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Future Literary Icons

2012 December 4

It’s normal to think about the future. I’m not sure if everyone thinks about which authors we read now will be read by our grandchildren, and considered literary icons in the year 2100–but I do. And I recently found that I’m not alone–all the way back in 1936, a magazine called Colophon polled their readers to find out which authors they thought people would still be reading in the year 2000.  The results are interesting, and pretty accurate. They chose Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis–all writers who are certainly largely anthologized and taught in academia. But there are also names I don’t recognize: James Branch Cabell and Stephen Vincent Binet, who were you?

So, the question becomes not only about which writers will be remembered by future generations, but which will be forgotten? Why? It’s safe to say that E.L. James is a flash in the pan (please let me be right!), but what about immensely popular writers like John Grisham and Nora Roberts? Will their books be read by future generations, or will they eventually be forgotten, despite the plethora of titles they leave behind? And what about zeitgeisty favorites like Jonathan Safran Foer and Cheryl Strayed, literary darlings Jonathan Lethem and Zadie Smith?

Whatever makes them popular in today’s world may not even exist in tomorrow’s. For example, I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It’s wonderful and smart and hilarious, but it’s so dated. Dated by cultural references and musing about the future “post-television” world–a world he couldn’t even fully imagine because he was writing that particular essay in 1990, before the Internet even existed. Dated by references to movies I’ve never seen and athletes I’ve never seen play. But does this feeling of a work being “dated” mean it won’t have value or significance in the future? The essays still have value to me, reading them twenty years in the future–so what about fifty, seventy, a hundred years in the future?

This post has turned into more of a philosophical ramble than I intended. Really, all I wanted to do was raise the question of the  literary future, and who you see as the icons. Here’s a list, in no particular order, of ten contemporary (I think it’s safe to say that Nabokov, Vonnegut, Updike, etc. will be included in the list, but they’re not exactly contemporary at this point)  writers I can see people still reading in the year 2100:

  • Margaret Atwood
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • David Foster Wallace
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Jose Saramago
  • Toni Morrison
  • Stephen King
  • Billy Collins
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Jonathan Franzen
This list is probably incomplete, and you probably strongly disagree. Tell me why! I want to hear what you think on the subject. Let’s start a heated discussion! There aren’t enough of those here.


28 Responses Post a comment
  1. Rebekah permalink
    December 4, 2012

    I agree with most of these! maybe not Marilynne Robinson, but that might just be personal bias (and the fact that I read her when I was younger–I might feel differently about her now). other writers I think/hope will still be read–

    Jamaica Kincaid
    Joyce Carol Oates
    Bharati Mukherjee
    Gloria Anzaldúa
    Alice Munro

    • Jill permalink
      December 4, 2012

      I would definitely agree with Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro, especially their short stories. I don’t know enough about the other writers you mention–I should do some research!

      Of course, there are many writers I didn’t include on my list that I HOPE people will still read, but I am trying to predict the future, in a sense, and I don’t think the future is going to be all I hope it to be.

  2. Lauren S permalink
    December 4, 2012

    Oh oh I love so many of these! My personal hopes:

    Margaret Atwood
    Marilynne Robinson
    David Foster Wallace
    Jose Saramago
    Toni Morrison

    But definitely NOT JK Rowling. (I think I may be the only person who didn’t like Harry Potter; I stopped reading halfway through the first book.) Do longer children’s books tend to survive? Or is just the short classics (Goodnight, Moon, etc.) that get passed along?

    • Lauren S permalink
      December 4, 2012

      And I forgot– I would love to see Neil Gaiman in kids’ hands in 90 years. Except I’ll be dead and all that.

      • Raquel permalink
        December 4, 2012

        Oooh, second the vote for Gaiman. He’s a hell of a storyteller.

    • Jill permalink
      December 4, 2012

      Lauren, I don’t care about J. K. Rowling either! But I do think that Harry Potter is enough of a sensation to be passed on through generations, especially since parents will recommend it to their children. Think about Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and C.S. Lewis–they all wrote long series that children still read and love.

  3. Raquel permalink
    December 4, 2012

    I hope people stop reading Jonathan Franzen. He’s such a pompous, pretentious windbag and it comes through in his writing. I find his fictional characters completely unlikeable and boring and trite, and something about his writing style that I cannot quite put my finger on rankles me. (Maybe it’s the inscrutably long sentences full of weird/cliched imagery?) After reading almost his entire oeuvre, fiction and non (WHY did I do it? I think I was trying to figure out the hype), I find myself struggling to understand why people still give a shit about what he has to say, because he really doesn’t have anything to say.

