Word for Word: Some books need time to succeed

Mia Farrow, as Daisy Buchanan, and Robert Redford, as Jay Gatsby,  in a scene from The Great Gatsby, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925 but did not assume classic status till the 1940s.

Mia Farrow, as Daisy Buchanan, and Robert Redford, as Jay Gatsby, in a scene from The Great Gatsby, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, published in 1925 but did not assume classic status till the 1940s.

Sat, Feb 15, 2014, 01:00

Publishing is a cruel game, one that is relentlessly focused on the new. All publishers have a front list of titles, generally the books published in the preceding six to 12 months and the forthcoming three to six months. On these few titles we lavish marketing, attention and praise. It’s also where we hang our hopes and sales targets.

Success tends to be determined quite rapidly. Most bookshops can (and do) return stock of unsold books from three months after they have arrived in the bookshop; a title that has not done well can find itself shipped back to the warehouse after only a few weeks on display. Succeeding after initial failure can be hard.

Quite often books don’t find their level on release. Sometimes they struggle to attract reviewers’ attention or to break beyond a small group of readers; sometimes they never do.

Yet the literary canon can accommodate even titles that have failed to achieve greatness in the first incarnation. Moby-Dick wasn’t considered a classic on release. It was only many years after Herman Melville died that the book began its climb towards the status of Great American Novel. The Great Gatsby , although continuously in print from when it was first published, in 1925, really didn’t begin to acquire its awesome literary stature until the 1940s, after F Scott Fitzgerald had died.

The most remarkable recent example of this phenomenon is John Williams’s Stoner . A novel that went out of print almost as soon as it was published, back in 1965, it was quietly revived in 2006 with an introduction by John McGahern. It really burst onto the scene in 2013, when it was even named Waterstones’ book of the year. Sadly, Williams died in 1994, long before the revival of his novel.

There’s no way to explain why such novels failed to gain attention on release, nor why they gained their reputations over later years. Perhaps it’s as simple as time helping more people to see the quality of certain books. Maybe it’s just as random as instant success often appears to be.

Whatever the reason, it’s a nice notion as a publisher to think that great books I’ve published that might not have done as well as I hoped could one day be plucked from obscurity and go on to their deserved success.

It makes you wonder too what novels that languish now in bargain bins and on warehouse shelves will be hailed as works of genius in 30 years.

Eoin Purcell, commissioning editor at New Island Books, blogs at eoinpurcellsblog.com

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