Why Is Literary Fame So Unpredictable?

Illustration courtesy of Bettmann/Corbis

Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Tom Vanderbilt  and featured in The New Yorker magazine To read the complete article, please click here.

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In 1929, the readers of theManchester Guardian were asked to opine on the “novelists who may be read in 2029.” Sitting at the top of this century-hence summit of popularity was John Galsworthy. Granted, he has his partisans, and there are still some years to go, but he’s hardly the thing, even the Penguin Classic thing, that one sees clutched on the morning F train. It’s not that Guardian readers were being particularly adventurous; Galsworthy was a preëminent dramatist (a sort of wintry conscience of the Edwardian age) who sold heaps of copies in his day, and The Forsyte Saga — the one title you’ve probably heard of and not read—earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1932.

History seemed to be on his side, but even in the late thirties, Galsworthy’s reputation was already on the wane. George Orwell—who, in his essay Bookshop Memories, coined the memorable phrase “Galsworthy-and-water stuff” to refer to the “average novel” (the sort that people always annoyingly seemed to be buying in his dusty bookshop)—makes a Galsworthy-sells-out argument, “Much of Galsworthy’s later writing is tripe, but some of the early plays and novels… do at least leave behind them a kind of flavour, an atmosphere—a rather unwholesome atmosphere of exaggeration and pity, mixed up with country scenery and dinners in Mayfair.” But, Orwell argues, Galsworthy’s “private quarrel with society came to an end,” and it became “obvious that he was in no essential way different from the people he had made his name by attacking.”

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