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Immortal Beloved

Why writers want fans who last forever

Illustration by Clay Rodery

Writers live lives of curious contradiction. Their work succeeds only by means of a monastic interiority and lonesomeness, and yet they yearn for that work to deliver them the very things most likely to murder it: whole continents of fans, invitations to claim and cash fantastical checks. They’ve heard the warning that says celebrity is one of the toxins which contributes to a writer’s artistic contamination, but they can’t help themselves—writers spend lots of time being overlooked, and thus lots of time fantasizing about the opposite predicament. There’s no such thing as a writer who yearns to be ignored.

But writers thrive only in hushed vassalage to their own imaginations, shackled to their desks, trying to hear hints of that ancient inward thrum. When Montaigne proposes “an unimportant life without luster,” you take his point. “A talent,” said Goethe, “is formed in stillness.” It’s called the limelight for a reason: Sooner or later you get limed by the light—burned, smeared, blinded.

Look at Ernest Hemingway—no other American writer has ever experienced that particular pitch of acclaim, that imperious grandeur of renown, and the graph of his accomplishments is easily drawn: His sentences and dignity sank as his notoriety soared. After A Farewell to Arms in 1929, most of Hemingway’s best work was already at his back. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1954, he guiltily conceded that as a writer grows in “public stature” his work “deteriorates” because “writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” By the time he uttered that truth, he was two decades past being able to brook the necessary lonesomeness—self-fooling about much, he wasn’t able to fool himself into believing that a Nobel Prize meant that the quality of his work hadn’t been strafed by fame.

The real fame Hemingway was shooting for was perhaps the only fame that should matter to writers—the fame that descends after their deaths. It’s a dishonest novelist or poet who tries to tell you that he doesn’t bother with posterity. Normal people have children—writers write books.

The bad news is that it’s not possible to determine or prepare for how posterity will respond to your work. If you have talent and luck enough, readers of the future will find you, though it might take them a while. Among American dreadnoughts, Melville almost didn’t make it into his posthumous glow—unhailed and nearly forgotten for 30 years after his death, he needed an all-out revival to reawaken readers to his genius. Some writers have responded to the anxious desire for literary immortality by unabashedly advertising their ambitions. Norman Mailer once said to Gore Vidal that in the future they’d both become cults, and Vidal replied that a cult might be suitable for Mailer—he himself wanted a religion. When Vidal suggested that Truman Capote’s premature death was a smart career move, he was hijacking the prominent Hollywood cliché that deified James Dean—a cliché that owed much to the myths of Byron and Keats. But Vidal couldn’t possibly have been certain that three decades after Capote’s death we’d be glamorizing him still, or that Philip Seymour Hoffman would somehow manage to make him look even more ridiculous than he actually was. The immortality-making contraption has a multitude of moving parts, each of which must be perfectly greased and tuned or else the whole thing stalls.

There was a moment in Rome, writes H.J. Jackson in her new book, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, “when writers were elevated to a place among the immortals,” and litterateurs have been dazzled by that elevation ever since. Professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, Jackson commands a lifetime of reading in a fluid, ceaselessly compelling history of the literary afterlife, of how over the centuries, our concepts of a writer’s immortality have morphed, mutated, double-backed. Her analysis swaggers between Cicero and Horace, Dr. Johnson and Wordsworth, and she asks how we’ve come to know all about William Wordsworth but not George Crabbe, Jane Austen but not Mary Brunton, John Keats but not Barry Cornwall, when each of those unknowns was once considered a formidable rival to the knowns. If that question is not more widely asked, it might be because the answer seems straightforward enough: Originality of execution, facility with language, potency of vision, quality of mind—talent, in a word—are the mandatory elements responsible for raising the names we know, their absence responsible for sinking the names we don’t. Dearth of talent might be the first reason most of the world’s writers will remain forever unsung, but Jackson makes clear that for the crafting of an immortal reputation, talent alone won’t cut it.

Horace formulated the first influential theory of a writer’s afterlife, the pith of which was instinctual and mightily attractive to writers of a certain caliber who are irked by their present lack of recognition: Quality endures of its own inspired volition, while crap flounders and is forgotten. His criteria put the simple questions to a work of literature: Is it well-made, inventive, memorable? Is it dulce et utile (sweet and useful)? His criteria for deathless literature shovels heaps of faith onto the notion that the beautiful and intelligent are intrinsically better than the ugly and dumb. A flaunting elitist, Horace posited that writers must address their work only to the wise and literary-minded, and were damned, now and forever, if they attempted to appeal to the know-nothing plebs. He believed that “only the best poets are worth reading, and only the best readers are trustworthy judges,” as Jackson puts it, and who, pray tell, could argue with that?

