Lasting Fame and the Span of Time in the Universe

This New Yorker article looks at what makes a popular novel lasting and what makes famous writers fade into obscurity. If readers polled in 1929 couldn’t pick out who would be the leaders of the literary cannon in one hundred years, could contemporary readers do any better?

My question: does it matter?

We all think about fame and glory. My imaginings even veer into talents I don’t have. (Why yes, I will accept that Academy Award! And how awesome will it be when I will a gold medal in marathon running?) But I’m also reminded of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which Mr. Ramsay thinks about how fleeting fame is:

“It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still.”

I’m a big Woolf fan, and that part of To the Lighthouse has really stayed with me. Even famous writers who have seemed to withstand the test of time–Shakespeare, Chaucer, Sophocles–are blips when you think about the span of time of the planet or the universe. Even if people read your stories for thousands of years, that’s nothing to the span of time.

So why stress about who’s going to be popular or considered a genius in a thousand years, or even a hundred years? Shouldn’t the people who are reading your stories now matter more than the people who might be reading them in a thousand years? I think it’s more important to focus on the readers who are currently moved by your work–even if it’s just one person and that one person is your mom/spouse/best friend.

Again, I’m going to keep imagining accepting my Academy Award/gold medal/Nobel Prize. But I also think it’s good to focus on the readers you want to connect with now. If people read your books in a hundred years, that’s awesome. Just remember that lasting fame is meaningless. Even Shakespeare’s a blip.