One of the things about working in an academic library—perhaps even more so than a public library—is the occasional reminder that writing goes in and out of fashion. I was reminded recently of the existence of Howard Fast, who wrote Spartacus and forty-odd other books, several of which were best-sellers, and one or two of which you might possibly have heard of, depending on your age.
Our library currently has thirteen of his novels in our stacks, plus a collection of short stories, a memoir and a non-fiction book. That’s a pretty substantial collection, taking up a fair amount of space, and I take it from the inclusion of all those books that somebody thought, at some point, that this work was not only popular but important.
Of those sixteen books, one is, believe it or not, currently checked out! With an asterisk, though. We’ll come back to that.
Of the other fifteen books, none of them have circulated in the last ten years. Actually, none of them have circulated in the last fourteen years—our records aren’t reliable beyond 2009, but other than one book that seems probably to have left the library on an interlibrary loan in 2009, there is no evidence that any of the books have been checked out at all, ever.
And that one book that is currently checked out? It’s a Modern Library volume that combines several essays by Tom Paine (including “Common Sense”) with the full text of the novel Citizen Tom Paine, and is shelved (when not loaned out) with the political writings of Mr. Paine, not the novels of Mr. Fast. It’s possible that the person who borrowed it wanted the novel, but it’s equally likely (if not more likely) that Mr. Fast’s work was just along for the ride.
My point is not whether or not these books are a good use of our shelf space (they aren’t) but just that here was a very popular writer considered important at the time, not all that long ago, who is now remembered, if at all, for two of his forty-odd books, neither of which are considered important in themselves.
And the shelf above all of these books is entirely devoted to the works of James Farrell, a similarly popular and prolific contemporary of his. The twenty-odd volumes (novels, short stories and essays) that the library owns have similarly not circulated for ten years, other than Studs Lonegan going out once. Mr. Fast and Mr. Farrell are more the norm than the exception.
Which implies that the same thing is true of today’s writers—in seventy-five years, perhaps J. M. Coetzee or Kazuo Ishiguro or Jane Smiley will be neglected early-21st-century writers. Or not! There are mid-20th-century novelists whose works still sometimes circulate, and who appear on various syllabi. And others, of course, who don’t. It’s not a meritocracy, and it’s not quite pure luck, but for whatever reason it is, people don’t read certain authors any more, and do read others. Fashions change.
And my point, really, is that it’s not a good idea to be outraged when an author that you happen to be fond of goes out of fashion. Sad, sure, or at least wistful. But outrage is misplaced, and other than a quick shot of adrenaline isn’t even all that enjoyable.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,