Non-Performance Art, Centenarian Books, and the Survivors of 1914

Over on tor.com, there's a post about the Future Library "art project".  Scottish artist Katie Paterson plans to 1) plant 1,000 trees in Oslo, Norway, then 2) commission 100 stories from 100 writers, one per year over the next century, and not publish them until 3) in the year 2114, harvest those 1,000 trees and turn them into paper on which to finally print the 100 stories.  Margaret Atwood has signed on to write the first story. 

I suggested in comments that this  could be considered "non-performance art".

I figure that if I want to think about having to wait years and years and years to see a story published, I can get pretty much the same feeling just by looking at the submission-tracking spreadsheet for my own fiction. So I have a hard time taking Ms. Paterson's idea seriously.

I can't help wondering, considering the "Scottish artist" label, whether this might be yet another Scottish invention -- like golf, bagpipes, and haggis -- meant to cement Scotland's reputation as the world's greatest and most evil practical jokers.

Other commenters raised the question of whether writers of 2014 would still have a viable reputation after a century's passage of time. Commenter StrongDreams suggested comparing popular writers of a century ago, from 1914, to see how many have survived the passage  of time and would still be considered publication-worthy.

That sounded like a good idea. Googling ensued.

via Wikipedia, bestsellers of 1914:

The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
The Salamander by Owen Johnson
The Fortunate Youth by William J. Locke
T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Penrod by Booth Tarkington
Diane of the Green Van by Leona Dalrymple
The Devil's Garden by W. B. Maxwell
The Prince of Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon

Most of these writers would be unrecognized by much of today's audience, and even the recognizable names aren't represented here by their best work, with the possible exception of Tarkington's Penrod.

Blogger Linda Aragoni has recently reviewed all the 1914 bestsellers on her Great Penformances blog, a site dedicated to reviewing vintage books..

More pertinent might be this list from Goodreads for the 200 "Most Popular Books From 1914". The selection criteria is how many people have added a 1914 title to Goodreads, ranging from over 100,000 for James Joyce' Dubliners, to 23 for The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army by George Leonard Cheesman. (The Goodreads list mixes fiction and non-fiction.) 

Writers familiar to the SF/F/H community on the Goodreads list include Frank L. Baum, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lord Dunsany, George Allan England, H. Rider Haggard, Franz Kafka, Arthur Machen, A.A. Milne, Sax Rohmer, Bram Stoker, and H.G. Wells.  A lot of that familiarity is because of their historical importance; stylistically, I suspect most wouldn't be able to sell original fiction in today's world.

I don't really see much point in the Future Library project.  Whatever Atwood writes will probably be better appreciated and more widely read if published today than by seeing print, finally, a hundred years in the future. The same applies, to a decreasing degree, to future writers commissioned for the project. Only the last, oh, dozen or so writers contributing to the project, from about 2099 on, will be writing in a style and about a society that won't be considered antiquated, quaint or obsolete by 2114. It strikes me as a "stunt" project, not a literary project.

1 comment:

D Gary Grady said...

Minor quibble: "Frank L Baum" should probably be "L Frank Baum"