The test of time?

Eighty years ago the Manchester Guardian (as this paper then was)
ran a poll to discover from its readers' votes the "novelists who may
be read in 2029".

George Simmers, on his literary
greatwarfiction blog, has jumped the gun by 20 years with some
satirical reflections on the top five novelists in that poll.

Only another 20 years to go, and the top five are already looking shaky:
They are John Galsworthy (1,180 votes), H. G. Wells (933), Arnold Bennett (654), Rudyard Kipling (455), J. M. Barrie (286).

What
of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Henry Green, Ivy
Compton-Burnett, Agatha Christie, EM Forster, and Jean Rhys? This
distinguished crew either do not figure in the 1929 poll, or clock in
with derisory counts (Joyce gets fewer than 10 votes – alongside Max
Beerbohm, it's pleasing to note).

I love Galsworthy and for that matter Wells.  Here is the article.  Here is further commentary.  By the way, no one back then voted for Agatha Christie, who is now probably the most frequently read of the British writers from that era.

For the pointer I thank the always-excellent Literary Saloon.

Comments

Agatha Christie? In 1929 she had not yet written ten books. None of them are famous today, as best as I can tell. I will have to give the 1929 voters a pass for not guessing that she would late become famous.

Low sample size?

Wells, Kipling, and Barrie "looking shaky"?
I think it's pretty much assured that they will "be read" in 2029. How widely is another matter....

Wells, Kipling, and Barrie get read a lot more in middle and high school. I don't see that changing; they certainly won't be replaced with James Joyce.

I'm not sure new book sales is the way to measure how well read something is. I read my mother's Peter Pan when I was a kid because she kept it for me -- just as my grandmother had kept it for her. All told about ten people have read that book but Barrie only wracked up one sale. (On the bright side, for him, the book is so old that he was still alive to get the royalties when it sold.)

The same holds true for many of the other authors as well. I read through all of Kipling's children's stories (and many of his works aimed at adults), along with Portrait of the Artist and a huge batch of Agatha Christie novels.

The only indisputably true statement made here so far is that all people should read more P.G. Wodehouse, though I would note that most of his best novels also came after 1929. The real apex of his art -- The Code of the Woosters, Uncle Fred in Springtime, Joy in the Morning -- came right at the dawn of World War 2.

Their seems a disconnect between the original list - "books that will be read in 100 years" - and the modern criticism, which seems to mostly consist of, "these books aren't 'great' or, at least, not as great as some other books." Those are two different things.

Perhaps more to the point, though - are we surprised that people can't predict the future? I'm more surprised that they got it as right as they did; of the top 5 authors, indeed, all five are still read 80 years later.

From George Simmers himself:
"Galsworthy is still in print"
"Wells and Bennett have their devoted followers"
"Kipling is a great unignorable fact in English literature"
"Peter Pan continues to enchant"

I doubt a similar poll conducted today would hold up as well in 80 years.

Tyler Cowen,

...who is now probably the most frequently read of the British writers from that era.

A bit OT, but I think it is case that after Churchill, T.E. Lawrence is the second most cited, quoted, etc. Brit of the 20th century. Like Tocqueville, everyone talks about him and very few read him.

It's also worth noting that the poll took place near the beginning of 1929 (April 3rd was when the result were printed) and that the poll asked about living authors.

So it is disoncerting to read the rather silly article by Sutherland oddly suggesting that a current poll would feature Tolkien, who of course isn't a living author. And of course the sheer ahistoricity of is unintentionally hilarious: the above-mentioned timing of Agatha Christie's novels has been mentioned, but also note that
-Henry Green had only published a single novel by the beginning of 1929 (his 2nd was published sometime during 1929).
-Jean Rhys had only published one novel (and a collection of short stories) by the time of the poll.

And in fact about half of the authors he suggests as alternatives had the majority of their careers after 1929, besides the authors mentioned above, Compton-Burnett had only written two novels prior to 1929 - and 17 after. Her wikipedia article also notes, amusingly and in contradiction to Sutherland, "Most of her novels are out of print."

Simmers' blog post is much better, though.

Arnold Bennett's "The Card" is an excellent comedy. Do try it.

As a masterpiece of high literary prose style, "Kim" certainly ranks near the top.

I wonder how many people--- even elite people--- read Joyce, Woolf, and Forster except in college courses or because they're supposed to be famous books. Take away college sales, and I bet the Amazon rankings would be a lot lower.

Does anyone actually read James Joyce today?

The essay seems to be confusing what people should read with what people actually read. Wells, Kipling, and Barrie (at least Peter Pan) are still read quite bit, certainly more than the modernest authors.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Waugh, Huxley, or Shaw, though to be fair the first two were just starting their careers in 1929. But Shaw had been awarded the Nobel Prize only five years earlier.

I think in the twentieth century, authors' popularity is correlated with how many movies were made of their work, and how watched those movies are. Hence the recent vogue for Tolkien. Again this is hurting the more modernist authors, who have only inspired high brow movies.

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