Fading into obscurity…

June 13, 2015

I often find myself wondering about how much literature is lost, perhaps forever, just through the passage of time and the changing of fashions. Books go out of print and are forgotten; once gone, how few are ever rediscovered. These thoughts are often prompted by secondhand bookshops, especially the crumbling and ancient ones filled with fusty and mouldering tomes, which I often feel could be tidied by a judicious hand-grenade, and probably belong in a skip anyway…

Then I’m prompted by Theodore Sturgeon‘s observation – which I’m sure I’ve quoted before in a post – that 95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap. So, much that is written and published deserves to vanish; if, like me you sometimes despair on looking at what is offered for sale (new) in bookshops, you will know what I mean. Does it matter what vanishes? In some ways I feel it does, because what disappears affects our understanding of the past, and I only need to recall the classics rescued from obscurity by a publisher such as Virago to be convinced of this.

When I used to raise the topic with my sixth form students, the touchstone question, to which they could all relate, was “Will future generations still read Harry Potter, or will those books also suffer the fate of the rest?” They were all convinced the books would survive; I was almost convinced then, but am less so now. I suspect they may disappear, to be rediscovered in a couple of generations or so.

What seems to change the situation is the increasing prevalence of digital texts, and the growth in people reading books electronically in preference to on paper. Surely this means that a text is far less likely to remain in print or to be reprinted, and there are also fewer paper copies extant to survive. Copyright lasts for 75 years after an author’s death: should this be shorter so that works can be digitally distributed free and thus survive in the public domain?

I remember two writers who were very much in vogue in the 1970s, when I was at university, and various reputations were being made through research and writing about them: D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. Now, I have the impression that it’s almost embarrasing to admit reading Lawrence, and Conrad is just so obscure, few have even heard of him. Similarly, two of the greats of science fiction when I first came to the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Though the former was seminal in his consideration of artificial intelligence, he has been completely overtaken by today’s reality, and the latter does seem to have been overshadowed my many great contemporary SF writers, though I still don’t think anyone has bettered The City and the Stars.

Texts are largely preserved nowadays by elites and academia: perhaps this was always the case? Again, in discussion with students, I would raise the question of what one might call the ‘eternal themes’ of literature: love, death, war, growth as aspects which might ensure a work’s survival; many texts focus on these themes, so it is not them alone which make a work survive. There has to be something which transcends time, crosses generations and their different interests and preoccupations, whereas it seems that texts which disappear into obscurity are too rooted in their own time to speak to future generations. And there I come full circle in this post, and realise that if we want to understand a particular time, then we do not just need history books and ephemera from that time, but also its literature.

What of our age’s literature will be remembered and preserved?

2 Responses to “Fading into obscurity…”

  1. The great unknown. Your post reminds me of something my 13 year old daughter told me a few days ago, she told me that when she was at her friends house, they watched a ‘film d’horreur’ and it was so old it wasn’t even scary. What was it? I asked. ‘The Birds’ she replied.

    I think image and language change so much, even if so subtly over the years, that it becomes challenging to receive old versions because we almost have to filter out the things that constantly remind us that we are not viewing soemthing that fits in with our present day view of the world.

    I remember reading David Lodge’s excellent novel Author, Author, a ficitonal account of the life of Henry James, which had me rushing off to read the latter and then becoming completely stuck in a slow moving, repetitive narrative that I was unable to filter, understand or tolerate, despite so wanting to. I envied David Lodge and Colm Toibin, who both could read James and not be affected by all that what looked and felt to me like wading through literary debris.

    Harry Potter is bound in the future to contain much literary debris that future generations won’t tolerate, by then narrative texts will have a different frequency, speed, mode and characteristic for sure. My 13-year-old already reads in a different way to me, she reads books back to front, full of graphic images and creates as many herself as she reads.

    What I would love to know is when these children of the 21st century are in their 80’s looking back, what will be their literary and cinematic treasures? Will they be so different to past generations?

    Valerie Davies writes about this subject beautifully in her post These I Have Loved and it made me wonder the same thing about objects we treasure.

    A fascinating subject indeed, one we will have the ability to see.


  2. Oops, I meant one we will not have the ability to see!


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