For a couple of days now, Katha Pollitt’s obit/remembrance of Christopher Hitchens has been making the rounds to near-universal adulation. For good reasons; the piece is well worth a read, especially as it highlights aspects of Hitchens’ writing and personality that few have seen fit to focus on (especially not by his drinking buddies, whose cliche-ridden remembrances will be chuckled over by many for years to come).
But toward the end of the article, Pollitt throws in the following:
Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.
Pollitt seems to be trying to establish the following thesis (roughly): Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. I disagree. (Notice, incidentally, that Pollitt has thrown “essayists” into a group that includes “columnists” and “book reviewers”; I do agree that “columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work. I’m also aware that “non-fiction” is too broad a category in my purported thesis above but I think it is clear what Pollitt and I are aiming at.)
The simplest way to refute Pollitt’s assertion is to dredge up examples of essayists whose place in posterity is secure without their being famous through the fiction they wrote: Michel Montaigne, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Susan Sontag, Jacques Barzun; the list goes on. (Standard caveat: to really settle this dispute check back in a couple of hundred years). We can disagree plentifully about how well posterity is treating every single member on the list we would generate, and about its definitive membership, but when the smoke would clear, we would still list many essayists to whom posterity has been “kind” without requiring that they have written a best-selling novel or two. Indeed, in some cases, it would be clear their literary fame has been achieved not because of the fiction they wrote but in spite of it (I think this is especially true of Sontag, whose fiction I simply could not stand).
But there is another problem in Pollitt’s assertion given its reliance on the case of Orwell. Would Orwell simply have slipped into obscurity had he not written those “indelible” novels? Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out. And popularity in that genre can have the salutary effect of attracting a broader readership to the rest of a writer’s corpus. And yes, Orwell’s writings became famous only after he wrote his best-selling novels (I’m inclined to think that 1984, incidentally, is a not-very-good novel whose fame was ensured by a particular set of historical contingencies). But is a large readership what Pollitt means by being treated kindly by posterity? Or would posterity still be kind to a writer if critical acclaim for the writer’s non-fiction corpus were to endure through the ages? If the latter, then since Pollitt is trading in hypotheticals, let me do so too. I think anyone that wrote Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Decline of the English Murder, How the Poor Die, Shooting An Elephant, Why I Write, or Politics and The English Language would have found enduring critical, even if not popular, fame.
Lastly, slipping a mention of Orwell into a remembrance of Hitchens shows that Pollitt has succumbed to the temptation to lump the two together. Please. Cease and Desist.