The Kind Mistress: Posterity's Warm Embrace
To kick off Overcooked, here's an essay from over a decade ago about literary posterity. Unsurprisingly, most of it still applies today.
The Kind Mistress: Posterity’s Warm Embrace
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There is a droll moment – one of many – in Alan Bennett’s play Kafka’s Dick where the apparition of the great author (metamorphosed into human form from the unlikely carapace of a tortoise, sixty years after his early death from TB) stands conversing with contemporary characters in a suburban living room. Everything is going swimmingly until someone describes the pale Czech as a ‘leading light in European literature.’ At which point, old Franz turns to the audience and exclaims, ‘What is this about a leading figure in European literature...?’ He’d had no idea. No, really. He hadn’t even hankered after such a reputation while living. In fact, he had ordered his friend and editor Max Brod to burn everything he wrote. Luckily for us, he didn’t. Because Kafka was the real deal. For Kafka, a novel was ‘an axe to break the frozen sea within,’ not the next step in a media career, or the dilettantish result of a fortnight’s typing. Whether he realised his own merit or not, Kafka had concluded early on that posterity was cruel, so why give it the chance to forget him? Fortunately, talent will out, and it did, though only with the help of a diligent literary executor. Crisis averted. Bennett’s point was, we assume, that longevity is not our business. Posterity’s point, if it had one, was: you don’t get past me that easily.
The fact is, Posterity is often unfairly maligned as pitiless, though history tells us she (and it is a she for these purposes) has been pretty kind to just about every canonical writer going. Of course, they wouldn’t be canonical otherwise, but the strange sifting that happens over the centuries comes to feel somehow just: merited, inalienable. Away from the raw and evolving present, the hastily lionized authors of every epoch have a habit of falling into obscurity, while those that only merited a footnote, or were completely invisible, are now taught on every syllabus, have statues erected in their memory, have their throwaway aperçus welcomed into the lexicon. A paradoxical phenomenon. And it is only right that this should be so. Extended metaphors aside, posterity isn’t, after all, some mysterious, divine agency, but merely a consensus between readers over time. There is the fluctuation of language to take into consideration – the proto-English used by the Gawain poet, or the Early West Saxon of Beowulf is unintelligible, but that only proves language is mutable, not literature. If life is short and art long, then these two masterpieces prove that literature will squeak through, will endure like a cockroach after a nuclear holocaust. A consensus will eventually aggregate over time, forming a pantheon (usually consisting of dead white males, but let’s leave that argument for the moment). This sifting, or natural selection, of the great from the mediocre, is a Darwinian process; imperceptible, but operational nonetheless. One thinks of the work silently ageing and maturing, like the effigies in Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’.
So, far from being cruel, posterity is revealed as being kind beyond the call of duty, though not ecumenically of course. The brute fact is this: there comes a moment in every unpublished writer’s life when they face full-on the fear (or fact) that they may remain unpublished, or under-published, and thus unrecognised in their lifetime. They can only take chilly comfort in the possibility that posterity will publish their work on their behalf – and only if she’s feeling particularly benevolent. Far from being a repugnant notion, as it was to the Kafka of Bennett’s play, posthumous fame is most likely a prominent daydream of many a struggling author. After all, it may be all they have to cling to as they once again break the scales in the local post office with their latest jiffy-bagged masterpiece. In that sense, posterity offers a loving embrace; albeit only to those who respect her in the morning. Write for the wrong motives, and your work will be pulped to fuel the eco-yurts of 2050. Hopefully.
Let’s look at the facts. History is littered with those who did create for the right motives but couldn’t get arrested. Poets, for some reason, come off particularly badly, but then their craft or art is the single form of writing guaranteed to lose a publisher money. Poor Keats only sold a handful of copies of Poems, Endymion, and Lamia, his three published works, in his short lifetime. Hopkins and Emily Dickinson sang in their chains without stirring the blood-drunk sleep of the literary lions of the day. And Wilfred Owen was blown to bits leaving only his unforgettable photograph and a few poems scattered throughout his correspondence. Novelists don’t get a much better deal, either: Austen, whose novels in any given year still outsell most works of literary fiction, scarcely made a mark on the literary Ordnance Survey map of her day, despite the Prince Regent being a fan. The hapless Melville gave up trying to get published after Moby Dick, dying a semi-anonymous customs inspector, only for the sublime Billy Budd to be discovered in a tin forty years later. And John Kennedy Toole tragically killed himself, leaving his mother to put A Confederacy of Dunces into print a decade after the literary arbiters of the day had closed the door in his face.
