Back in July I was exploring Dalry Cemetery, which is a little way west of the centre of Edinburgh, when I discovered a tombstone for one George Cupples – a ‘novelist’ , ‘critic’ and ‘philologist’ who died in 1891 at the age of 69. The stone had been erected by “a few of his very oldest friends in recognition of the various literary gifts and attainments of the author and in loving memory of the simple, upright and reverent character of the man.”
George who? I thought.
A search for George Cupples on the Internet didn’t yield much information. (There was slightly more about his wife, Anne Jane Cupples, who’d been a children’s author and who’d corresponded with Charles Darwin. Anne moved to New Zealand after George’s death and I assume she’s buried there.) According to www.victorianresearch.org Cupples “wrote dozens of nautical novels, such as The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856), The Two Frigates: or, Captain Bisset’s Legacy (1859) and Captain Herbert: A Sea Story (1864).” An entry on another site, www.bartleby.com, which appears to have been written in 1917 and is pretty purple in its prose, describes Cupples thus: “a happy combination of the genuine and most agreeable traits of that hearty and outspoken variety of man, the literary Scotchman.” It also calls The Green Hand ‘one of the best sea stories ever written’.
So – with his many seafaring adventure novels, George Cupples could have been a Victorian equivalent of Patrick O’Brian, whose books about Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars are so beloved today. But who remembers Cupples in 2015? I hadn’t heard of him. I only know his name now because I found myself by the gates of Dalry Cemetery the other month and decided to take a look inside.
Fame is elusive in the literary world – and even if you’re one of the few who manage to achieve some fame, there’s no guarantee that you’ll hold onto it for long. A case in point is the early 20th-century thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who in his heyday could boast that he’d written a quarter of all the books being read in England at the time. Yet today, he’s forgotten. Well, not quite forgotten. There’s a pub named after him on Essex Street in London and a website dedicated to him at www.edgarwallace.com. And in remote corners of the Internet I’ve discovered lovers of obscure movies enthusing about the Krimi films – a set of stylistically-distinctive movie adaptations of Wallace’s stories, filmed during the 1960s in Germany (where Wallace had also been a big deal). Oh, and trivia experts will identify Wallace as the man who co-wrote Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong back in 1933.
But who actually reads Edgar Wallace nowadays? Very few folk, I’d say. Which is a big comedown for a man who, less than a century ago, provided the English public with a quarter of its reading matter.
Another name that springs to mind when discussing the here-today-gone-tomorrow fickleness of literary fame is that of Dennis Wheatley, whose wartime, espionage, historical and black-magic thrillers were ubiquitous in Britain between the 1930s and 1970s. However, Wheatley’s books seemed to drop off the radar the moment that he died in 1977. Twenty years later, I remember the British Film Institute Companion to Horror dismissing Wheatley with a withering comment along the lines of “hugely popular in his day, terribly unfashionable now.”
Actually, Wheatley seems slightly better remembered than Wallace is. I doubt if many people are perusing a Wheatley novel at this moment in time, but there are things written about him on the Internet. And they’re nearly all in regard to one part of his oeuvre – the clutch of novels he wrote about Satanism and the occult, most famously The Devil Rides Out (1935) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953). That was the stuff by Wheatley that I read as a kid – potboilers crammed with things that seemed cool to me, such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to come to life, chalk pentacles offering protection from the powers of darkness, and blasphemous sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (that’s the Devil to you and me). An additional attraction for my 12 / 13-year-old self was that in the 1970s Wheatley’s occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers. Each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing around a flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a ghost’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground.
With those books, Wheatley had, possibly unwittingly, tapped into the zeitgeist – because by the countercultural 1960s, many people were fascinated by magic, mysticism, meditation, transcendence and any sort of esoterica that was going. Indeed, Wheatley is said to have based the character of Mocata, the villain in The Devil Rides Out, on the notorious English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley. By 1967, the younger generation considered Crowley such a dude that he was one of the figures depicted on the cover of the legendary Beatles album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Yet Wheatley wasn’t embraced by the generations that came after him and he didn’t achieve any large, lasting measure of fame. (His meagre legacy is in contrast to that of another writer who dealt in dark and macabre subject-matter, H.P. Lovecraft, who by the late 1960s had a psychedelic rock band named after him and whose influence today seems to be everywhere: in books, films, music and gaming.) Wheatley’s fiction simply wasn’t built to last. No matter how intrigued he or she might be by the occult stuff in Wheatley’s books, a modern reader would surely be turned off by his stuck-up and reactionary tone. His heroes were crusty right-wing aristocrats and his villains were revolting foreigners and / or anybody whom he disapproved of politically. For instance, he has trade unionists, pop musicians and lesbians in league with the Devil in The Satanist (1960); and the civil rights movement aligned with Auld Nick in Gateway to Hell (1970). All in all, the snobbishness and crankiness that permeates his writing has dated it very badly.
Incidentally, one thing that’s helped Wheatley to be remembered – faintly – is the fact that a few of his books were filmed. Most notably, The Devil Rides Out was turned into a well-regarded movie by Hammer Films in 1968.
The impermanence of literary fame was recently the subject of a blog entry by the writer Christopher Priest: http://www.christopher-priest.co.uk/journal/2605/you-dont-know-what-it-is-do-you-mister-jones/. Priest presents a list of names of bestselling authors from the 1930s and asks how many of them are known today: Hervey Allen, James Hilton, Dorothea Brande, Alexis Carrel, Hans Werfel and Munro Leaf. Well, you might know Hilton as the creator of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1933) and the world’s saintliest schoolmaster in Goodbye Mr Chips (1934), but that’s about it.
