Look On My Works Ye Mighty and Despair: The Literary Future
I think everyone has these thoughts occasionally. You know, pondering what the world will be like long after you’re gone. Matters of great importance, or even the entire human race, reduced to eventual insignificance by the tyranny of chronology… it’s an underlying staple of a certain pessimistic branch of science-fiction. H.P. Lovecraft had something to say about this, but he was not the first, not by a long chalk. Olaf Stapledon engages with the idea even more directly, first through exploring the next few billion years of human evolution (The Last and First Men), and then having a work on such a scale, that he resorts to characterising sentient stars (Star Maker).
There is, I think, a certain awe-inspiring terror to truly Deep Time… but as Lovecraft implies, the human mind cannot properly comprehend it. We are, after all, creatures for whom a mere hundred years is a long time, never mind a thousand, or ten thousand – and that is not inherently a bad thing. It is simply who we are. And once we can shrink things down to historical time scales, we can start engaging with ideas properly. More specifically, that strange little grab for immortality known as writing.
Human beings have been expressing ideas for much, much longer than writing has been around. Oral traditions are powerful things. But such is the nature of writing that it enables us to access minds long dead, often in a manner far more direct and unmediated than “mere” word of mouth. Yes, we’ve got the oral stuff that was written down, preserved for the ages. We’ve got the fragments of Gilgamesh. We’ve got the Iliad, and Beowulf, and the Icelandic Sagas, and we sorely need to thank Snorri Sturluson. But we’ve also got stuff that wasn’t oral tradition in the proper sense (even if the works were compiled posthumously). We can access the thoughts of Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle, further removed in chronology from, say, the medieval era than the medieval era is from our own time. These intellectual bedrock figures continue to have such importance, precisely because their work is preserved via the medium of writing. And, more to the point, these ancient written works will continue to be read long after you and I, dear reader, are forgotten.
I think every writer secretly dreams that some aspect of our work will live on after we die. That the work we’ve bequeathed to the world will still entertain and engage future generations – hell, we’ve certainly got a better shot at cultural immortality than those who don’t write, right? Well, yes. And so long as some copy of your work still sits, gathering dust, in a library basement or on the uppermost shelf of a second-hand bookshop, the ghost of a writer’s ideas will never quite vanish from this earth. But… and here is the sobering reality… will anyone actually read us in the years to come? For every giant of the literary canon, there are many tens of thousands whose work will not be remembered. Or, even if they are remembered, are never actually read – poor Bulwer-Lytton, a figure our great-great-grandparents might have read unironically, is now only associated with the “worst opening line in English literature” (it isn’t, but I digress).
To take the fantasy genre, a century ago – and a century is not actually a long time, when one really thinks about it – we had the likes of William Morris, Lord Dunsany, Abraham Merritt, William Hope Hodgson, and E.R. Eddison. Obscure figures now, but at least remembered by fantasy buffs, and still accessible if you do a bit of library hunting, or muck around with Project Gutenberg. These, dear reader, were the lucky ones. If, in a hundred years, any writer producing stuff today still has people picking up their work, they’ve made it, at least for now. A hundred years ain’t a long time, after all – give it another three hundred, and then check back on progress.
And what of the leading genre figures today? Never mind a century – let’s settle for the much more manageable figure of fifty years hence. What will people be reading then? I’d suggest Tolkien – he’s been dead for nearly half a century already, and he’s still a perennial read (though even here fashions change. Walter Scott used to be a Big Name in literature, before dropping off the radar a bit). J.K. Rowling might survive too, perhaps because the tradition of bedtime reading helps the longevity of children’s works – parents remember what was read to them as a child, and so on. But after that? Who knows? It’s entirely possible that fifty years from now, George R.R. Martin is better remembered for producing one of the finest vampire novels of the twentieth century than for A Song of Ice and Fire – and, before you scoff, I’d point out that Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells did not exactly go to plan in the magnum opus department either. History has a very strange sense of humour sometimes.
All this is very deflating to us writers, of course. But what of readers? Are there any lessons to be taken from the transience of human existence? In one sense, no. To be honest, I think there is still a perfectly valid case for just reading what you like, without regard to what survives long term. So what if Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey disappears down the memory plughole in the years to come? If you enjoy those books, go ahead and read them, and if you don’t, don’t judge others for reading them. Different tastes, and all that, and who knows what will end up having the last laugh anyway. The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe, was arguably the eighteenth century Twilight (its reception even anticipated the eccentricities of modern fandom), and it still gets made required reading in some places.
On the other hand – and I have pondered this during my recent binge on the classics – if you extend the time-frame out from fifty years hence to five hundred, what will people be reading then? Who knows… but if I was a betting man, I’d place money on dear old Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle, even above Shakespeare, Dante, and Chaucer. What’s another five centuries when you have already lasted two and a half millennia? Maybe in order to truly engage with the far-future – to anticipate what they will be reading, and thinking about – you have to, at least on some level, engage with the distant past. Just a thought anyway.