Fifteen-hundred years later, in eighteenth-century England, not much had changed: “The Horatian theory”—quality triumphs—“addressed the peculiar condition of writers directly and eloquently, and so the Horatian tradition prevailed.” But the Horatian program succeeded also because “people wanted to believe in it,” to be comforted by it, much as certain Christians get through the soul’s dark nights by believing in the eventual victory of good over evil. Jackson argues that by the time Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton emerged as literary immortals, “history tended to confirm the pattern Horace had predicted, according to which the best rise slowly but inevitably to the top.”

Then along came Samuel Johnson, throwing his brassy quill into the belts and cogs of literary fame-making. Everywhere in Johnson you find the sobering cynic, the bruising skeptic, so it comes as no shock to see him buck against Horace’s poet-as-god propaganda. He wasn’t having any of that silliness and instead underscored the essential agency of other people—readers, publishers, critics, scholars, teachers—in shepherding a worthy writer into immortality. If a poet’s verses thrive forever, it has nothing to do with the demi-divine status of the poet and everything to do with other people who labored to keep those verses alive.

Johnson’s famous championing of the “common reader” was an odd bit of populism by a castellated mind. But his trust in “the collective judgment of the aggregate of readers,” in Jackson’s words, must be taken as genuine, and quintessentially modern. He acknowledged, says Jackson, “the practical importance of being able to reach a lot of readers”—practical because a large readership can whip up fame when you’re alive and immortality when you’re dead, even though Johnson understood that there was no certain umbilical from one to the other. “For Johnson, numbers count because they demonstrate wide appeal, and wide appeal matters as confirmation of truth to nature, or universal validity.” You can’t help but see that the bestsellers in Johnson’s day were considerably more literate than the bestsellers in our own. The good doctor would no doubt revise his notion of numbers if he could behold the obscene sales figures and purulent prose of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Johnson had no quarrel with Horace’s contention that quality always trumps garbage; the question for Johnson was how much quality could be accommodated: Time is crimped, people are busy, writers are many. In one of Johnson’s most famous quips, he noticed that “no place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library”—those alps of unread books, many of them first-rate. “It seems not to be sufficiently considered how little renown can be admitted in the world,” Johnson wrote, and if that was true then, just look how much truer it is now. “The lesson of history is that most writers, however celebrated they might have been in their own time, are quickly forgotten”: If you’re an ambitious writer listening to Jackson ring that undeniable and discordant alarm, now is the time you might regret not choosing a different ambition.

Jane Austen and her contemporary Mary Brunton are an illustrative case of how Horace’s and Johnson’s theories of immortality play out, and Jackson offers an irresistible gloss of their circumstances. Only three years younger than Austen, Brunton was a Scot, the wife of a preacher whose debut novel, limply titled Self-Control, appeared in 1811 (the same year as Sense and Sensibility) and gained widespread ovations. Get your hands on a copy of Brunton’s novel—as I did recently—and you’ll see that the reading throngs must have had an appetite for melodrama and moralizing because Self-Control is a banquet of both. It is also tremendous fun to read, and for a few stretches sputteringly insightful, despite one critic at the time calling it, in what must be the best two-word abuse in all of criticism, “methodistical palavering.” Doomed love, fire-of-my-loins male obsession, an incorruptible maiden, girl-napping, self-destruction, one ludicrous scene with a waterfall—Self-Control could use some self-control. It’s 400 pages of Romeo and Juliet without Shakespeare or Juliet, but the public feasted on it, as it did on her follow-up in 1814, called Discipline, another obviously titled masterpiece of proselytizing. Still, Brunton made Austen nervous.

Four years later, Brunton died in childbirth, with only two completed books to her name. Her husband chaperoned a volume of Brunton’s letters and fragments a year after she died, and, as Jackson tells it, “for forty years after the death of the author, through roughly the first half of the Victorian period, Brunton’s works maintained a respectable place—higher than Austen’s—in the ranks of fiction.” Then something happened. Brunton’s husband died in 1854; she had no children or cheering family members, “no homegrown champions” to cherish their relation to her. Unlike Wordsworth, she was not linked to any “picturesque spots,” and so could not encourage pilgrims who spend money and keep an author’s name in the air. Unlike Walter Scott (to whom Jackson devotes much space) she did not “command a publishing empire” to do her immortal bidding. Unlike Austen’s, her novels were not deemed congenial to children or classrooms. (Brunton might have been a moralizer, but in her fiction she was much naughtier than Sweet Jane—the vociferously clean are commonly filthy underneath.) The only font of information about Brunton’s life was an antiseptic memoir confected by her husband—“biographically,” says Jackson, “she is practically a cipher”—and with no data about a life, there’s nothing to mythologize. Most important: Any novelist who soapboxes for an ideology, either secular or religious, isn’t writing novels but agit-prop, and before long all agitprop lands in the trash.

