How long does an author’s popularity last ? How long do his books continue to sell after he dies ? These questions set me thinking about the books and authors that I used to read in India in the late fifties and early sixties, the days of my youth. Among those I remembered reading were : W. Somerset Maugham, A.J.Cronin, Edgar Wallace, Harold Robbins, John Steinbeck, John O’ Hara, James T. Farrell, Neville Shute,Saul Bellow , P.G. Wodehouse , and mystery writers Erle Stanley Gardner and John Creasey. Of all of them perhaps John Steinbeck is the only one whose name today’s youngsters will recognize and who continues to be read .
Of those who are now almost forgotten, Maugham and Cronin ‘s eclipse is not surprising since they were British authors with less of a readership in America. Ditto Wodehouse whose humor is dated and whose peak years were earlier. James Farrell ( the Studs Lonegan trilogy) and Edgar Wallace were Americans but they too were already past the peak of their popularity when I read them. In hindsight, Wallace was never very good though he was popular.The real surprise to me is Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Perry Mason mysteries I used to devour and which were later made even more famous by the TV series starring Raymond Burr in the title role. I find his decline surprising because Agatha Christie is still popular among mystery mavens even though she pre-dates him.
To get back to the question of an author’s shelf life : it seems to me that it gets shorter and shorter with every passing year and is currently no more than twenty or twenty-five years. It seems to me that there are number of reasons for this. One is the sheer number of books that are printed every year , a number that has increased exponentially, and the increasing ease with which they can be obtained whether through the library system, or in cheap paperbacks and trade paperbacks , and recently with Kindle. With such a multiplicity of choices, readers tend to be less loyal to their favorites. It has been estimated that even a voracious reader will probably read ‘only’ about 5,000 or 6,000 in the course of a lifetime. Naturally, she is going to be very selective in the books she chooses to read.Secondly, we want to read books that are relevant to us and thus gravitate towards newer books that are set in the present day . I didn’t understand this when I first started using the library system and was surprised to find separate stacks for new arrivals. However I quickly understood why and soon found myself checking out the new arrivals before I went to the ‘regular’ stacks. Nowadays, I find that even the books that I read when they were first published twentyfive years ago are no longer as interesting to me.Today’s novels are much faster paced and more realistic thanks to the ease with which they can be researched over the internet.
There are of course some factors that will extend an author’s popularity. The first is when one of his books becomes required reading in schools. That is part of the reason why Steinbeck is still read today; his ” Of Mice and Men” is prescribed school reading. The same goes for Harper Lee ( “To Kill a Mockingbird ). A second reason is that some books continue to be relevant from generation to generation. A prime example is J.D. Salinger’s coming-of-age novel , ” The Catcher In the Rye”. Other examples are Joseph Heller’s ” Catch 22″ and Jack Kerouac’s ” On the Road”, though the popularity of both is fast diminishing lately. A third reason is that when books are made into films or brought to TV , many viewers go back and read the book.
It should also be mentioned that certain whole genres have fallen by the wayside. When I was a kid, I used to love Westerns. Among my favorite western authors were Luke Short, Ernest Haycox, Hal G. Evarts, Tod hunter Ballard and , a little later, Louis L’Amour. Except the last-named, all are forgotten now . Indeed , Westerns themselves stopped being read sometime in the late sixties-early seventies. I’ve often wondered why. Perhaps it has something to do with the moon landing in 1968. Until then, people used to look back in time ; they were inspired by the stories of the men who tamed the West, a time “when men were men”. After we landed a man on the moon, people started looking to the future rather than the past . Sci-fi increased in popularity as Westerns fell off the map. At least that’s my theory.