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Creations that Last

Creations that Last

by William H. Benson

September 7, 2017

     Isaac Asimov wrote 515 books over 75 years, until his passing in 1992. He wrote mainly science fiction, but he also wrote plenty of non-fiction books: on physics, chemistry, biology, and literature. People still buy and read his books today, a trend that will, most likely, extend far into the future.

     Cotton Mather, the Puritan clergyman in colonial Boston, wrote 437 books, mainly of a religious nature. Almost no one today reads any of Mather’s books, a trend that will, most likely, continue.

     One of Mather’s biographers said, “There is nothing in the enormous works of Cotton Mather that the world really treasures. There is nothing like Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, or Jonathon Edwards’s relentless sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

     What determines a book’s fate, whether it lives forever or dies in a few weeks?

     Cyril Connelly, a twentieth-century author, asked that question in his 1948 book, Enemies of Promise. He wanted to write a book that would remain in publication for at least ten years. He achieved that goal, and then some. Publishers still print it today, and readers still buy it, 69 years later.

     The modern-day author, Ryan Holiday, said that, “Cyril Connelly made something that stood the test of time. The book has outlived him and almost everything else published around the same time.” The subject of Enemies of Promise is literary criticism, not an exciting subject. Connelly evaluated the novelists who wrote during the first half of the twentieth-century, and he noted certain things.

     He said, “Contemporary books do not keep. The quality in them which makes for their success is the first to go; they turn over night. Therefore one must look for some quality which improves with time.” He noted that many books “become best-sellers and then flop.”

     He said, “A great writer creates a world of his own and his readers are proud to live in it. A lesser writer may entice them in for a moment, but soon he will watch them filing out.”

     This year Ryan Holiday published his newest book, Perennial Seller, and in it he extends the quest for longevity into other arenas: into plays, scripts, movies, television, songs, apps, and even restaurants. What, he wonders, determines whether any creative work lives for ten years or dies in ten weeks?

     For example, Holiday tells of Stephen King’s short story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. A film director named Frank Darabont converted that story into a 1994 film, starring Timothy Robbins and Morgan Freeman. At the box office it was a disappointment, and never made much money, but then audiences began to watch it on television.

     Holiday says, “There are minor actors in that movie, Shawshank Redemption, who receive $800-plus checks every month in residuals. Turn on your television this weekend, and you will probably find the movie playing somewhere on some channel.” It is worth watching, if you like prison escapes.

     In a strange turnabout, the Nobel Prize committee awarded Bob Dylan the 2016 prize for Literature for the lyrics to his songs, and he was a 1960’s contemporary of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Holiday says, “Dylan’s music holds true and has ‘transcended his time.’”

     Holiday’s favorite heavy metal band is “Iron Maiden.” Their songs receive very “little radio airplay, but they have sold more than 85 million albums over a four-decade-long career. They are one of the highest-earning acts in the world, and they travel from sold-out stadium to sold-out stadium in a Boeing 757 piloted by the lead singer,” Bruce Dickinson.

     Unknown to most, except to their fans, “Iron Maiden” has enjoyed success for forty years, an incredible statistic in a business that washes out most bands in less than five years. Lady Gaga says, “When people say to me that I am the next Madonna, I reply, ‘No, I’m the next Iron Maiden.’”

     According to Holiday, creativity at this level requires two things: a superb over-the-top product, and a decades-long marketing plan. Creating anything worthwhile, with lasting potential—a book, a movie, a song, a heavy metal concert, a business—is hard work. The creator cannot short its content.

     George Orwell, in his essay, “Why I Write,” said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

     Cyril Connelly said, “We cannot think if we have no time to read, nor feel if we are emotionally exhausted, nor out of cheap material create what is permanent. We cannot co-ordinate what is not there.”

     I know I am unusual, but I appreciate colonial American history as much, or even more, than science fiction. I estimate that I have read equal amounts of both Isaac Asimov and Cotton Mather, but nowhere near all, or even a fraction, of their books.