Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 2
Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead.
Changing tastes, shrinking budgets, fads, fashions and poor cataloguing all conspire against the budding author. Authors often kill their own careers by refusing to do publicity, getting bored, being difficult or getting fed up with punishing delivery schedules.
The more original and outrageous are an author’s talents, the less likely they are to survive. Writers with the simplest vocabularies become the biggest stars because their works can be globally translated. Agatha Christie’s novels stay in printed because they’re greatly enjoyed, but also because they have a surprisingly limited range of words. She rarely describes or pontificates. Her characters get on and do things.
Which other ones survived? The writers whose work came straight from the heart and reflected their personalities lasted better than those who churned out books hoping to make money. Georgette Heyer was accused of writing trash, but she had a highly personal style of her own. The ones who lasted, then, were the ones who were true to themselves.
Books are usually doomed when they’re about technology or fads rather than people. Hard science fiction, fantasy and self-consciously hip books can suffer from this. Tales of the internet feel dated before they even hit the stands. Stories with a timeless core last longer because readers can see themselves reflected. Having said that, I respect and admire anyone who tries brave, alienating experiments with the form, like BS Johnson and Brigid Brophy.
Books don’t have to be great to be memorable. Some are flawed but still worth reading. The best ones give you a window into another world. I don’t believe writers should write what they know. They should write what they dream, hope, dread and are moved by.
Even superstar authors can vanish completely. Their print-runs can be pulped, copies misfiled, manuscripts lost, banned and burned. A phenomenal number of authors produced over 100 books in their careers, only to completely vanish from shelves. One of my novels failed because the hopeless Borders bookstore chain had misfiled it in their computer system and nobody knew how to change the file path back at head office.
It helps enormously to have your book made into a film or a TV series. British TV is still very slow to react. Whenever it comes down to a new series featuring either Sherlock Holmes or his contemporary, Dr Thorndyke, a marvellously quirky character created by R Austin Freeman, commissioning editors go for the safer option. I know West Riding is Bronte country as London is to Dickens, but how many more adaptations of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ do we need?
Television shamelessly steals ideas from novelists without crediting them. ‘Coronation Street’ was stolen from Bill Naughton by Granada Television, and the author never earned a penny from it. American TV has changed dramatically but we’re not really following suit, mainly because it’s too expensive to take risks.
There were so many stories to tell that pretty soon I found I had written about the lives and books of 450 authors. It was almost impossible to cut the number down. My editor and I argued over so many names; readers are already arguing between themselves about who should be in or out. I regret losing many, especially the poets and many of the science fiction writers. Most of all I missed Bradford-born JB Priestley, who is now out of fashion but deserves rediscovery. People only seem to remember his plays. His books – especially ‘Angel Pavement’, my favourite – are better.