The Flitcraft Parable
September 3, 2001 8:30 AM   Subscribe

The Flitcraft Parable (Warning: RealMedia) This nicely crafted nugget is taken from Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. While some literary reputations from the 1920s and '30s are falling (e.g., Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis), Hammett's rep is still rising.

My question: Which so-called genre authors writing today have the greatest chance of still being read in the 22nd century?
posted by bilco (37 comments total)

I'm not a fan and I've never read any of his books, but I think Steven King will be.

And he's no longer writing (having died a few years ago) but I think there's a very high chance that Dr. Seuss will still be a favorite among children.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:52 AM on September 3, 2001

Two words : Douglas, and Adams.
posted by dong_resin at 9:16 AM on September 3, 2001

James Ellroy has a shot, so long as he doesn't buy into his own schtick much more than he already has. (Link is to an old Salon piece.)
posted by bilco at 9:26 AM on September 3, 2001

I don't have an answer right now, but I was thinking about this exact same thing earlier.

As much as it makes me gag at the thought, probably some of the Oprah Book Club authors.
posted by wondergirl at 9:36 AM on September 3, 2001

1. Dave Sim. People will be trying to figure out Cerebus for a long time.
2. H. P. Lovecraft died sixty years ago and has grown more popular every year since. His audience now is large and almost uniquely impassioned. I expect he'll still be read in coming centuries, until someone else manages to embody his world-view in more gracefully written fiction.
3. R. A. Lafferty. Bruce Sterling remarked, "Lafferty has always been a cult figure. He will still be a cult figure a hundred years from now."
4. Bruce Sterling.
posted by Allen Varney at 9:59 AM on September 3, 2001

Terry Pratchett, maybe. Elmore Leonard slots right into the hard-boiled detective schtick.

If comic-books (sorry sequential art) are allowed, I think there's a good case for Alan Moore (Watchmen and From Hell especially) and a few others having some longevity. In particular Dave Sim's Cerebus, which has been up there with the best things I've read anywhere except when Sim decides to make a personal appearance (issue 186 and the writing in the back of the last couple of "phone books" lower the average tone quite substantially).

Oh, and Stanislav Lem.
posted by Grangousier at 10:01 AM on September 3, 2001

Let's just think what =19th= century authors are still being read for pleasure-- Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, the Brontes... just a few amongst the scads upon scads of serial writers.

I don't think Stephen King is going to last til 22nd century. And =The Bridges of Madison County= sure as hell won't.

Still, I have no idea who has lasting power.
posted by meep at 10:07 AM on September 3, 2001

George Orwell.
posted by wondergirl at 10:18 AM on September 3, 2001

I certainly agree with you, Bilco, on James Ellroy. The LA Quartet are some of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. I also agree with Dong. Douglas Adams will be read as long as there are geeky teenagers. (That's not an insult, as I love Douglas Adams, and was a geeky teenage boy).

Steven King probably wont be remembered, outside of horror fans. And I can't imagine who is actually reading Bruce Sterling in 2001, let alone 100 years from now. (sorry, Allen :) )
posted by Doug at 10:23 AM on September 3, 2001

Arthur C. Clarke is still hanging in there and still writing, sorta, so he sqeaks in under the "still writing today" qualifier. Maybe he goes without saying, though.

Ray Bradbury, I think. Ellison. Card. You might be able to make a case for Dan Simmons based on the Hyperion novels alone.

I second Sterling; in addition to his fiction, he's written a lot of nonfiction which will almost certainly be of interest to historians a century hence.

Some other names I'd like to toss out: Tim Powers. Norman Spinrad. Iain M. Banks. Jack Vance. Some of these guys still have a good chunk of their careers ahead of them so it's hard to decide for sure, of course.

I have high hopes that by the time he dies, Neal Stephenson will have written something that'll still be read 100 years from now. Ditto for Neil Gaiman. (As good as Sandman is, I'm not quite comfortable saying it'll still be in print in the 22nd century. American Gods is a good start; if he manages to put out several more novels as strong as that one over the next twenty years or so, he'll have a very good chance.)
posted by kindall at 10:28 AM on September 3, 2001

Ray Bradbury, I think.

Wouldn't doubt this. Novels, short stories, essays, plays, screenplays, comic books — heck, Bradbury is more of an industry than a writer. (And I don't mean this in a bad way.)

