This week's Weekly Geeks was inspired by the fact that today is Agatha Christie's 120th birthday. The topic this week is very broad. They ask about Agatha Christie or other authors who have lasted.
First, I do have to talk about Agatha Christie. I haven't read too many of her books, and most of those have been listened to on tape. I really need to correct that because the ones I have read I have really enjoyed. That doesn't surprise me too much since she basically wrote cozy mysteries before there was a sub-genre. True, not all her detectives were ameatures, but she had minimal violence and language (probably partially because of her time) but instead focuses on a puzzle with a limited number of suspects and clues and red herrings scattered throughout so that the reader can find the solution, too.
But what is it that makes an author last over a long period of time?
One aspect of that is certainly popularity. If people don't like their books at some point in time, they will disappear and be forgotten in a very short amount of time. Notice I didn't say popular in their own time because some authors aren't really recognized until after their death.
But I think what makes an author last well beyond their time is something beyond that. They must speak to something that resonnates with their readers, and that something must be timeless. It goes beyond plot, although that is important. There must be something to make this story enjoyable, or people won't read it (see last paragraph). No, I'm talking about characters who are rich and real, who stay with you long after you've put the book down. And I'm talking about themes you can think about and chew on weeks later.
Do all authors who last have that? I'd argue they don't. Right now on a message board I'm part of, we're talking about Steinbeck and it seems like no one likes him. Some of the books that last seem to be forced on students today because they have become so much a part of our culture we need to know the references, but very few outside of English majors actually still love them.
And that does bring up one final thing that can make an author last - becoming part of the culture. We talk about a Jekyll and Hyde person, and everyone knows what we mean even if they haven't read the book. If you manage to make that much of an impression, you'll definitely be read long after you are gone.