Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spokesmen for their generations

"A book in its moment has romance. The book business is a romance business. Sometimes the dealer tries to build the romance, but in general, for the right books, it's already there."
George Minkoff, bookseller, quoted in Used and Rare

Some writers continue to be read and admired long after their deaths, while most others simply disappear from view. No one reads them, no one writes about them and, after enough time passes, no one remembers them. But why is this so? I have always assumed it was just a matter of cream eventually rising to the top. Just as scholars are able to examine political figures more objectively after the passage of time, perhaps the same is true of literary figures. Thus some writers grow in stature as the years pass, while lesser ones fade from the scene. But maybe that is not the whole story.

George Minkoff, one of the rare book dealers Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, the authors of Used and Rare, encounter on their travels, poses an interesting theory to them. He suggests the literary world, without necessarily even thinking about it, chooses a spokesman for particular times and places. "Spokesmen have been chosen for their generations," Minkoff said. "Steinbeck for the depression, Hemingway for the great expatriate era, Faulkner for the South after The Birth of the Nation... and that's who everybody reads ... and who everybody wants to buy."

The writer who best represents a particular niche in history is most likely to be remembered or at least gets the most attention, goes this theory. Thus, although people may still read Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and a few others, it is Charles Dickens who most of us first think of as best representing Victorian England.

If all this is true, we are left to wonder which writer of those living today will be the spokesman for this generation. Which book, of all those published within the past few years, is the book of the moment? Which one has romance? Which will be remembered long after the others have been forgotten?

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