    You wanted a heated debate, so there’s my two cents. 😉

    Also, I would add Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the list of will-always-be-read authors on that list. I totally get that his writing style is not for everybody, but I do think he’s a worthy contender: a master craftsman, a born storyteller, and a keen, humorous observer of what it means to be human.

    • Jill permalink
      December 4, 2012

      Fight fight fight fight! No, I see where you’re coming from with Franzen. I was on the fence about including him. Again, it’s not that I HOPE he’ll still be revered, but I think he may be. I’m not the biggest fan of Updike’s writing either, but that doesn’t stop him from being so respected in the writing world.

      Also, I love Marquez! I’m sad I forgot to include him.

      • Jill permalink
        December 4, 2012

        Though, would he still be considered contemporary?

        • Raquel permalink
          December 4, 2012

          I suppose I consider Marquez contemporary because he only stopped writing a few years ago, when his memory loss problems stopped him from penning further volumes of his memoir.

          I still can’t think about it without getting teary. Zounds.

          I meant to say I love your observation about how Wallace’s essays are dated. I agree, but I also feel as though the datedness is what will make future generations want to read them. I think about all the “dated” authors I read specifically because I want to know more about a certain era from a lively point of view. (James Thurber immediately comes to mind.) Wallace is hilarious in that brainy sort of way, which is why I hope future generations dig him as much as we do.

          • Jill permalink
            December 4, 2012

            Yes! I don’t know why I was thinking he wasn’t contemporary…brain lapse.

            I think I read a lot of books because of their “dated” qualities as well–just picked up “Brideshead Revisited” at the library. There must be a reason people keep revisiting it, right??

    • Lauren S permalink
      December 4, 2012

      That’s a good point about children’s lit, Jill. Whatever gets kids reading. The Narnia series has a very special place in my heart, and Where the Red Fern Grows still kills me.

      Raquel, you nailed it with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Beautiful writer. I haven’t read Franzen so I’ll let the others fight it out with you on that one. :)

      And one more– have y’all read TC Boyle? I adore him. Spectular writing and observations. I am in favor of adding as many weirdos as possible to this list.

      • Raquel permalink
        December 4, 2012

        I can’t believe I’ve never read TC Boyle, despite my desires to the contrary.

        Where the Red Fern Grows still has the ability to reduce me to a blubbering mess.

  4. Ron permalink
    December 4, 2012

    I will cast my vote for Marilynne Robinson, too! She’s brilliant! I also think more authors will join the century club in translation, particularly Gabriel Garcia Marquez (he’s retired now, but has put out books in the last decade).

    I’d also toss a few poets in the ring, including Robert Pinsky and David Ferry (at least I hope they’ll be there!), and toss out Mr. Collins. He’s a little fluffy.

    I can imagine J.K. Rowling making it (and how quaint her books may seem!), but I just can’t envision Stephen King in 100 years. Why on earth would anyone read him in 2112?

    • Jill permalink
      December 4, 2012

      Mr. Collins is a little fluffy, but I suppose that’s why I have a soft spot for him, and why he’s so beloved!

      I guess I was thinking that people would still read Stephen King because he’s a pretty great storyteller, and people love storytellers. I think his popular appeal has a chance to remain popular, but I guess when we’re talking about a literary canon, he doesn’t belong!

      • December 5, 2012

        AH! FALSE! Stephen King is a great example of the literary canon ignoring something simply because it is genre. Yes, he has quite a few books that are just pulpy, non-committal reads, but then there’s also It and Misery and The Stand! If you discount him because of his genre status, then I’m afraid Ms. Atwood must also go, and no one wants to see that. Also, On Writing is probably my favorite book about writing (TAKE THAT ANNE LAMOTT). And now I want to go back and read Stephen King like it’s 1999.

        • Jill permalink
          December 5, 2012

          I really enjoy your enthusiasm for Stephen King. I’ve been meaning to read On Writing forever. (I’m actually reading Lamott right now…hahah).

  5. December 4, 2012

    Really interesting post! A lot of people have already mentioned some of the people I was going to say, and I’d also add:

    -Richard Russo
    -Jeffrey Eugenides
    -Junot Diaz (whom I personally am not a huge fan of, but I know I’m in the minority)
    -Cormac McCarthy (ditto)
    -E.L. Doctorow
    -Ann Patchett
    -Maya Angelou

    • Jill permalink
      December 4, 2012

      Ah yes, I totally agree about Junot Diaz and Cormac McCarthy (not totally my favorites, but I think they will have staying power). I really, really want to include Eugenides in there, and Ann Patchett. Good choices!

  6. Mike permalink
    December 4, 2012

    A hearty yes to Marilynne Robinson, particularly for her melding of Christianity and Americana.

    And I’d add John Banville. And, though it might be too early to tell, Hilary Mantel. She is genious.

