Not long ago, I received an email from a writer whose book I’d rated as 3 stars on Amazon. She complained that my ranking was too low and countered with the opinion of someone I did not know but whose reputation she considered to be greater than mine. He said her novel was a masterpiece, similar to the work of Jacqueline Susann. I’m sorry but I laughed out loud. Few, I suspect, including Susann, would rank her works as literature. She wrote popular books that sold. She may have smiled all the way to the bank, but I’ll bet she knew the difference between chick-lit and literature.
What brought these thoughts to mind was an article that appeared in the August edition of The New Republic. (“The Aesthete and the Apocalypse,” by Adam Kirsch, 8/12/14 pgs. 40-45.) In his article, writer Adam Kirsch compared the lives of two authors, Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin. Both were German authors born in the late 1180s and the works of both are currently enjoying a revival. Of the two, Zweig was the most successful in his day, a popularity which surprised him and made him quick to point out that his novels paled compared to those of Thomas Mann, Balzac and others. (Ibid pg. 42) Benjamin, on the other hand, attracted little public attention while he lived, though he was wildly accepted by the elites who, with equal ardor, reviled Zweig. Ironically, both men’s lives came to a similar end. They died by their own hand, despairing of Hitler’s rise to power.
Time, the final arbiter of what is great art, has been kind to Benjamin whose reputations continues to grow, eclipsing Zweig’s. Still, being dead, I doubt the latter minds much. But Kirsch’s account of the two men does give rise another question. Call it the Susann/Austen dilemma. Is it better to be honored in one’s own time or to win laurels posthumously?
I’m inclined to go for the gold while I’m alive to spend it, but I suspect the answer doesn’t really matter. The gold lies in the creative process. Readers who stumble upon me are welcome to my table with open arms. But if I sit alone, so be it.