I'd say the same thing about Larry McMurtry.
posted by bilco at 10:39 AM on September 3, 2001

Tolkien died a long time ago, but I think it's clear now that his books are probably eternal; at least the Trilogy and the Hobbit. (I doubt Silmarilion will be getting read heavily.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:44 AM on September 3, 2001

Kurt Vonnegut. Another awesome writer.
posted by wondergirl at 10:53 AM on September 3, 2001

Maybe Patricia Highsmith. Here's a good quote from her on the subject of genre fiction:

"But the beauty of the suspense genre is that a writer can write profound thoughts and have some sections without physical action if he wishes to, because the framework is an essentially lively story. Crime and Punishment is a splendid example of this. In fact, I think most of Dostoyevsky's books would be called suspense books, were they being published today for the first time. But he would be asked to cut, because of production costs."
posted by bilco at 10:55 AM on September 3, 2001 [1 favorite]

Kurt Vonnegut. Another awesome writer.

It's funny that many people I've spoken with don't see Vonnegut as a genre writer. Maybe he's not, but he sure leans pretty heavily on sci-fi conventions in his best works.
posted by bilco at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2001

I find it odd that the majority of the authors mentioned here are all sci-fi writers. To me, that seems like the genre least likely to age well.
posted by aaron at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2001

What we read from the 19th century is largely dependant on what Academia deems canonical, and the same will probably hold true for our period's writers. Current popularity is no index of a work's lasting power (anyone here read Smollett's 18th century chart-topper The Adventures of Roderick Random? me neither ). The only way for a work to have lasting merit is to move outside of its genre in terms of how it is considered. So, with that criterion in mind we can rule out Stephen King, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, or any other writer whose works' essential elements are tied to genre based motivations. The truth is though, there's no way to say what kind of themes a future society will deem important. Hell, 22nd century society could value fallow plot-lines and insipid character development to a point where the works of Danielle Steel become high art.

The only indicator we have is which writers are already being taught as canonical in academic courses that are non-genre specific. Writers such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin and James Ellroy have already achieved this, and the likes of Douglas Adams and William Gibson aren't far behind. One can only hope that selectivity remains that high and that Grisham, Steele, Koontz and King aren't the writers future generations look to when they read about our period.
posted by sunsolid at 11:27 AM on September 3, 2001

The truth is though, there's no way to say what kind of themes a future society will deem important.

I could be wrong, but I'd guess many of the themes that have been popular for 3,000 years will also be popular with our descendents.

Stories that deal with gods, wars, romances, monsters, revenge, betrayal, the supernatural, etc., are probably hard-wired into our machinery. The sorts of themes these stories build on won't disappear in one hundred years.
posted by bilco at 11:37 AM on September 3, 2001

aaron: Jules Verne and HG Wells haven't aged so well from a purely technological standpoint, but they're still read, because they're great stories, and offer remarkable insights into their particular cultural moments.

sunsolid: good point about the already-established canonicity of many genre authors. Often, academic revivals are motivated more by professional concerns than intrinsic value -- if you're going to make your name as a lit critter, then it's not likely to be with another monograph on Milton -- which means there's always a chance for the "maligned fiction" of an earlier era to be revived.

(And yes, I have read Roderick Random. I've even read bloody Clarissa, though that was under duress.)
posted by holgate at 11:44 AM on September 3, 2001

I've even read bloody Clarissa, though that was under duress.

The unabridged Clarrissa? Wow. You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
posted by bilco at 11:51 AM on September 3, 2001

anyone here read Smollett's 18th century chart-topper The Adventures of Roderick Random? me neither

The late John Sladek's Roderick and Roderick at Random share too much of Smollett's title for coincidence. If Sladek's novels were intended to be pastiches or updates of Smollett's, that explains a good deal about them. Sladek's books are great, by the way, even if you haven't read Smollett. I haven't; maybe I should...
posted by kindall at 11:51 AM on September 3, 2001

posted by crunchland at 12:09 PM on September 3, 2001

I think you'd have to drive a stake through a Stephen King book, or shoot it with a silver bullet, to get his fans to stop reading. I've liked about half of the half-dozen of his I've read, and think he's getting much better as he gets older. (Or maybe my mind is going.)

