An Author’s “Legacy”

My (now late) uncle’s birthday was yesterday. Remembering that, I pulled one of his novels off the shelf and re-read a chapter. It was like he was standing in the room with me again, shaking his head in disagreement when I told him it was great: “Nephew, look, it’s okay. I think I could have written it better. Anyway, it’s not too bad for someone who can’t f-cking spell. Thank god for editors…” [He wrote using a typewriter, until he got a PC in the mid-1990s.]

A crime/police novelist, he was never afraid of taking chances as a writer; in fact, his main character in that one I re-read some pages of was a woman police captain – and it got good reviews at the time – when real-life women captains were not nearly as usual as today. He said lots over the years too in interviews on television, radio, and in print, but those are all now in archives gathering dust. It is his books that are his main legacy as a writer – particularly to those who never knew him in person.

[Uncle’s books. Photograph by me, February 28, 2023.]

He was long-time friends with Robert Stone, a respected novelist of the 1970s-2000s, and who (like my uncle) died in 2015 (months before my uncle). I encountered many of my uncle’s writing friends (and sorta friends) especially in the 1990s. (He was always putting up visiting author pals; it was rare to catch him home by himself.) However, I don’t recall having ever met Stone – although I might have and simply (like an idiot) don’t remember meeting him. I do remember my uncle pushing me several times shortly after it was published to read Stone’s Damascus Gate (1998), but (having due to his urgings read the blurbs and some – newspaper professional – reviews and thinking it may not have been really my thing) I always found an excuse not to, and so never did. I am thinking, though, maybe I will get a Kindle copy at last.

What they wrote mattered to my uncle and it seemed to me to all his authoring friends like Stone. Their writing was, in many respects, a major part of who they were. Definitely they hoped their writing would outlast them.

I mention that also because in thinking about his “legacy” (those in that pic above are not even all his books; I don’t have copies of them all), I recalled reading the other day of how the BBC recently told us of an author of late-20th century/early 21st century children’s books who had in a podcast sought to better explain her outspokenness on a certain social issue and its possible impact on her “legacy”:

…Referring to fans who claim she has “ruined” her legacy, the writer said they “could not have misunderstood me more profoundly”.

“I do not walk around my house thinking about my legacy,” she continued. 

“What a pompous way to live your life, walking around thinking, what will my legacy be? Whatever, I’ll be dead. I care about now. I care about the living.”…

I hold no opinion either way about her as an author. I have never read any of her books. (I tried to read her first about 20 years ago, but that sort of a book had not interested me when I had been a kid and it still did not interest me as an adult, and I got through only a few pages before I put it down.) So I am aware of her only as the “public figure” she has become due to especially the huge sales of her children’s books and their film adaptations.

[Openverse image. Public domain.]

Curiously, having stated the above, she adds this in that same interview:

“What I’ve tried to show in the Potter books, and what I feel strongly myself, is that we should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain.”

So she says there that she had written those books aiming to “teach” readers something(s) she felt/feels “strongly” about. (Although in saying that, she does not seem to appreciate that her clearly strong and “certain” feelings on that social issue would appear at odds with what she just said there of mistrusting ourselves most when we are certain.) That being so, it is worth recalling that teaching is fundamentally about passing on new thinking so that those often younger than ourselves may pick up the baton after our life ends and then continue the teaching process. (Having briefly in the 1990s been a teacher, presumably she knows that.) Caring about what we while still living may leave behind for the next generation so it may then build upon that knowledge further, is how humanity moved from writing on cave walls to there now being books on the Kindle.

In short, while she may claim she does not walk around her house thinking about her “legacy” (Uh, let’s be honest, who really does that?), anyone who wishes to “teach” anyone anything, is, by definition, thinking at least unconsciously of their “legacy.”

Yet in dismissing her legacy as unimportant (because she will be dead), and given those wizardry children’s books are her legacy, she perhaps unwittingly reveals there that those books are actually ultimately unimportant to her. Regardless of one’s opinion of her stance on that social issue, if I were one of her avid readers of those books I would feel badly let down by that. After all, if she does not care about her books’ legacy, it begs the question of why anyone ought to buy them and allow her to try to “teach” them anything?

[From Twitter.]

Those unhappy about an author for some reason were once restricted largely to writing irate letters to a publisher (and the author might never even see them), but today thanks to social media readers of course often can easily reach the author directly. Occasionally due to that same social media, we may now publicly also learn more about that author’s (once probably largely unknown to us) attitude and personality than we would have from merely reading their books; and the consequences of that for the author may, naturally, either be good or bad. From the above, I think she reveals to us (and I did not grasp this about her previously) a smugness and conceit about her massive success, a willingness to taunt those who criticize her (when she could have simply ignored that tweet and allowed her “fans” to defend her themselves, which I am sure they did in droves), and that she also seems to think she is “above it all” by now and essentially untouchable by criticism (because, no matter what, the royalty payments keep flowing in).

I suppose given her huge success that anyone could develop a massively over-inflated ego. Probably the royalties in her case will never stop, yet I cannot help but recall previously successful authors who just a few years after having also been on “top of the world” abruptly found not nearly as many cared about anything they wrote. (One example, F. Scott Fitzgerald.) It is hard also to believe that back in the early 1990s, when she was a much-rejected unpublished wannabe author, that she would have imagined eventually holding the same disdainful opinion for her as of then non-existent legacy when she was struggling to find a publisher for her first book.

[A reader’s social media comment elsewhere. Screen captured by me.]

Such will be part of my “legacy” (such as it may be). I hope I still have more to say in newer books to come (and I think I do). Above all, I care about all that I write and hope that whatever I wrote is after I’m gone still worth reading – for at least a little while.

Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂

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