Friday, 8 October 2010

Any Point to Posterity?

There's a great aspiration amongst writers that their work will endure. The idea that once a book is published, it becomes a permanent statement that can outlive the writer themselves by several lifetimes.

So should I care about that? Really?

To take the selfish viewpoint - no book is any good to me when I'm dead, even one I've written. While I'm not advocating a Viking-style funeral where I get to be torched along with a branch of Waterstones, I'd like to enjoy my writing when I'm alive, thankyouverymuch.

I can see the argument for posterity. As writers, we spend so long gathering experience and learning our craft, so long climbing the publishing ladder, so long trying to sell books, build our audience and stay in print. Couple this with the fact that many authors start a little later in life, and it can feel like the clock is constantly ticking. The idea that we are creating permanence is a comforting feeling, it seems to vindicate our struggle towards publication and beyond.

It's wonderful to pick up a book from an earlier age - especially a children's book - and experience life as it was lived then. The bookshelves in my house are crammed with authors who are no longer with us - C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richmal Crompton, Noel Streatfeild. But how are we to tell which of today's authors will still be read 50 years hence? Many novels which were hugely successful in the 1960s are out-of-print today, so being published is no guarantee of endurance.

As I commented the other week, the quest for permanence can have more detrimental effects, preventing us from including contemporary references in our books and making us constantly grasp for some elusive literary significance. My aspirations right now are to write books that I enjoy, that my agent and editors will enjoy, and that my audience will enjoy. I won't do that by writing something that is half-arsed or schlocky, but beyond that all the bets are off. I want to sell books in my lifetime, connect with my readers and maybe have some money coming in for my retirement.

I very much hope that my children will reach adulthood before I die, so what is the point for them of any further royalties from my book sales? I'm reminded of the lead character from About a Boy, and the perennial Christmas pop song that both torments him and funds his slacker lifestyle. As corporations stretch the length of copyright ever further, the situation becomes yet more ridiculous. Witness the Tolkein family's battle for unpaid royalties over the Lord of the Rings films and Warner Brothers' unseemly rush to make another Superman movie before the rights revert to the families of the comic strip creators.

There are more positive ways to grapple with the problem of posterity. J.M. Barry's bequest from Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, for instance. More recently, I have been humbled and inspired by Siobhan Dowd's example, setting up a charitable trust to use her book royalties to bring reading to disadvantaged children. A truly unselfish act by a woman whose writing career and life were so tragically cut short by cancer.

I hope she stays in print forever.



  1. You want to write books children will enjoy?
    Seriously, Barry & Dowd had the right idea.
    Good post, Nick.

  2. Yes, writing for the ages is a tiresome business. Me, I'm just happy that my own grandchildren might read one of my books and be fleetingly proud of the old duffer.

  3. This is something I've never thought about, but it is interesting. I don't think beyond tomorrow when I'm writing. OK, maybe I think a few weeks ahead but not whether my writing will be around for future generations. Would I like it to be? Sure. Who wouldn't? How much of the latest trends will be in print this time next year, let alone fifty years time? I can think of some that deserve to be there but there are a fair few that will fall by the wayside and possibly for good reason. After all, we need room on the shelves for new talent!

  4. Yes, blame my current state of mind for making me ponder such subjects. I'm sure it's part of the difference between living in the moment and trying to project ahead several years to when I actually might have a book in the market.

    I reckon that some of the resistance to e-books from writers is that they don't feel as "real" or permanent as a printed book, they seem far more disposable somehow. Luckily, I don't think printed books are going anywhere for a while!