The Test of Time

March 5, 2014

The last small digression (for the moment) is about what stands the test of time. I’ve often wondered, and had my students discuss, what books written today might still be read in a century’s time. How can we know what will survive? For example, the blockbuster of recent years, the Harry Potter series: will children in 2114 still be reading the books, in the same way that (some) children are still enjoying the books of a century ago and more, like The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh?

Novels and writers very popular in my younger years have vanished almost without trace: I’m sure some dusty secondhand bookshops still harbour the thrillers of Alastair MacLean or Arthur Hailey, but then thrillers possibly aren’t going to last very long. I remember how fashionable D H Lawrence was in the 1970s when I was at university, and have long been aware how he has almost disappeared from view. And he is/ was a serious writer, writing about serious themes and ideas – love, relationships between men and women. Not enough, it would seem.

Shakespeare wrote plays about love; many writers today write about love, perhaps tragic love – The Time Traveller’s Wife leaps to mind. But can we expect that novel to survive the test of time? And why won’t it?

Writers from centuries ago clearly have an advantage: Shakespeare and Jane Austen have already lasted, and have been hallowed and canonised by academia, so they are hardly likely to fade into obscurity – the longer a work lasts, the more it’s likely to continue to last, if you see what I mean.

I have often thought that it cannot just be the subject matter that ensures a work’s survival, for there are a limited number of themes out there, and all have been repeatedly used: one of the most interesting analyses of the last decade was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he explores that very idea, that everything written is basically a variation on an age-old trope. So that leaves character, style and language, perhaps?

We aren’t capable of seeing the wood for the trees, possibly. The SF writer Theodore Sturgeon was famous for stating that 95% of science fiction was crap, but then 95% of everything was crap: we are surrounded by a lot of chaff which will be winnowed away somehow by the passage of time…

In the end, I think there has to be an original treatment of a theme or subject (Shakespeare notoriously lifted others’ plots!); there have to be powerfully conceived and developed characters as opposed to stock ones who are merely the vehicles for a plot to unfold; there has to be something in terms of the way that a story is written (yes, language and style) that can set a work apart from all the others that surround and swamp it.

So, from my three best books of the twentieth century (Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) which will someone, somewhere, be enjoying a century from now?

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