A while back my husband and I got into a conversation about the iconic writers of different eras — the people where, if you can remember a single person who wrote in that time period, they’re the one you think of. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Austen. Dickens.
This led, of course, to us debating who from the current era might be That Writer two hundred years from now. It’s a mug’s game, of course, trying to predict who’s going to last; the field of literature is littered with names who were expected to be classics for the ages, many of whom are now utterly forgotten. But a mug’s game can still be fun to play, especially when you’re making idle conversation over dinner.
The way I see it, the author in question is likely to exhibit some combination of four qualities:
- They’re popular (though not necessarily critically acclaimed just yet),
- They’re at least moderately prolific (no one-book wonders here),
- They’re working in a genre/medium/field that is especially characteristic of their era, and
- Their work reflects the social issues of their time.
(Notice I say nothing about quality in there. I do think that quality matters, but I also think our ability to judge what qualifies as quality, from the perspective of later generations, is deeply suspect.)
I said to my husband that I fully expect the writer of our age — defining “our age” as the late twentieth to early twenty-first century — to be someone in the field of speculative fiction, i.e. science fiction, fantasy, and/or supernatural horror. There has undeniably been a boom in that mode of storytelling in the last few decades; I suspect that, as a result, those works may be remembered for longer than many of the quietly mimetic tales of literary fiction. (In fact, if I’m being honest with myself, I suspect that the Writer of Our Age is more likely to be a movie director — Spielberg’s a good candidate — than anybody in prose fiction.)
Popular, prolific, working in spec fic, reflecting the social issues of our era . . . .
My money’s on Stephen King.
He’s already acquired a veneer of respectability that he sure as hell didn’t have a couple of decades ago. His works are being taught in college courses. He caters — I mean the word in a non-derogatory sense — to a broad audience, and generally writes about very ordinary blue-collar types, in a way that can be read as social commentary, whether it was intended as such or not. There are other authors who may be remembered, as much for their impact on the field as on their works (J.K. Rowling for the YA boom, George R.R. Martin for being the most famous epic fantasist since Tolkien, etc), but I don’t expect their work to be read much outside of specialized circles a hundred years from now. They’re probably the Christopher Marlowes of our era, doing some pioneering work, but generally only read by people who are exploring that genre in greater depth.
I’m curious whether other people agree with my assessment, though. Are there other authors you think are more likely to be remembered in the long term? If so, who and why?