are not very good. Nobody writes a great first novel without a fine editor.
I started to make more discoveries about writers and writing. Authors think when they get a book published it will live forever, but only a tiny fraction manage to survive. The journey of a novel doesn’t end with its publication. It’s where the story of its life really begins.