Long ago, when I was a perilously bored 12 year old living in Indiana, a gentleman of my acquaintance gave me a gift that was, at the time, more precious than rubies: a cardboard box of books. Later, my father would give me another box with books more tailored to my tastes, but at this point I was so desperate for books to read that anything would do.
By coincidence, you see, the junior high students were shoved into the high school that year while the junior high was remodeled and thus I had no access to a school library. I didn’t have a library card at the town library yet, either, so the books were the only new reading material that I’d gotten my hands on in months. I spent many hours sifting through the volumes, reading things I’d never have read otherwise from Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and various paperbacks that had apparently been in someone’s yard sale. It was a treasure and I’ve given that fellow a lot of mental goodwill over the years just thanks to that gift.
The ironic thing is that I barely remember any of them now.
If you want a humbling sort of experience for anyone who has ever sought fame and glory in the writing world, just look up the names of those books from just twenty-eight years ago. You may find a review or two of them on Goodreads, someone might have a battered copy at Abe Books or Amazon, but by and large they’re forgotten, overlooked, and pretty much doomed to remain that way forever. There’s a flood of new books released every year, so it’s not like anyone’s going to go look through thrillers and romances and historical fiction novels from the 80’s for their next big thing. Somewhere on a shelf, those books are decomposing, if they all haven’t been shunted to trash heaps and Goodwills and dusty attics already.
It’s probably less of an issue for writers of science fiction and fantasy, since the fandom has always been relatively small and the big “hits” tend to stick around for longer since they have less competition from newer stuff, but the same still holds true. Go into any used book store– you’ll see a few books still hanging on from the 80’s and 90’s, a rare handful of decrepit paperbacks from earlier years, but the main stock-in-trade is more recent stuff.
And the older stuff is pretty shabby in light of modern works, anyway. I’m reading through “Lord Valentine’s Castle” by Robert Silverberg, the first of his Majipoor books. In 1981, it was a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel and a Locus Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel. Because it’s on those lists, in part, it still gets some attention, as well as because it’s the first book of that famous series. But still, on Goodreads, it has only 15 reviews from this entire year.
In comparison, Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind” (which isn’t from this year, but is pretty recent and pretty comparable, having gotten even less notice in its publishing year in the science fiction and fantasy community, and it’s also the first book in a series)– it’s gotten 15 reviews in just six days. Obviously, newer fresher stuff is going to draw the reader. Old dusty paperbacks with rather dated hairstyles on the cover? Not so much. (I won’t mention the pants. They’re too awful.) I’m having a hard time staying engaged with Lord Valentine, simply because I’ve read so many fantasy novels that this one seems to telegraph all its moves in advance. No real surprises and the entire thing seems dated and a bit clunky. It’s hard to stay on top these days– the current trend is multi-layered novels that are more mysterious and complicated than any Cold War spy novel ever dreamed of being. A simple fantasy book from the 80’s just can’t hold a candle to their complexity.
Most of those older books have this problem. Leaving aside the true classics of literature, which are classics BECAUSE they’re timeless, there just isn’t much to recommend in older popular novels. I may have adored Mrs. Pollifax and John Le Carre, but kids these days don’t even know there WAS a Cold War. My sixteen year old expressed surprise that anybody would think Russia could ever be an important enemy for us. I wanted to weep.
History makes no impression upon the current days unless it’s taught and insisted upon and re-iterated. Books are the same way. Those books from the Reader’s Digest series barely have left a smidgen of themselves in my mind. I remember a book about John Adams and the wooing of his wife. Barely. I know there was one about a woman vet and her husband struggling to make it in the country. Some vague memories of thrillers and romances, but it’s almost impossible to remember any details at all, or if I read some of those later on. I glutted myself on so much Dick Francis and Ken Follett and Phyllis Whitney that it’s hard to recall where I read them first.
I recently took my entire Shannara paperback set to the used book store to trade in for something else. My kids thought it was boring, and I couldn’t be bothered re-reading them so much later. They were amusing enough, at the time, but they just don’t hold up to close inspection these days.
Sadly, that seems to be true of almost every author. Even the “big names” should be humble. There are a few things that stand the test of time, but very few. Of all the science fiction and fantasy authors out there, only JRR Tolkien seems to have transcended genre and history to really make a place for himself in the annals of literature. Even the greats of sci-fi’s early days will someday fade to obscurity– be honest, besides Ray Bradbury and George Orwell and freaking Jules Verne, who REALLY wrote something that will last through the ages?
If you say Douglas Adams, you’ll be slapped with a salmon.
Enjoy what little tastes you get of glory and fame, then. How long until this current generation is tilled under in a landfill and young minds are filling themselves with the latest fizzy goodness?
If you look at the list of “fantasy and science fiction” on Goodreads and look at the top 10, you’ll think it’s already happened. Long live . . . YA fiction? Sigh. I guess.