Many assume that having a novel published is a guarantee of immortality, that your work will live on long after you have departed, being perpetually reborn in the minds of successive future generations of readers. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most authors. Even if you are lucky enough to come up with something a sensible number of people will want to read upon publication, chances are your work will slip into obscurity pretty quickly. A perusal of the bestseller lists of decades past, as critic Anthony Lane once did with a chart from 1945, will no doubt have you asking the question, ‘who?’ We remember Ayn Rand and C.S. Forester, but Adria Locke Langley? Number One in 1945, but amassing only a measly four reviews on Goodreads now. The sad fact is, most novels don’t become classics. What they become are Lost Books. And the nature of these Lost Books is something I became unexpectedly fascinated by a couple of years ago.
It all began when I gained access to a large warehouse on an industrial estate somewhere near the South-East coast. What I was doing there isn’t important. Actually it is important, but I’m bound by a confidentiality agreement so I can’t tell you about it. Anyway, to explain the nature of this warehouse, I must first pose this question. Have you noticed how the range of books on sale in charity shops has been getting less interesting in recent years? Whereas before, you would be presented with a selection of whatever had been found in the home of someone’s sadly deceased relative, very often western and war novels smelling strongly of pipe smoke, these days you’re more likely to find near-mint copies of teen vampire sagas and the latest Costa Prize winner. Charity shops have got wise to what is best to sell, much to the chagrin of the second-hand book dealer round the corner.
So what now happens to the deceased relative’s collection of tobacco-stained westerns from 1972? The answer is many of them end up at this warehouse, where they are processed at ridiculous speed by Xbox-trained teenagers. A computer algorithm decides whether the books can likely be sold online. If not, as is the case for about 80% of them, they get thrown in a skip and get carted off to be recycled as trees or something.
Flicking through the piles of soon-to-be-destroyed books, something odd happened. It was as if some of them, notably those marked by some quirk of title, subject or incongruously pornographic cover art, were calling out to me. ‘Save us,’ they seemed to cry, ‘we don’t want to die.’ And so I rescued them, book after book, and did the only sane thing one could do in the circumstances – obsessively document them on a blog I called the Lost Book Library.
The blog was a moderate hit (more than one person read it), but soon it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough simply to scan in the front cover and slightly take the piss out of the blurb on the back. For the project to really add up to something, I had to at least attempt to read the damn things. Many of them, however, turned out to be utterly unreadable, and were despatched to the darkest corner of the Lost Book Library with haste. Others had something going for them, but not enough to warrant a full reading. Some, though, were worth following all the way to the end. Although I didn’t find a lost classic, I certainly found some minor gems that are still worth people’s time.
Along the way I came up with the theory of literary half-life. This is the idea that the interest any book has for a reader, give or take the odd blip, is always decaying. Some book’s rate of decay, however, is so slow, that its ability to interest will most likely outlast the human race itself (The Odyssey, for instance). Other books’ rate of decay is so fast, on the other hand, that they are of no interest at all to anybody within months or even weeks of publication. Sometimes a false sense of longevity can be established before a sudden drop. Some Lost Books managed a more consistent publishing history than works by authors such as Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch, before all awareness of them was seemingly wiped from the human race’s collective memory. Anyway, I have no idea if this theory of literary half-life has any scientific validity, but I am willing to accept a substantial grant in order to find out.
I also discovered that after reading a number of Lost Books, patterns began to form. Whatever their merits, these books also possessed qualities that novels now considered classics don’t. By studying Lost Books then, it is possible to work out what to avoid if you want to not only be published, but stay in print. And it is this that I shall be covering in Part 2.