Then Priest lists some bestselling writers from the 1970s – Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, Frederick Forsyth, Mario Puzo, Len Deighton and the lately-departed Jackie Collins – and asks how well they’re lasting in the posterity stakes. “Most of those names are admittedly more familiar than those of Hervey Allen and his contemporaries, but I suspect their familiarity rests on the fact that popular films were made of their novels and are still being shown on TV. I also wonder how many people are still actually reading The Valley of the Dolls (1966) or The Dream Merchants (1949) or The Odessa File (1972)?”
To that second list I could add more names: Morris West, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, Leon Uris, Alastair MacLean… God, what has happened to Alastair MacLean? His action-adventure books about World War II and the Cold War seemed to be regulation reading for schoolboys in the 1970s. During my schooldays, I’d see lads everywhere with their noses deep in dog-eared copies of, say, Ice Station Zebra (1963) or Where Eagles Dare (1967). Nowadays, though, his books seem to have slipped into the ether. When MacLean’s name does come up in conversation, it’s usually in relation to the movies made out of his books – the two I’ve mentioned were both filmed in 1968 by John Sturges and Brian Hutton – rather than the books themselves. (The fact that the people having those conversations are invariably aging men like myself, who remember seeing the movies on TV when they were kids, doesn’t suggest that MacLean will survive much longer in the popular consciousness.)
(c) Fawcett Crest
Priest goes on to speculate about how long the names of our current crop of bestselling authors will be remembered. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t expect future generations to be poring over the works of E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, or Jeffrey Archer, or Dan Brown on their 22nd-century versions of the kindle.
He’s also dismissive about the prospects of those practitioners of ‘the modern literary novel, at least in Britain’: “Although they enjoy critical admiration and (one gathers) impressive sales figures, the books by Ian McEwen, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes are unlikely to survive much beyond their authors’ physical demise. McEwen is a skilful stylist but he has an unoriginal mind and an unadventurous approach to fiction. Barnes is a writer of middle-class dilettantism… Amis is a more complex problem because he is ambitious and committed, and probably more intelligent than the other two, but as a novelist he peaked more than thirty years ago with his novel Money (1984)…”
Actually, I’d disagree with Priest here because I think McEwen’s work is likely to stay popular longer than the aloof, disdainful and stylistically up-its-own-arse oeuvre of Amis. For example, I found McEwen’s Atonement (2001) readable and engaging, even if it was somewhat unoriginal and free in its ‘borrowings’. (In 2006, McEwen had to answer allegations of plagiarism about Atonement. It was claimed that he’d grafted into the novel material taken from a 1977 memoir by the romantic novelist and wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/28/books/28aton.html?oref=slogin&_r=0.) Also, I think that McEwen’s early fiction – the short stories in Last Love, First Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978) and the novel The Cement Garden (1978) – is so unsettling and bizarre that it’ll continue to be read in the future, at least, by a small number of aficionados of literary weirdness.
(c) The Independent
On the other hand, Priest predicts longevity for the works of Stephen King, whose best efforts he considers “intelligent, unexpected, personal, original in concept and told with ruthless skill.” He expects the same for J.K. Rowling, whose books will be passed from parents to children: “It’s worth pointing out that that generation of first Harry Potter readers is now approaching the age of their own early parentage – the wheels of posterity are turning smoothly.” And he thinks the works of Sir Terry Pratchett will survive too. Indeed, he believes Pratchett’s books “a dead cert for long-term classic status. They are written for a popular audience… They have been commercially successful, not just in Britain and the USA, but in languages and countries all around the world. The books are not liked by many: they are loved and admired by millions.”
So if you’re an author who yearns for immortality, what do you need to do? Obviously, first of all, be popular – and properly popular. You’re not just aiming at a highbrow readership. You have to write for the plebs too. As Priest says at the start of his piece, “(f)rom the plays of William Shakespeare, through the novels of the Bronte sisters, the social novels of Charles Dickens, the scientific romances of H. G. Wells, virtually every work of literature that becomes recognized as a classic was conceived and written in the first place for a popular audience.”
Also, if you want people to at least remember your name — even if they no longer read your books — get your work turned into films. I’m sure the reason why some people have a vestigial memory of Dennis Wheatley is because of the film version of The Devil Rides Out, which still turns up regularly on TV. The same reason helps explain why Edgar Wallace and Alastair MacLean are still talked about (though admittedly in small doses). And if that’s the case, the long-term prospects for Stephen King and J.K. Rowling must be good.
And if you want your name to survive after your death even a tiny bit, make sure your readership has survived into the era of the Internet. Thanks to the Web, fans of obscure and fading writers – no matter how dispersed they are physically – can hook up with one another, and converse, and form communities. That’s why a sliver of Edgar Wallace remains, just about, at www.edgarwallace.com.
Alas, that wasn’t an option for poor George Cupples, who was dead, buried and forgotten long before the advent of modern communications technology.
Anyone interested in authors who’ve been badly treated by posterity, who for one reason or other have faded into the fog of the past, should read the fascinating Invisible Ink columns penned for the Independent newspaper by another literary Christopher, the crime and horror writer Christopher Fowler. You’ll find many of them collected here: http://neglectedbooks.com/?page_id=834.