    • Jill permalink
      December 4, 2012

      You know, I really found Wolf Hall to be kinda boring, so I’m hesitant to read her other work. I’m definitely going to check out John Banville though!

  7. December 4, 2012

    I don’t think this is really going to be an argument, but most of the contemporary authors everyone is referring to are already kind of in the cannon. I can’t tell you how many Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, or Margaret Atwood short stories we already put in our textbook Anthologies. It’s like we’re already telling 18 year olds, “THESE WRITERS ARE THE GOOD ONES,” so of course they’ll be read in 2100. I think to accurately complete this kind of task, you have to think outside the box – who should be on this list who ISN’T in the textbook on my shelf?

    Of course, now I’ve put myself on the spot to come up with people more ~creative~. I would cast my ballet for:
    E. Annie Proulx
    Michael Chabon
    Lorrie Moore

    It’s also maybe worth considering that Pride and Prejudice was considered an early iteration of the romance novel. Do you want to include Stephanie Meyer in this discussion? No, no you don’t. And neither do I. But we might have to, since she seems to have a stronghold on the … what did you call it? The New Adult trend.

    • Jill permalink
      December 5, 2012

      I don’t think that a writer’s inclusion in a textbook anthology in 2012 automatically guarantees their inclusion in the literary canon for all time. For all the Atwood, Diaz, and Morrison stories, there are lots of other, trendier and less well-known writers included. Also, consider the sheer reality of permissions costs for those anthologies–sometimes, that has more to do with what appears in an anthology than how great the writer is, if we’re being honest. Fun fact–Toni Morrison is no longer allowing her work to be published in anthologies going forward. Does that mean she’s not part of the current literary canon? I would definitely argue that Lorrie Moore, E. Annie Proulx, and Michael Chabon are all already widely anthologized as well (though they are all brilliant and creative writers who I hope readers are still reading for years to come!).

      As for Stephanie Meyer, if people are reading her in 100 years, I’ll be glad I’m dead. While Jane Austen’s work may have been considered fluff by her contemporaries, at least her writing was good. No one can tell me that anything Stephanie Meyer or E.L. James has written can be considered actual good writing. Plot-driven and fascinating for some, sure. But it’s not good, and it will never be considered literature…at least, over my dead body. Ha.

    • Joe permalink
      December 5, 2012

      Megan, not to be too snarky, but you should go read some anthologies from 50 years ago. You’ll laugh at some of the authors included then. Inclusion during your lifetime (when your friends are editing the anthologies and you still have some personal pull) does not indicate whether you will survive changing and evolving tastes once you’re dead.

      To answer the overall question, I don’ think literary anthologies will exist in 2112 the way they do now, because no one will even be printing textbooks anymore. It almost seems naive to imagine a classroom full of ereaders with customized content pulled from a vast canon; it will probably be far beyond that. But as university libraries begin to go all-electronic even now, it seems ridiculous to think that students will still be piling up stacks of expensive paper books at any level.

      That won’t stop some of these authors from being included and excluded in the canon. But we may not be able to predict it as easily, since that canon won’t be shaped nearly as much by editors creating classroom anthologies.

  8. December 5, 2012

    What an interesting comment thread to read!

    I would love to see David Mitchell still being read in 2100, even if just in college courses about postmodern trends in the early 2000’s.

    I think Michael Chabon, at least Kavalier and Clay, will still be read.

    I think for some of the younger authors on your list, it’s going to depend on how their career goes. If Junot Diaz stops writing now, I really think he’ll disappear. If his career keeps going the way it is now though, I think there’s a much higher chance of him still being read.

    And can anyone think of non-fiction authors who will still be read? Is nonfiction just too tied to the era in which it’s written? The only biggie non-fiction authors I could think of is Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, but I have my doubts about them still being read.

    • Jill permalink
      December 5, 2012

      I agree with your point about Junot Diaz and other young writers still in the beginning of their careers–it remains to be seen whether their work will really stand the test of time.

      I wonder about nonfiction writers! Possibly David McCullough, Joan Didion, and Christopher Hichens.

  9. December 6, 2012

    Love this post and all of the discussion!

    I don’t have too much to add except for Haruki Murakami, I think his works will still be kicking around in one hundred years.

    I just hope that in 2100, whatever the equivalent of “blogs” will be at that point won’t be reminiscing about how you used to be able to hold a book and flip through pages.

    • Jill permalink
      December 6, 2012

      I love Murakami! I also hope his work will still be around. I think that people will definitely be nostalgic about printed books in the future, possibly in the same ways that people today are nostalgic about vinyl. You can still get records, and play them, they’re just not the most popular way of listening to music. To each their own!

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