Do authors have shelf lives?

gwyn thomas

past his sell by date? Gwyn Thomas

You know how food packaging includes a ‘Best Before’ date that tells us just how long the item will live in the cupboard before it’s past its best.? If you’re house is anything like mine, we often find tins and packets buried at the back of the cupboard that look perfectly fine even if they are two years out of date. Sometimes I’m tempted to open them just to see if the contents have deteriorated.

Last year I started to think that certain authors appear to have a shelf life too. For some like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, their shelf life runs for several centuries while for others like C P Snow (remember his Strangers and Brothers series?) or even the Booker prize winners, Stanley Middleton and David Storey, it could be a few decades before the book gradually gets pushed to the back of the book store shelves before being relegated to the bin end sale or relegated to the basement at the library. Some of them may get rescued and the

C. P. Snow: yesterday's man?

C. P. Snow: yesterday’s man?

author rediscovered (which seems to have been the case with Elizabeth Taylor) but others seem destined to disappear from our memory.

What promoted this was a book club discussion on a title I’d chosen, The Alone to the Alone, by the Welsh author Gwyn Thomas. It was published in 1947 by an author who went on to become a household name in the UK as a regular chat show participant and broadcaster.  If I tell you that this was the man chosen by the BBC to write and broadcast a eulogy to those killed in one of the UK’s worst mining disasters in 1966, you’ll get a sense of his status.

His written work was widely applauded for its lyrical qualities and acerbic wit. the book club enjoyed The Alone to the Alone yet decided it was very much ‘a book of its time’. In other words, it would have resonated more for readers at the time of its publication in 1947 than it does for today’s readers. Since his other novels are in a similar vein, the group’s assessment probably goes for his body of work as a whole.

Why that should be the case, we were not sure. Thomas wrote about life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Why would this not resonate today yet Dickens’s novel about the poor social conditions of London in the 1840s (Dombey and Son) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850s exposure of the appalling conditions of mill workers in northern England continue to get our attention?  Why are the latter considered literary classics and yet you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of Thomas novel in any leading bookshop (not even in the capital of Wales).  We had no answer except to pose another question:  what makes a book a classic?  We had even less of a clear answer to that question and even suspected that it’s a question to which there is no clear cut answer, just theories.


If you’re interested in hearing Gwyn Thomas’s eulogy, its available at the BBC site via this link


About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 11, 2015, in Sunday Salon and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. One of the issues is that less popular authors find their books are no longer printed. There was a book chain in the UK that had a printing machine in the store so you could print your own edition of an out of print book. Im not sure what happened to that concept but it was certainly interesting

  2. I don’t think they should have shelf lives, though from a selling stand-point in a store, yes. As a reader, and lover of literature, I want to be able to read who I want, when I want. I’d be sad if I couldn’t get a John Steinbeck book anytime. Some authors are timeless. He is just one of many.

  3. What a marvelous book group discussion that must have been! Some authors do have shelf lives. Some just go out of circulation for a little while before becoming popular again. Some are always popular. I think if you could discover what makes Dickens so long lasting, you would be hailed as a genius and make lots of money! 🙂

  4. I wonder sometimes if it’s just someone’s luck, whether their work “keeps on” or not. I’m not sure that there’s necessarily any clear differences that can be pointed to either way.

  5. When I read the title of your post, I imagined my books’ life on the shelf. I like to see which books are neighbours on the shelf and wonder what kind of discussion the two writers would have with each other. 🙂

    It’s hard to say which book will reach immortality, isn’t it? That’s what a classic is: an immortal book.

  6. Literary fashion can be as fickle as the sartorial kind. Barbara Pym couldn’t get anything published between 1963-1977 on the basis she was ‘old fashioned’. Then Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin named her as the most underrated writer of the 20th century in a TLS article in 1977. Then funnily enough a publisher decided she wasn’t so old fashioned after all. Quartet in Autumn came out that year and was short listed for the Booker!

    • Thats a wonderful example Vicky of how someone who is an esteemed expert decides to resurrect an author and convince others that he/she is worth re-visiting. Pym more or less disappeared but then when she returned I think she wrote some of her best work didn’t she?

  7. I was just thinking about this today. I found an old printout of an online “One Book” List, from the early 90’s. People online were asked to name the one book read that most influenced their lives. As I was transcribing the list into a Google doc, I was thinking about authors who are no longer read.

    • I love that idea (just been reading your post on this and sent in my suggestions). Your comment about wanting to read books that can be re-read is a thought I also had today. I was thinking what books would I want to start putting aside for the time when I might have to downsize to a home where I won’t have space for hundreds of books or when my income will be lower than today so I’ll rely more on my shelves.

  8. I enjoyed the ideas you expressed in this post. It brought to mind Vincent Cronin , in particular his The Last Migration from the 1950s. I recently re-read it and though the subject matter was still historically interesting given all the changes in the Middle East in the intervening years, I didn’t find his writing style as compelling as I originally did. But I still think this is a worth while book and shouldn’t disappear.

    • That’s a name that I don’t recognise at all. Non fiction work is probably even more subject to being out of date as research finds new insights on the subject. But some of them are still ‘classics’ – for me there is a book by G. R Elton called England Under the Tudors. it was written in 1955 and has probably been dismissed by the revisionists but I still find it far more insightful than some more recent works on the subject.

      • Sometimes I think I am the only person who has read this book. It tells the story of a large nomadic tribe in Persia who are taking their herds into the mountains for the summer for the last time in the 1950s as they are being forced to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle in the towns. Actually Vincent Cronin is the son of A.J.Cronin who wrote The Green Years, The Keys of the Kingdom etc.

  9. Interesting questions! There must be something that taps into a timelessness in classics that doesn’t happen in books that seem dated. But I’m not sure how to put my finger on what that is.

  10. Very much so also fashions change Angus Wilson be another example for me

  11. I often used the word “dated” when I came across works that once seemed hot and relevant and presently speak to very few. There are also those books that ebb and then get rediscovered and are suddenly relevant again. I do think it’s nearly impossible to see what great books of one’s own time will become classics. We live so much in our own era, we get blinders on. Often we are blindest about those works of art that are somewhat recent — just passe. I think much of this works in waves.

    • I would find it impossible to predict whose work will still be read fifty years from now let alone a hundred years or more. Even highly rated authors are not broadly read – I was listening to an item on radio yesterday where the speaker used to work in a bookshop and he said the one author whose works you could guarantee would never be purchased was Iris Murdoch. Is it because she’s considered ‘difficult”?

  12. Great questions to ponder….and for every great book, there are lesser known books that touch our souls.


  13. And for every Elizabeth Taylor, how many other authors are there considered “of their time” and therefore best consigned to never be republished? I suspect we’ll never know the true number as, by definition, they never get republished…….

    And those writers who have been republished by Virago, Persephone etc…I wonder what their critics and sales are like compared to initial release (bearing in mind the change in marketing etc)? How many of those are considered “classics”? (I wouldnt have read a Dorothy Whipple without Persephone, I know that)

    • Without Virago and Persephone we wouldn’t be aware of a lot of writers for sure. Would Willa Cather, Nina Bawden or R. F Delafeld be as visible as they are as a consequence? It would be fascinating to look at the comparative sales as you suggest Nordie.

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