A Long Stretch

Exactly 39 years ago today, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched; its twin, Voyager 2, had a 16-day head start. Each craft was built to last five years and return data only about Jupiter and Saturn. But incredibly, both of them continue to send useful data back to Earth.

Similarly, our words as authors will likely hang around long after they were written.

Most of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in Bedford county jail; the author John Bunyan having been arrested for his beliefs during the Great Persecution. Although published in 1678, it’s still in print more than 330 years later, longer than anyone of the time could have imagined. The language has changed in this time, of course, but I find 17th-Century English quite accessible with the aid of a few footnotes. That’s if you have time to read the 108,000 words.

John Bunyan
John Bunyan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there is never a guarantee of longevity. George W M Reynolds was a contemporary of Charles Dickens who outsold Dickens during his lifetime, but whose readership disappeared after his death. We simply don’t know why, or indeed why some authors capture the public’s imagination at all, or why some never do.

Probably the closest modern equivalent we have to either of these writers is Jeffrey Archer.

Like Bunyan, Jeffrey Archer wrote a lot of material while serving a four-year prison sentence for perjury. Like Reynolds, he sells a lot of books but is not generally regarded as a top author. My feeling is that the coin could land on either side for Archer: revered or forgotten.

In light of this, I used to wonder whether to make a particular story timeless, or set it in a definite year or decade. While a contemporary reference can make a piece seem dated, I also feel the reader will often take into account the era in which the story was written: the killer that’s caught by a fingerprint rather than a DNA sample, or the science-fiction prediction that’s now yesterday’s news.

On balance, I reckon it’s not worth worrying too much about whether or not a particular piece needs to be accessible to people of the future; after all, your audience is alive right now. If your words remain in print when you’re no longer around, that’s a bonus.