On getting - and losing - literary fame

There's been quite a bit of speculation about writers' motives lately, mainly thanks to the sock-puppeting scandal involving crime writers R J Ellory and Stephen Leather - in today's Guardian, writer Alison Flood asks, why risk ridicule for the sake of a good review? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/04/sock-puppetry-publish-be-damned. Yes, we know that sales count, and that good reviews can add to those sales figures. But at what cost to a writer's reputation?

There's something more permanent than decent end-of-the-year sales figures at the heart of this, I would argue. I can't speak for writers who fix their reviews and disparage others behind fake identities, but I'd hazard a guess they're chasing the same thing the more ethical writers want, too: a chance to last. A chance, not just to be read now, but to still be read after you've gone. Who doesn't hope for a legacy? And the bigger the bestseller you are today, the longer your reign will last tomorrow, isn't that the case? Just look at Wells and Conan Doyle.

Alas though, if only it were so simple! E L James and R J Ellory may be the headline acts today (for good and bad reasons), but so once were Gilbert Cannan, Marie Corelli and Violet Hunt (see picture below).

Not familiar with those names? Once upon a time, they were famous, and beyond the small literary world they inhabited, too. There's something horribly sad about people who reach real heights of fame, then disappear completely: it's not meant to be this way, we feel it in our bones. Cannan's story is a particularly desperate one as his beginnings were so extraordinarily good. He'd successfully published several novels before he was thirty and had seen several plays of his produced in the West End. He even managed notoriety - perhaps that's closer to what E L James and R J Ellory have achieved, and perhaps that's the problem, as it promises more than it delivers - when his 1912 novel, Round the Corner, was banned. He was a real success story - everything to play for.

You didn't even have to be a novel-reader or a theatre-goer to know his name at the time, because he also managed to get himself cited in a divorce case - between J M Barrie and his wife, Mary. Gilbert married Mary soon after (she was seventeen years older than him). But whether it was such a huge amount of work  produced and success achieved so early in his life caused his mental problems, or the scandal of the divorce, or his experiences in the war - something caused him to have a mental breakdown and by forty, he was incarcerated in a mental asylum. He would never leave it.

Marie Corelli's story is less tragic, but she, too, was once a huge name and is now forgotten. She was the first 'modern' bestseller, the first writer to sell a million copies with her novel, The Sorrows of Satan, published in 1895. She benefited from technological changes in the publishing world, interestingly enough - the ending of the three-decker volume, which up until then had largely been purchased by circulating libraries who negotiated huge discounts from the publishers. Most of these three-deckers were too expensive for ordinary individuals to buy, and then suddenly, one-volume novels appeared. As Peter Keating writes in the Oxford Classics introduction to Sorrows of Satan, "authors with a small public appeal who were no longer artificially protected by the three-decker system watched in dismay as sales of their books collapsed. But authors who, for once reason or another, managed to stir a large section of the reading public into buying their novels at regular prices received unprecedented financial rewards." The bestseller was born!

And yet, who reads her now? In 1895, Thomas Hardy published Jude the Obscure. Henry James put on his play, Guy Domville, only to be outclassed by Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. H G Wells gave the world The Time Machine and Freud Studies on Hysteria. Marie Corelli outsold them all, yet she is today the least well known of all of them.

Violet Hunt was another of Ford Madox Ford's mistresses/muses. She was the daughter of a Pre-Raphaelite painter and a novelist, had known Ruskin as a child and claimed to have been proposed to by Oscar Wilde. She had an affair with Wells, but gave her heart to Ford, who by the time they met was trapped in an unhappy marriage. The two began a decade-long affair which even reached the courts and the tabloids, when Hunt claimed that she and Ford had married in Germany and began calling herself 'Mrs Ford'. The real Mrs Ford was having none of it and took them both to court, with the result that Ford spent a short time in prison. Hunt, meanwhile, an author in her own right and a literary salon hostess in London, carried on, notorious yet also accepted - the shame that her position as the mistress of a married man might have brought down on other women did not affect her career, and people bought and read her books. Again, though - who reads her now?

 Perhaps, one hundred years from now, even J K Rowling will have been forgotten (although I rate her chances higher than either Ellory's or James's). Just as it's impossible to predict what will be a bestseller, it's impossible to predict what writers will be remembered (Wells wanted to be remembered for his social-realist novels after all; Conan Doyle for his history books). But then, if we knew we were going to be forgotten, we might not try in the first place....


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