This roll-call may merely appear symptomatic of the vicissitudes of the times – but have look at who did get the laurels. Take Robert Southey, for instance. Shelley was correct when he said poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but not if you were Southey. Made Poet Laureate in 1813, after a refusal by Walter Scott, Southey once entertained marmoreal fantasies about monuments to his poetic genius in St Paul’s cathedral. Now he is principally remembered for being the target of Byron’s gleeful scorn, and telling Charlotte Bronte that literature was no career for a woman. After the commentators of the day had chosen to pour derision on Keats and his Cockney School ‘pretty pieces of paganism’, they elected Southey as poet Laureate. Bad call, maybe. Likewise Austen. By the mid nineteenth century, Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) could have confidently assumed that her place in the pantheon of literary greats was assured, so successful were her blockbuster travel books and her social-problem novel, Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy. Wherefore Michael Armstrong today, we may ask? The lone and level sands stretch far away over the bones of old Michael; the siroccos of time revealing novels with unfashionable binary abstract nouns for titles: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice. Time and again, the lionised and loved of the moment – novelists, poets and commentators who, in their day, would have been hard to ignore – are magically forgotten; allowing us to lead happy lives, ignorant of their ever having walked the earth.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some canonical writers were big cheeses in their time. Aristophanes in the Symposium comes across as the slightly pofaced Richard Curtis of his day, albeit in a snug toga. Chaucer read to the court of Richard II, and not just in order to continue his annuity, if the posterity-obsessed House of Fame is anything to go by. Shakespeare, a wealthy man of the theatre, returned to Stratford and bought the biggest house he could find. Pope, the first poet to make a fortune from published verse without a patron, was the first of many very public recluses. And Byron woke up one morning to find himself a rock star. But they were the lucky few. Some meteors are just too bright: the firmament forms a canon. Dantechaucershakespearemiltonwordsworth. Someone, if not everyone, took notice. Though in reality, even these writers began with small reputations that grew with time. Dramatists from Shakespeare to Sarah Kane underwent this incremental shift from the margins to centrality. Upstart crows became eagles. Their unknown contemporaries – the Websters, the Marvells, the Buchners - just had to be very lucky and very good.
Forward wind to the twenty-first century. Posterity, as kind as she is, will of course reveal our present-day literary scene to be a giant orgy of mediocrity, as it has every epoch down the centuries. Come Christmas, the Waterstones’ tables will be a predictable landfill of misery memoirs, celebrity cookbooks, ghost-written autobiogs, self-help, toilet-read miscellanies, and lame commercial fiction. And all by authors who will click off their Christmas tree lights on the twenty-fourth of December confident their names will appear from beneath ripped wrapping paper nationwide the following morning. This, apparently, is enough. But they have will have lost sight of the truly important goal: longevity. They will have taken their eyes off the prize no living writer ever gets to enjoy. Literary immortality. The creation of imperishable art. They will have traded the making of lasting work for temporal fame, riches and a full mini-bar on every date of their book tour. What if, fifty years hence, instead of Ian McEwan’s elegant and macabre tales, we are reading someone completely below the radar at the present moment - even someone unpublished? That question must be quietly put aside by the Christmas-feted authors as they uncap another miniature and stare down from the high windows of a Denver hotel room.
