C.S. Lewis’s Bad Prediction, Finding Zora, Losing Ursula, Saving Gatsby, and What Publishers Can Do
We might also say that Evangelicals saved Lewis. Wheaton College, the Notre Dame of Evangelicalism, houses a good bit of his work and artifacts, along with other early/mid-century Brits like Sayers and Tolkien. I discovered Lewis as a student at Gordon-Conwell, a Reformed, well, non-denominational (but definitely Reformed) seminary.
PS: I've always found that a Evangelical-Lewis connection a bit ironic given his prominent emphasis of the Ransom Theory of the atonement.
Some writers are so ahead of their time and talented in prose it takes decades for the masses to catch up to their immense talent.
An excellent piece as always!
We owe a debt of wonder to every creator that sealed the covenant of our confirmation, that guided the catechism of our souls. That welcomed us into a lineage, a genealogy. We are the successors of all the work that proceeded us. We pay the debt by paying it forward, by moving outward and on. Expansion and evolution and change. One stream that feeds a river, that feeds something bigger. That becomes something different. That becomes something new.
I had no idea about the campaign for book donations during World War II. That’s such a fascinating connection. In addition to what’s available and marketed to us, I have noticed that we like to read what other people are talking about so that we feel “in the know,” even if we don’t actually find that we enjoy them. It’s freeing to know that not all good authors are popular, and not all popular authors are good.
So I am reading Mere Christianity for the first time, along with Brandon Edwards who is doing a weekly review. I wish I had read it a long time ago. But you mentioned A Year With C.S. Lewis. A friend gave it to me last December and I have been reading it. But I misplaced it, then forgot it and your mention sent me on a hunt. So it is now back on my desk. I admit to skipping any reading from Screwtape because they do not make sense to me separated from the book as a whole. Anyhow, you always have something interesting to share. Thank you!
"Parnassus on Wheels" was a recent "find" for me only because someone I admire, Sarah Mackenzie, recommended it. Christopher Morley's ardent love of books shines through in this novella, published in 1917. He combines that love with a bit of a dig at the publishing world too. A funny, sweet story.
“These unexploited opportunities require alertness.“
We could unpack that sentence into an article of its own.
I’d likely start with what alertness means in this context. Knowledge of the industry, for sure, is a foundational component, but awareness of book marketing trends and a fearlessness in testing available touch points with other authors efforts is critical, too. Successfully resisting discouragement when hopeful sales figure don’t pan out is also important if one is to notice the more subtle opportunities. I know from personal experience what you noted about the author advocating for their work and the tremendous boost this gives to the perception pf the work in the eyes of potential readers. That, too, is a balancing act of tenacity and patience.
All these in concert set the stage for an author being alert and sober enough to catch sight of unexploited opportunities amidst the barrage of easily recognizable ones.
Come to think of it, I think recognizing those “unexploited opportunities” likely depends on the same foundation of alertness.
Fascinating read! I’ve never thought much about the ‘could have beens’ of books, or the way that the concept of ‘classic’ books isn’t shaped by the ideal of quality alone.
I think John Williams ––Stoner and Augustus––had a similar renaissance about 20 years ago. I liked Stoner and loved Augustus.
When i think about whoever made the call to include Gatsby in the list sent to the armed services, I think about unheralded heroes. Just consider how many millions of hours of reading pleasure were granted to so many by the actions of a few people (Including Wilson).
Zadie Smith's The Fraud introduces me to William Harrison Ainsworth a Victorian novelist whose novel (Jack Sheppard) outsold Oliver Twist. From the little I've read thus far, I don't think Smith is trying to get people to read his books!
Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity are formative for me. I think of passages from them all the time.
Some have already touched upon this, but authors, whether fiction or nonfiction, are experts in their subjects (or should be). They're not necessarily experts in marketing, or as you put it, "to convincingly self-promote." The operative word is "convincingly." And that's the devil in the details, isn't it? What is convincingly self-promotion? If authors, or even marketing departments, knew how to do that they would. Likewise, if authors and publishers knew what would be a bestseller and continue to sell into the future, authors would write those books and publishers would only publish those book. But as you told Peco, "It's a puzzling business with no guarantees." And that's why, agreeing with you, authors need not only to promote their own work, but also need champions, both today and tomorrow.
I only heard of Zora last year, through reading about Nella Larrsson. It's a strange thing about authors becoming unknown. Last year or the year before I came across a book about forgotten authors, and one of them was Keith Waterhouse. He was an absolutely brilliant writer, columnist and playwright, so I was very surprised about that. Another writer I like is Stephen Potter, who nobody seems to have heard of now but in the late 40s and mid-50s was all the rage. It's kind of sad really. Salinger didn't do interviews and has not fallen into obscurity, so I'm not sure that lack of PR is always the reason, but very much enjoyed this article.
Also, I didn't realise that you were a Substack featured writer in July, so belated congrats!
Superb roundup! Enjoyed this. Great start to my Saturday!
Fascinating! I am always pleasantly surprised at the layers you manage to reveal. I think an additional hurdle that 'forgotten authors' face is the decline of English vocabulary knowledge in the younger generation of readers. Those classics which are still taught in schools hold a mere vestige of the vocabulary which was once considered essential for good communication (for example 'Of Mice and Men' has 25 classic words compared to 1356 in 'David Copperfield').
Thus, even if authors are brought back into circulation, many of the older books written will remain inaccessible to younger readers, because of they lack the attention span and vocabulary needed to appreciate their work. With this in mind, I have republished a Classic Learner's Edition of Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' (https://humanitasfamily.net/books/), which contains the unabridged original as well as in depth vocabulary study. I pored over every page of the tale, carefully taking note of words that might trip up young readers and make them stumble. If I had the time, I would continue to republish a series of Victorian era classics, to ensure that their rich language, humor, and insights continue to touch the current young generation. I will keep this project in my back pocket for my retirement years:)
Finally, thank you again for advocating for my husband's novel Exogenesis. Getting into the publishing market as a new author is a sisyphean task, and your support is greatly appreciated!
This reminds me of the trajectory of G. K. Chesterton‘s works. He was massively popular and then shortly after his death most of his works went out of print. Over the last twenty years there has been a resurgence that was only possible due to the concerted effort of people who were willing to advocate and actively publish his work again.