Between 1920 and 1930, there were three writers with at least five books in the list of 10 best-selling books, according to Publishers Weekly. Two of them are Zane Grey and Sinclair Lewis. The other is Warwick Deeping.
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Why is Sinclair Lewis a permanent fixture on our literary landscape while Warwick Deeping is all but forgotten?
Is there a way to know if the book we pick up today might find its way into another reader's hands 90 years from now?
The enduring presence of Sinclair Lewis is relatively explicable, being both a best-selling and critically acclaimed author in his time, as well as the first American winner of the Nobel Prize in 1930. But even more important to Lewis' endurance is the books themselves. Despite all being written prior to 1930, Lewis' best novels could easily be read as contemporary satires. "Babbitt" (1922) is a sharp critique of middle-class consumerism and conformity. "Elmer Gantry" (1927) is the story of a religious huckster, the kind I see on my television every Sunday.
The disappearance of Warwick Deeping is likely explained by his subject matter: the historical romance. Because it's a popular and enduring genre, the marketplace responds by producing more and more of it, burying the past practitioners under the present. Deeping's novels became disposable the moment they hit the shelves. There's only room for one Jane Austen, and from what I can gather, Warwick Deeping was no Jane Austen.
Deeping was once popular enough to have the British Navy name a patrol boat after him. Alas, it was sunk in 1940 near the Isle of Wight.
Of our crop of contemporary authors, I think the shortest odds on longevity have to be on Toni Morrison, who fits the Sinclair Lewis model of being both critically acclaimed and strong selling. She also has a Nobel Prize on her mantel. More importantly, her novels bring life to the experience of being black in America. Her work is both art and artifact.
I think Don DeLillo has a shot with "Underworld" as a chronicle of Cold War America. John Updike, for all his prolificacy and popularity, seems to be fading just four years after his passing. The Updike-ian male protagonist already feels a bit like a dinosaur. David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" is a possible cult classic for generations to come.
J.K. Rowling and "Harry Potter" may have taken up permanent residence as she becomes a Tolkien-like hand-me-down from generation to generation. But these are all guesses, and what and who will be remembered is not necessarily anyone we even "know" today. John Keats sold only several hundred copies of his books during his lifetime. Emily Dickinson was published almost entirely posthumously.
Or take John Williams' "Stoner," a quietly powerful novel about an English professor at the University of Missouri first published in 1965 that has recently become a breakout European best-seller. According to Publishers Weekly, more than 100,000 copies of the Dutch edition are in print and 50,000 of the Italian editions alone have been sold. What had been an underground classic for years has now, almost 50 years after its debut, and almost 20 years after the author's death, has become the "must read" of the European continent.
This means it's likely that a book that most of us have never heard of will rise as a literary phoenix in the year 2083. Everyone, save the chain of dedicated readers who have kept it alive, will be surprised.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man."
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "The Spectacular Now" by Tim Tharp
2. "Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell
3. "The Diary of Mattie Spenser" by Sandra Dallas
4. "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green
5. "Shadow of Night" by Deborah Harkness
— Rachel D., Zion