There have been quite a few articles recently which have extolled once again the remarkable discernment of the mysterious spirit, posterity, when it comes to questions of literary worthiness (for instance, here is DJ Taylor today in The Guardian, who ironically attributes this observation to that once much lauded but now wholly overlooked literary titan, Martin Amis); but nobody, it seems, really knows much about this character or how he operates; – they are only certain that human-beings themselves, whether singly or in a mass, are incapable of literary judgement. For this is what the statement boils down to, an abnegation of responsibility or capacity on the part of mankind; an acknowledgement that, in reading a text, it is impossible to determine its worth unless that worth has already been predetermined by some external force, at which point it oddly becomes clearly recognisable. With writers still alive people will inevitably be swayed by fashion or reputation: any enjoyment one senses reading a book will not have come from the author’s vision of life or use of language, not even his plot or the human emotions he had inspired in you – these are just things you imagine, utter delusions; – it comes instead, like all your opinions, from your fundamental weakness of will in respect to the world surrounding you. You may read a new book one day and then the next a book already noted by posterity, and you may feel that they are both great – and that indeed they are both great because they share in precisely the same qualities of greatness – but this is not the case: no matter how difficult it is for you to accept, your judgement is only correct in the case of the latter; the former’s greatness is as yet undeterminable. There is literally not an argument you could put forward to justify your opinion. To take an example: if Borges – or even Bustos Domecq – were to read Cervantes’ Don Quixote and then to read Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote, he would be able only to recognise the greatness of Cervantes; of Pierre Menard’s work he could form no judgement whatever.
A confession, however, is in order. All this while I have been masquerading as Obooki, but the truth is that I am in fact this mysterious being, posterity. Not me alone, it has to be said; there are others. We are rather like a Portuguese Man of War, an entity created out of other entities, all feeding symbiotically off one another. The strangest thing perhaps is that we do not even have the same literary opinions; we do not need to; so long as some of us like a writer, that is enough. We are the mediums, the spiritualists, the outcasts who spend our lives communing with the dead. We have no worldly ties; fashion does not find us. We live in musty rooms full of old books, in garrets. When we search through bookshops, we are looking precisely for the writers we’ve never heard of. We are all of us Poggios, scouring our modern monasteries for the texts that have been lost to time. Isms mean nothing to us, for ours is a time-frame of millenia, in which nothing ever changes. On our own we are no one; but collectively we are those who have carried and cared for literature through the ages, and for the sake of this we have come to feel it our own rightful possession. Let them say every day X or Y’s new book is a masterpiece, or discuss Z’s genius; let them discuss the death of the novel and award their prizes – it has no bearing on literature itself; it does not even touch our world.
But if you want a clue from posterity as to which writers will survive, let me say this: it is clearer than you think. We are talking only of the very greatest writers here – for there will come a time when each millenium will only be marked by a few writers, as today each century is (save, as always, our own remarkable times) – but it is a curious case: almost always those writers who survive were those writers who were revered for their greatness in their own lifetimes. The obscure and misunderstood genius is a fabrication of these last few centuries. And let’s face it, today no one is revered and they will all go by the wayside.
Another few pointers:
- Is it as good as Shakespeare [insert your own national writer here]? – Because if it’s not, it’ll probably be forgotten.
- Use of language will win out over any other criterion, because that’s what really interests us
And if you’d read this carefully enough, you’ll realise there’s no point ever questioning my literary opinion either; because the truth is your own opinion is immaterial – even when it’s right.