Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 2

Reading & Writing

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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.

13 comments on “Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 2”

  1. Tony Walker says:

    Coronation Street was stolen from Bill Naughton? Author of ‘Alfie’, ‘Spring and Port Wine’, and marvellous collections of short stories like ‘Late Night on Watling Street? First I’ve heard of this, Christopher. Please tell us more.

  2. Brooke says:

    When Alex Cox (BBC Free Thinkinng) asked Mr. Fowler which authors should be forgotten and the prompt answer was Agatha Christie, I laughed so hard tear came. Bravo! Yes, Priestley, Freeman, Fletcher, etc. deserve much more attention. When you read them aloud, you understand how good they were at their craft.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Authors to be forgotten: long before Agatha Christie, there are Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    I don’t class Messrs. Archer and Brown to be ‘Authors’. They write, certainly, and put words on pages, but the sense that they are strictly ‘doing it for the money’, over every other consideration, like that they might be showing their readers something new, or creative, or giving them a story, superbly told, without course to plagiarism. I, personally, would like (and it will, sadly, never happen), to see J.K. Rowling forgotten. I read several of her ‘Harry Potter’ books, and got an odd dêja vu feeling from them, as if I had read parts before – I probably had, versions from far older books, of myths, folklore, Enid Blyton fairytales, old movies, ideas in illustrations by Arthur Rackham, paintings by the insane Richard Dadd – the niggling feeling that I had read them before. Yes, it’s good that they encouraged a lot of children to read, but honestly, there’s a lot of better stuff out there. Mind you, by the time I was ten, I was fascinated by ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’, ‘The Three Musketeers’, and ‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’, all of which, I have read many times since, and still adore.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Re-reading Dumas deserves a commendation. I am still not through The Count of Monte Cristo, begun on a beach so has sunny memories..

    My children had books, pre-dating Harry P, called The Worst Witch. I’m sure Rowling must have seen these, all about a school for young witches.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    I had the same thought as to what justifies the title author. I admit to having read parts of two of Dan Brown’s books – enough to decide the films are better. As for Archer, I’ve looked at few pages in railway station and airport bookshops and found the style too horrible. I’ve never looked at anything by Rowling.

    Alexandre Dumas, Geoffrey Household, W.E. Johns, Graham Greene, Conan Doyle, John Buchan and Nevil Shute saw me very happily from child to (an approximation of) adult. I enjoyed them all in their very different ways, most of all Dumas and Shute, and hope none will ever be forgotten even if some are considered no longer PC.

  7. admin says:

    You’ll find most of the above questions answered in the book, along with a look at Mr Dan Brown that redresses the balance of what makes an author memorable but not necessarily good (as opposed to say, ‘The Girl on the Train’, which is neither).

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I started this and was interrupted. Dumas is a case of using material without credit – he had an unacknowledged ghost writer. Doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying the books, as I did, too.
    Neville Shute (Norway) is dated and has a very strong personal viewpoint but again doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying his books. Aero types should probably read his autobiography Slide Rule about the building of the R100 and R101. Just the title dates that one.
    As for Rowling (and she can certainly defend herself) I’m not sure what the complaint is. The first book was intended to be a one off, but then she realised it had legs so on came the rest. Yes, there are flaws in her logic, faults in all sorts of ways, but I refuse to criticise her for using the matter of European fairy and folk tales. All writers operate with a background of what they read or heard read or saw in films. You can’t help but have it rub off. The world of faery should sort of hang together, at least somewhat. I and my students had fun with those books, more so than they did with Phillip Pullman, whom even my 11 and 12 year olds didn’t “get”. Complaints so often sound like sour grapes. No one is suggesting Harry is a great hero from deathless prose. The stories are fun and exciting, the characters are realistic, and the aims are what one would hope to put in front of children.
    Bah, humbug to the nay sayers.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    No, I’m not keen. The only ‘kidult’ books I’ve really enjoyed are the immersive, and deliciously mad ‘Artemis Fowl’ books by Eoin Colfer, so full of ideas that your head will hurt, and reminiscent of Harry Harrison’s wonderfully barking ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ novels and Colfer’s beautiful, beautiful, Steampunk fairytale, ‘Airman’. And then there’s Alan Gibbons’ obsidian black ‘Hell’s Underground’ sequence. Written about the nastiest corners of London, and as a children’s book series written in the manner of Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Hawksmoor’, and ‘The House Of Doctor Dee’. No corners cut, no detail too unpleasant, no darkness of day or being too dark. Some questions left unanswered. Bad dreams afterwards? Unlucky, son.

  10. Rachel Green says:

    Darn! You were in Sheffield and I missed you!

  11. cherry says:

    I share Ians views of J K Rowling, I enjoy reading childrens literature and almost threw The Philosophers Stone across
    the room with a shout of plagiarist. the auther who springs to mind is the wonderful Edith Nesbit who wrote so many wonderful stories apart from the rather tedious Railway children for which she is remembered. She also has a fascinating back story covered in Julia Briggs wonderful book A Woman Of Passion. She was also a near neighbour of Mr Fowler. I think 10 or 11 is a little young for Philllip Pullman

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Very possibly, Cherry, but that lot couldn’t be interested in very much. I was delighted that they took to Harry Potter. I myself never had the Nesbit books or Noddy or Enid Blyton or the Ransome adventures and don’t feel the loss of them. I didn’t have Nancy Drew, either, so I can’t blame my fondness for mysteries on an early exposure – well, except for Rex Stout, the American Poirot. I just don’t see why people get so upset about Rowling. Is it shaky plotting, the fact she made a fortune or what?

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and Artemis Fowl was wonderful. I giggled hysterically all through each one, the first being the best. I really was afraid I would have parents complaining, but the kids were obviously smart enough to keep them away from the sight of parents likely to complain.

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