I'm surprised no one's mentioned Philip K. Dick so far, because he's the perfect writer for the 22nd century.

The real question, of course, is if people will make it to the 22nd century.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:15 PM on September 3, 2001

no question about vonnegut...

i think in the sequential art category though, gaiman would be the won who'd really be remembered.
posted by lotsofno at 12:37 PM on September 3, 2001

Johnathan Lethem, but only if Motherless Brooklyn was a fluke and he moves back to oddball (slightly absurdist) sci-fi.
posted by eyeballkid at 12:37 PM on September 3, 2001

Many writers outside a genre frequently borrow conventions from the forms (e.g. Cormac McCarthy borrowing from westerns, Thomas Pynchon mimicking the form of detective novels, Don DeLillo incorporating SF elements, etc.). I'd classify Orwell and Vonnegut in here as well -- they're not working within the genre, but rather working outside of it and borrowing from it.

The most successful genre writers are those who work within the form, but are not bound by it's rules...or those who set the rules. I would not put Sterling, Pratchett, Leonard, Ellroy, Douglas Adams, et al in that category. They're good writers within the genre, but they're not defining the genre, nor are they transcending it.

However, I would put money on Ray Bradbury (SF), Steven King (horror), Tolkien (fantasy). Bradbury took SF in new directions and has had amazing literary acceptance. King defined the modern horror novel -- and he has growing recognition in the contemporary literary world (many of his recent short stories have been published in The New Yorker next to John Updike, John Ashberry, et al). And Tolkein -- fer petesake, he defined the entire genre not to mention being able to directly trace a major part of today's gaming industry back to his novels!
posted by monkey-mind at 12:51 PM on September 3, 2001

Hey holgate--I'll meet your Clarissa and raise you a Sir Charles Grandison. Nifty stuff if you have the patience.

I think that the argument that academia is responsible for the preservation/dissemination/quasi-popularization of older works is a key here, even if we confine ourselves, as bilco suggests with his first post, to genre writers. The topical fares less well than the elegantly-written, unless they overlap. I can see more of a trend to the first half of the last century's survivors (Hemingway, although I personally detest him, will probably endure, for example) than I can yet for the second half. That remains too "pop" to have shaken off its cultural immediacy.

Nonetheless, I think that sci-fi (with the inevitable overlap of fantasy) as a genre is reserving a place at the table, even if it is not yet clear who will be sitting in that chair. Kindall's breezing-past mention of Card caught my eye--he has a lot of light rubbish out there, but he also captures some of the concepts that may stand up to the mileage in some of the Ender books.

So, too, does suspense as a genre (thanks for the Highsmith quote, bilco), have a track record that goes back a ways. While Hammet writes the recipe for hard-boiled and Leonard shows a remarkable capability for adaptability, I think that John D. MacDonald defined both a genre and a time with understated grace (oh, how I wish Travis McGee had survived to grow acquainted with the digital age).
posted by salt at 12:52 PM on September 3, 2001

I think in fantasy, CS Lewis will be long remembered for the Chronicles of Narnia, as well as in Religion for his essays. Personally, Lewis loses me in his writing, but many enjoy him.
posted by wondergirl at 12:54 PM on September 3, 2001

I think that the argument that academia is responsible for the preservation/dissemination/quasi-popularization of older works is a key here, even if we confine ourselves, as bilco suggests with his first post, to genre writers.

I'm not sure that a genre novel's key to longevity is academia's approval. I think it helps, but it's not crucial. From what I understand, Agatha Christie is still the bestselling fiction writer on an international scale, and I don't think this has much to do with educational support. A lot of it has to do with her straightforward plots and simple and easily translatable syntax. (Although you can no doubt find the odd class on her work in a college here or there, she's certainly not a canonical writer in the academic sense.)

What really seems to keep a genre novel in print is a character who wrestles free of his or her book or story and crosses over into the popular consciousness. This can happen via movies, TV programs, radio programs, commercials, costume parties, parodies, pastiches, comic books, etc. Some people will inevitably turn to the original works (usually the novels) once they've gotten a taste of the character in another form.

This isn't to say that the original books sell as well as contemporary bestsellers, but they sell much better than other genre works from their own time. And they sell enough to keep the books from vanishing.