But maybe it is all beyond their control anyhow. Saul Bellow once said attempted permanence was sad. Woody Allen, even pithier, said he would rather not live on through his work, but in his apartment. Perhaps both were admitting the same truth: try as one might to create things of lasting beauty, it is ultimately out of one’s hands. To return to that unpublished writer breaking the scales in the post office, he or she can only fantasise about the warm, unknowable hug of future acclaim. At every turn they must contrast the icy rejection letters from the closed citadel of literary London (which, they hope, consists of a few super-connected flâneurs and micro-talents) with the big sloppy kiss of posthumous recognition. Not just the wink of the silver or black-spined Penguin Classic; or the wolf-whistle when the AQA board selects their title, but the night of debauchery heralded by their 200th birthday celebrations, the escorted tours around their home town, the blue plaque, the bronze cast made of their hard-drive. What dreams will come! In this respect, dame Posterity acts as a kind of ‘super-agent’, disseminating work on merit only – one notch above Andrew Wylie, one notch below God. Posterity is the literary agent who truly does ‘only get involved if the writing is good enough’. All agents say this, and are taken to be reiterating a truth universally acknowledged. But a look at some of their lists makes one wonder: a couple of outstanding novelists, maybe, five or six middle-rankers, then vistas of genre hacks, acres of columnists, journeymen, media tarts, celebrity chefs, creative writing MAs yet to finish anything, mates. No wonder their lists are permanently ‘full’. But to be aggrieved by this is to misunderstand the nature of the beast. Agents are less concerned about imperishable art than many of their authors: they are, like everyone else in publishing, in it for what they can sell, for temporal fame and the loot. And this, somehow, is wrong. Andrew Wylie himself is on record as saying that if you’re in publishing to make money then you’re in the wrong industry; that many agents get into the business because they love Madame Bovary but end up in a room full of books they don’t want to read. And he should know. An acute and sensitive comment to make, however. One also wonders whether posterity will continue to insert the legend ‘Jackal’ between his Christian name and surname. Let us hope she is feeling kind.
Armed with an idea of just how wrong present critical consensus can be, then, one’s initial disdain for the hapless no-hopers and jiffy-bag fillers turns to sudden admiration. Scorn for maiden ladies in the Shires clogging slush piles with unreadable Aga-sagas, or rain-swept écrivailleurs in Ipswich signing off on another illiterate covering letter turns to sudden compassion. These are all souls who have responded to life by writing about it. How noble! There is something fundamentally brave about putting words on paper; responding to the flux of experience by writing prose or poetry; by concocting characters through whom profound truths of human nature can be worked. Even if the endeavour is not judged successful, one feels these anonymous arbiters (agents) should commend the courage of the act. The sheer balls required. One imagines them in their glazed offices, ripping the cigar from their lips to exclaim: “To even think you could sit with the Big Boys and Girls, at the same table as Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, Joyce and Woolf! Wow! Here’s the MS back with my standard rejection letter, but don’t feel so bad: you tried, many don’t! I just make a living from selling you on to an editor, a marketing team, a retailer, a body of critics, a public, and finally the merciless maw of posterity. But top marks for trying. Fare forward, fair traveller . . . and now fuck off.”
And e-posterity won’t help these brave souls either. The cyber-graveyard is already full. Paradoxically, electronic storage may equal less longevity: a writer’s correspondence, if confined to email, may be lost for eternity. Type ‘posterity’ into Google and lo and behold a site called Posterity.com appears, offering you the chance to ‘live forever; to create your own autobiography; a virtual you that will survive the whole of eternity.’ You could always try writing a novel instead. Blogs, online writing, text will endure like so much radioactive waste until someone pulls the plug, and then they will be gone for ever. The total democratisation offered by the internet will hinder, not help posterity. Easy to get lost out there. Without any centralised control or literary filter, Posterity herself will get confused. The lunatics may have at last taken over the asylum after jimmying open the back door electronically; the punk ethos may have triumphed thirty years too late, but because of the brain-melting proliferation - the orgy of access - we may secretly long to return to the days of being advised what to like and buy by a critic. Wendy Cope joked that ‘not only marble, but the plastic toys from cornflake packets’ will outlive her verse. If cyberspace is to be the medium of the present century, she may not have been merely half-joking, like she undoubtedly was in her parody of Shakespeare.
Finally, one must look to the future. If the present is a tsunami of the execrable, at least there is comfort in the fact that the posterity’s warm embrace will enfold the truly talented. The rest is not our business, and there is a sense that all attempts at literature (to borrow from Petrarch) are Letters to Posterity. Kafka wouldn’t understand, but then look at his author photograph – he certainly wasn’t projecting forward to the time when that shifty stare would grace his biographical note. We cannot imagine Kafka much moved by the plight of the unpublished writer played by Paul Giamatti in the movie Sideways. In one of the bleakest and funniest scenes in modern cinema, the failed novelist character (Giamatti) has just been informed by his agent that the trail has finally gone cold. After upending a keg of wine over his own head, he sits on the beach with his buddy, suicidal, but resolves not to give up. At least Plath and Hemingway waited to be published authors before they ended it all, he argues. At which point his buddy offers up the unhelpful example of John Kennedy Toole.
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