Jackson reports that “up to 1860, the career paths of Jane Austen and Mary Brunton were strikingly similar”; their books, too, were thought so similar that some readers couldn’t tell one author from the other. The Austen phenomenon currently upon us—Jackson pegs the takeoff of the “Austen adaptation industry” to 1995 when three major film versions of Austen’s novels were released—might not be entirely explicable, but it is due in part to a litany of factors that bypassed Brunton. An enthusiastic American reception of Austen’s novels. A dynamic readership, what Jackson dubs “the coexistence of multiple audiences.” A bolstering by esteemed critics, including Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Henry James. An embrace by children and schools. Academic acceptance. Numerous editions, many of which contained illustrations. And, crucially, the support of Austen’s family in producing a hagiographic account of her life, one that conflated Austen with her creations, which is always good for the fame business, as Hemingway and Mailer were to find.

Jackson’s informed speculation has Brunton and Austen in a kind of taciturn competition, each altering her own work in response to the other’s. But despite some readers’ lamentable inability to tell them apart, Mrs. Brunton is no Ms. Austen. A steady, junkie-like infusion of melodrama can be expected in many novels of the early nineteenth century, but in Brunton, the infusion becomes a cataract, a trial of soaking superfluity. Austen’s basal flaw, one that her novels manage miraculously to surmount—the claustrophobic apprehension, her unpreparedness to criticize the function of society within her era—is in Brunton’s novels steroided to grotesque effect. While Austen mobilizes a memorable nuance of observation, almost Proustian in its enlargement of character, Brunton is a career stranger to nuance: Her narrative plan is all bluster and bludgeon, which is not to say that at key instances she fails to be psychologically and emotionally correct, only that she often mistakes the breathless for breadth. Add to that her undisguised evangelizing for Christian opinions and you have a novelist whose current standing is exactly where it belongs.

Pleasurable as Brunton can be to read, Austen is, overall and in the end, a much more dignified teller than Brunton. In literature, the dignity of telling counts above all else. So while it’s true that Brunton’s case affirms Johnson’s theory—without the requisite human agency, a longstanding and diverse cadre of dedicated admirers, there’s no hope for immortality—it also affirms Horace’s: Brunton simply wasn’t touched by the gods; she simply wasn’t as talented as Austen. Hers, says Jackson, was “a popularity based on novelty.” What’s maddening is that Jackson shows how Walter Scott—perhaps no other writer in history experienced more fame in his lifetime than the Scottish author of Ivanhoe—had all the obligatory elements, including a mammoth talent and a legion of posthumous abettors. And yet still he has dropped into almost total anonymity. Ivanhoe is a pretty thrilling novel, but when’s the last time you saw someone reading it? Literary immortalizing is a fickle, fickle business, folks.

The potent brand of immortality that was possible for Wordsworth, Keats, and Austen is no longer possible, and for myriad reasons, chief of which is the basement-level regard we now have for serious writers—the world doesn’t care about literature the way it did when those three were undergoing their immortalization. Our new Keats is Steve Jobs or someone like him. The cultural emphasis has shifted from one incarnation of creative brilliance to another.

Dr. Johnson could assess talent from a place of common cultural purview; today our fissional culture has obliterated consensus—most readers now appear beguiled by what genuinely constitutes a good book, and so they fall back upon that least accurate mode of assessment: personal taste, relatability, identity confirmation. The criterion by which to judge any book must be the sentences: Do they work, are they imbued with torque and verve, do they have something permanent to say about a human circus both shining and absurd? Publishing is a business in which writers of ironclad intelligence and integrity must watch in paralysis as third-rate books are lavishly rewarded and celebrated, and so those writers cheer themselves up by imagining that their laurels will arrive after their deaths, when society finally gets wise and realizes the injustices it heaped upon genius.

Jackson puts it plainly enough: “Writing for immortality is not a good idea”—not a good idea because there’s absolutely nothing you can do to effect a winning ticket in that preposterous lottery, no path to making sure your work will adapt and remain relevant to the uncaring vicissitudes of the future. Still, Nadine Gordimer believed that “a serious person should try to write posthumously,” by which she meant aim for the greats—entrust them as your gold-standard guides on the path to your own quality. It’s the best writing advice ever given. All living writers of some gravity secretly hope they will be the exception to the new impossibility of literary immortality. That intolerable itch in us won’t soon abate, but while we’re attempting to scratch it, we’d do well to remember a priceless limerick Jackson includes in her notes, the last word on the literary afterlife jotted down by a now unremembered bard: “A goddess capricious is Fame. / You may strive to make noted your name. / But she either neglects you / Or coolly selects you / For laurels distinct from your aim.”