Examples: Sherlock Holmes, the Three Musketeers, the Man in the Iron Mask, Father Brown, Scarlett O'Hara, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Conan, Captain Nemo, Nero Wolfe, Zorro, Don Corleone, Miss Marple, The Count of Monte Christo, Hannibal Lector, Tarzan.

I think it you asked most people to describe these characters, they could even if they'd never read any literary works containing these characters. They met the characters in another form first.

I have a lawyer friend who isn't necessarily canonically minded. Yet he read two James Fenimore Cooper novels just because Michael Mann's "The Last of the Mohicans" is one of his favorite flicks. That's two more Cooper novels than many English majors have read.
posted by bilco at 1:37 PM on September 3, 2001

A Voyage to Arcturus virtually nobody read last century - maybe they will by the next one...
posted by johnny novak at 2:28 PM on September 3, 2001

If the spy genre is still alive, Len Deighton will still be read. Stephenson and Orson Scott Card are my favourites, but I have on my bookshelves my parents' books, many of which I don't have a clue about - yet I'm sure they were popular in their day. It's just impossible to predict.
posted by flowerdale at 6:45 PM on September 3, 2001

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Orson Scott Card, C.J. Cherryh, Andre Norton, Amy Tan, Katherine Kurtz, Bruce Sterling, Robert A. Heinlein.
posted by Lynsey at 8:20 PM on September 3, 2001

What we read from the 19th century is largely dependant on what Academia deems canonical, and the same will probably hold true for our period's writers.
I strongly doubt this. Academics, for all the stereotype of unchanging ivy-covered professors, are often faddish fashion-followers, albeit on a timescale of decades rather than months. Thus it is today practically impossible to get tenure unless you publish papers set in a Marxist-feminist context. Toni Morrison is an academic darling. But when the next tenure-track vogue hits, will she stick around on the syllabus?
Plenty of 19th-Century writers barged rudely into the modern academic curriculum just because mere common people wouldn't stop reading them: Dickens, Jack London, Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells's SF writing. Meanwhile, academic favorites like Trollope and James Branch Cabell have faded.
All my English professors, in discussing Shakespeare and Dickens, would always say, "Of course in their own time they wrote for the masses, and the critics of the time had nothing good to say about them." But none of those professors ever made the conceptual leap to the present.
posted by Allen Varney at 8:44 PM on September 3, 2001

Ursula le Guin?
posted by Neale at 9:54 PM on September 3, 2001

I don't think that most of the books by people like Steven King and Orson Scott Card will age well. One of the things that seems to be a pre-requisite of the genre novel that retains or even grows in popularity and respect is that the writing is generally really solid.

So I can see why John Marsden, Walter M. Miller, Ray Bradbury, Susan Cooper, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, and, as already mentioned - Lem, Gibson, Le Guin, Dick, and Bradbury are definite contenders. I think that King's novels are engaging (perfect plane fodder) and interesting but most are not written consistently well. King has a real handle on the "fear factor" but that is often despite his lack of writing and editing skills, not because of them. If his work survives it will be because it goes against that rule.

I find it odd that the majority of the authors mentioned here are all sci-fi writers. To me, that seems like the genre least likely to age well.

I disagree. I think that historically, the Sci-Fi genre seems to do very well over time, again so long as they are conceptually solid and well written.
posted by lucien at 4:54 AM on September 4, 2001

Great contributions!
Not being a "genre" fan myself - in fact the frenchified pretensiousness of the word never fails to make me guffaw - I would suggest Patricia Highsmith, Ray Bradbury and Elmore Leonard have pretty much guaranteed their trip through to posterity. Other personal favourites I dearly wish would accompany them are Robert Bloch, Stanley Elkin, P.D.James and Dorothy Sayers.
Let's build a list here and send it on to Mr.Murdoch's Random House as so many of our writers' books are out of print it hurts me even to mention it.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:48 AM on September 4, 2001

Since the last posting made to this thread on september 4th, the Flitcraft parable has obviously taken on a new meaning. The world is currently in the process of adjusting to a reality in which planes fall out of the sky.

How long will it take before the world adjusts to a reality in which planes don't fall out of the sky?
posted by djfiander at 6:06 AM on October 4, 2001

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