Of the 1800-odd poems that Emily Dickinson penned, only ten made it into print. Melville died in obscurity in 1891, forty years after the publication of Moby Dick which tanked his career; people thought he'd died decades before the actual fact. Whitman enjoyed a degree of popular attention while he was alive, but he was largely ignored by critics. And when Kafka passed in 1924 only a handful of his stories had seen the printed page. He was for all intents and purposes unheard of by all but a small, Jewish readership in Prague and Berlin.
For African-America authors, the situation was even more extreme. It wasn't until 1973 that Harriot Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was recognized and reprinted, after its debut in 1861. More extreme still was the announcement by Henry Louis Gates in 2001 of the discovery of Hannah Crafts' 301-page novel, then untitled, the first known among Black writers, which was composed in the 1850s. There was the late resurgence of interest in Nella Larson's Quicksand and Passing, long after she'd passed, and the same goes for Zora Neale Hurston's oeuvre, including of course Their Eyes Were Watching God, which resurged in the 1970s and 80s.
It's become a cliché since the publishing industry came into its own in the nineteenth century, a truism hyped by a slew of cheesy Hollywood films about writers and painters both, namely that attention and notoriety attain mainly after death, if at all. Nowadays the situation is at least ostensibly different––there are any number of best-selling authors and opportunities for the hardly-selling––but I'd argue that even in the age of self-publishing we're still at square. It's a fact of the industry that a writer won't be published today unless both lively sales and critical acclaim are assured, before a book even drops, but will she or he still be around in a hundred years? Michael Crichton sold many millions of novels in his lifetime, 200 million to date, but will he still grab readers' attentions in the twenty-second century? Does that kind of popularity last?
If history is any guide, then no. Among the four mega-sellers of the nineteenth century were Maria Corelli, George du Maurier, and G. M. W. Reynolds, the farthest from household names. Dickens outpaced them all––he's the rare exception that's still "here"––but having said that he's discussed with a side-eye glance among academics; he's considered middle- and even low-brow among many, not worthy of serious critical scrutiny (I've never shared that attitude).
So what causes the phenomenon popular-today-gone-tomorrow and unknown-today- enduring-tomorrow? It's a simplification for sure, but there are enough examples to suggest there's a shred of truth to it. Shifts in race bias explain perhaps the change in fortunes among African-American authors before 1970, little consolation for the smart, creative, and accomplished authors who died largely unknown. In the case of Dickinson, she had a thing or two to say about the imperiousness of men, which might have played into the fact she suffered the publishing fate she did––too vocal too soon. The Eighties challenges to the literary canon, one composed largely of the works of DWEMs, Dead White European Males, finally opened the field to women and minority writers both.
How to explain, however, the obscurity of the white authors mentioned, including Melville, Whitman, and Kafka? Some argue that Melville made the dreaded mistake of turning from popular to philosophical themes––anyone who's read Typee and Moby Dick can attest to the shift. The latter is a sprawling, big-ideas novel about subjects that range from race, gender, sexuality, and animality to religion and politics, never mind the inhumanity of capitalism. The work was so far ahead of its time, my sense always was in teaching it, that we haven't caught up with it yet. Could the problem have something to do with the image of two men of different races and backgrounds cuddled in bed "as if married," as Ishmael puts it––could that have something to do with it? What's more, could the "Calamus" section of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in which he talks about intimate "adhesiveness" among men, have anything to do with the silence of the critics in his day? And could it possibly be antisemitism that kept Kafka's works from a broader reading public, despite the fact that for the most part the author went out of his way to avoid talking about his Jewish identity openly? Was it a failure of coded language or the fact that the writer's coded language was read loud and clear?
Fast forward to today, and many of the rules of author-obscurity still pertain––they're bound to, given the situation. It's true that the publishing industry has come a long way in what it will accept or entertain in print. But the fact that the big five publishers demand an audience in advance indicates that they're followers of popular tastes rather than trend-setters. Risk averse, they're peddlers of the known and familiar. That pertains among many indie presses as well, which purport to depart from the pecuniary interests of the Big Guns but in fact worry just as much about the bottom line. They speak a good game about soliciting risk-takers, but for too many their "stables" of writers peddle the same-old, same-old.
So few presses foreground writing over profit––I'm so fortunate in that regard––that published works constitute more an echo chamber than a ground for innovation and the new. In that way the culture acts as an anonymity machine, cranking out expected works but overlooking authors whose voices are surprising, daring, and revolutionary––all three of which amount to a reading challenge, which is precisely what the majority of readers prefer to sidestep. Such that when it comes to the anonymity machine it is they that shoulder the responsibility just as much as publishers. Given the stresses of contemporary life, it's understandable.