I think there is a certain amount of ego or arrogance involved in writing. Somewhere, in the dusty catacombs that are a writer’s mind, there is a glimmer of a sliver of hope that something that we writer might stand the test of time, or may still be a topic of conversation, or something that might be rediscovered long after our bodies are dust… I know that, personally, there’s at least of sliver of that in the hopes that I can leave something behind that future generations of my family might be able to look at and enjoy, and maybe get a sense of my oddities and interests.
But it’s a system built on faults, as Scalzi happens to hint at yesterday.
If you’re a writer, this might depress you. If the best-selling books of 1912 are largely forgotten, what chance do your books have in 2012, especially if they don’t scale the heights of sales these books have? Surprise! Probably little. I mean, it’s certainly possible they will survive: Neither Theodore Dreiser nor Sherwood Anderson got near the year-end bestseller lists between 1910 and 1919, but they are still taught and discussed, and in their way influence literature today. But, yeah. Don’t count on it.
While I think it’s something that has always nagged at me, but nothing I had really given too much thought about. And I’m a guy with a *ahem* English degree. But I am also a guy who, on the way to said English degree, had to retake one of the required British Literature survey courses (the memory of which horrible tests are designed to assess). Pride and Prejudice was a horrible experience for me when it was required reading in my 9th grade English class. “Classics” and I never really got along, likely because it was so old. Not that the value of works diminish with age, not hardly, but the longer they are around than the better stories they are likely to be. Like fairy tales. But the lack of connection I think had to do with how much the cultures have shifted, so that the dialogue constructs and social roles and manners, things that were the social norms for the times the original works were written don’t match up with the way the world works now.
Sometimes, it takes some aging to usher in the chance for appreciation. For example, I’ve always been a minor Sherlock Holmes fan. I had a paperback copy that was a collection of six or seven Holmes stories (one of those Scholastic book sale editions from elementary school) when I was younger – it’s probably still on one of my shelves. In late middle to early high school, though, I endeavored to begin exploring the Holmes cannon – we’ll stick it around 1990, for perspective. I checked out the ginormous omnibus edition from the local library – red cover, pages split in double columns like a newspaper, and periodic artistic renderings. It may have even been a collection designed to imitate the appearance of the original stories, come to think about it. At the end of the few weeks, it went back to the library with barely a dozen pages read. Today, I am working my way through a copy of the same basic material (split into two volumes instead of one) and am over 300 pages through the first volume (out of about 800 and change).
But I am reading it as a writer looking, under the hood, as it were, at how the stories were built, and the characters portrayed. All of the ephemera that is invalid now (period social context, police procedures, etc.) I can partially dismiss because they are details that have changed with time. Readers back in the day would have the inherent social understanding based on a few details that are hinted at – or, if they were living in London, may have known exactly where Doyle was writing about. I am looking at it from a different culture, several generations removed.
It’s the culture that shifts, and tries to reapply meaning to older works, not the works inherent merit or the author efforts to keep a work alive. People get huffy over Huckleberry Finn due to one particular word that is used aplenty – but they are looking at it through the lens of today’s culture instead of seeing it as a work that is set pre-Civil War. The use of that one word wasn’t what made it a controversial book when it was published – it’s the fact that Huck Finn “would rather risk eternal damnation by helping a runaway slave intend of turning him in.” Which gets to the other nail Scalzi hammers home.
If you must aim for relevance, try for being relevant now; it’s a context you understand. We can still read (and do read) Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dickinson, and I think it’s worth noting Shakespeare was busy trying to pack in the groundlings today, Cervantes was writing in no small part to criticize a then-currently popular form of fiction, and Dickinson was barely even publishing at all, i.e., not really caring about future readers. In other words, they were focused on their now. It’s not a bad focus for anyone.
Continuing the Finn example, the book was originally out 1884, only twenty years out of the Civil War, and only a few years removed from Reconstruction. Sherlock Holmes is largely considered Victorian (debut in 1887), and was an experiment to fill the time while waiting for his medical practice business to pick up.
Which goes back to the regular question of, “Why do you write?” Inevitably, the unspoken truth may come down to writing for the thrill of the story – if it connects with others, or people want to give me money for it, great! – but we write because there is a story there that excites us, that pulls us along, begging to be put down on a page.
And if the story outlasts us, even better, otherwise we get to enjoy the flash and heat of the moment, one more thing to look back and be happy we have done before calling it a life.