How do you assess an author’s lasting impact?
Forget the blurbs, they are less than worthless. Even the glowing reviews
will soon be forgotten. Awards are no better indicator—half of the writers
honored with the Nobel Prize in literature are forgotten and out-of-print
Here’s the truest test. Wait until ten years after their death, and see if
anyone still talks about their books.
You need a decade for the hype to dissipate, for the eulogies to fade from
readers’ memories. Class reading lists have now been updated. The old
book reviewers have been replaced. No publicist or agent is working the
room. The chatter at fashionable cocktail parties has moved on to other
books. Only a great author can still hold readers after a decade’s absence.
And what does this measure tell us? Well, Saul Bellow (died in 2005) has
clearly fallen from grace. Even a centenary celebration and publication of
the first volume of a major biography couldn’t hide the defensive tone of
Bellow’s advocates. When Bellow’s name is mentioned nowadays, it is as
often to dismiss or criticize as to praise. I question the fairness of this turn-
of-events—I rank Bellow as one of finest authors of his generation—but
can't deny that his reputation has taken a huge hit.
On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut (died 2007) will certainly survive the ten-
year-test. He is not only read and quoted, but is still treated as an iconic
figure of the counterculture. The same can certainly be said of David Foster
Wallace (died 2008), whose reputation and admirers seem to grow with
each passing year. I suspect that the tenth anniversary of his death will
serve more as a kind of canonization of a saint than a reevaluation of a writer.
In sharp contrast, Norman Mailer (died 2007) already seems like an old-
fashioned figure from the distant past, an author who may still garner some
recognition among the general public, but won’t find many readers under
the age of forty.
Which brings us to the sad case of John Fowles. We have now arrived at
the tenth anniversary of his death (on November 5, 2005). My local
bookstore has none of his novels in stock, and some of his classic works
are now out-of-print. He is, by my reckoning, one of the greatest writers of
the 20th century, but I fear that he is badly failing the ten-year test.
What a change from 1969, when John Fowles was at the top of the literary
world. His novel The French Lieutenant's Woman was already in its third
printing even before Fowles finished his publicity tour of the US. It would
stay on top of the bestseller list for more than a year. Fowles found himself
booked on back-to-back TV shows, basking in a degree of pop culture
fame that one could hardly imagine any novelist receiving nowadays, let
alone a middle-aged white British male educated at Oxford and fond of
postmodern narrative techniques.
Fowles's best works still dazzle. And they seem just as strange and
wondrous now as when they were published. When Fowles’s The Magus
arrived in bookstores almost exactly a half-century ago, its first readers
must have shaken their heads in amazement. How could you describe a
novel that was so different from every other book on the shelves? These
kinds of characters, situations and plot complication simply didn’t exist in
other tales—it was almost as if Fowles had mapped a hidden world that no
one had previously visited. But that’s still true today, and perhaps the most
impressive testimony to his achievement is that this author’s finest works
still defy categorization.
Take a look at his final novel, A Maggot—if you can find a copy, that is.
(This book is out-of-print except in digital form.) Try to determine what kind
of novel it is. After fifty pages, you will be convinced that it is a historical
novel about early 18th century Britain class relationships and moral
attitudes. But one hundred pages later, you will have changed your mind,
and believe you are reading a murder mystery. But soon after you will
suspect that A Maggot is actually a work of magical realism. But in another
hundred pages, you will start wondering whether John Fowles has really
written a science fiction novel set in 1736. But a short while later, you will
find that you are reading a work of religious fiction—or are you? Why would
John Fowles, atheist and free thinker, be taking you on just this particular
The whole book hold together marvelously, and you will be caught up both
by the postmodern techniques and the sheer bravado of the storytelling. But
you won’t be able to classify it, let alone provide a brief summary of its
contents. It is too rich and varied for synopsis. You must experience it
whole, or not at all.
The same kind of category-breaking vision informs The French Lieutenant’s
Woman. At first glance, this book seems to emulate the long, rambling
Victorian novels of Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot and Hardy. But Fowles takes
the basic formulas of the nineteenth century and reinvents them with the full
arsenal of twentieth century literary techniques. Here the reader encounters
meta-narrative, gender politics, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, existential
questionings, sociological analysis, and various postmodern structural
shifts (including two conflicting endings to the story). Yet Fowles embeds all
of this into a sexually-charged love story that probably would have sold
loads of copies merely on the merits of its appeal to fans of romance tales.
By any measure, the novel is tour de force. And though it has inspired later
works (see, for example, A.S. Byatt’s Possession), there is still no other
novel that quite captures the peculiar flavor of The French Lieutenant’s
I am hardly surprised that Fowles doubted that the book could be made into
a movie. He was wrong on that count. Not only did The French Lieutenant's
Woman serve as the basis for 1981 film, but garnered five Oscar
nominations (including the first of fifteen Best Actress nominations for Meryl
Streep). But to pull off this shift to the silver screen, scriptwriter Harold
Pinter had to make significant changes to the meta-narrative.
In truth, Fowles has been poorly served by Hollywood. (But he got his
revenge with his 1977 novel Daniel Martin, which offers up many caustic
observations on the cultural impact of movie moguls and their minions.)
The Magus ranks among the most brilliant novels of the 1960s, but the film
version was a disaster. Woody Allen famously quipped that, if he got to live
his life over again, he would do "everything exactly the same, with the
exception of watching The Magus." According to actor Michael Caine, even
the cast failed to understand the story. Yet the fault here does not reside in
the book, but in the disastrous decision to turn it into a movie of less than
two hours. The Magus has more surprising plot twists than almost any book
I’ve ever read. Every thirty pages, more or less, something transpires that
forces the reader to reassess everything they have learned in previous
chapters. I suspect that it could be turned into an absolutely compelling mini-
series if told over the course of 10 or 20 hours. Imagine Lost on steroids.
But the story cannot survive compression into the standard length for a
feature film. Director Guy Green shouldn’t even have made the attempt.
Fowles, like so many of the sensations of the 1960s and 1970s, never quite
achieved the same level of fame in the final decades of his life. But he
deserves almost all of the blame for his subsequent disappearance from
the limelight. Instead of seizing the opportunities presented by The French
Lieutenant’s Woman, he seemed almost determined to retreat from his
new-found celebrity. He hid from high society, and rarely met with other
writers. He turned down numerous offers, almost as a matter of course. He
even followed up the extraordinary success of his US book tour by writing a
long essay, “America I Weep for Thee,” that was almost custom-made to
alienate many of his new-found fans. Other projects—assorted poems, an
article on cricket for Sports Illustrated, reviews of nature books—were
equally unlikely to generate much interest. Five years would elapse before
he would publish a significant work of fiction, and even this was merely
collection of short stories.
Fowles wouldn’t release another novel until Daniel Martin in 1977. This is a
smart, substantial book, and critics (at least those in the United States)
received it as a major book by an important writer. John Gardner, writing in
Saturday Review, claimed that Fowles deserved comparison with Leo
Tolstoy and Henry James. William Pritchard, review Daniel Martin for The
New York Times called it Fowles’s "best piece of work to date."
Sales didn’t approach the levels achieved by The French Lieutenant’s
Woman. But Fowles hardly had to worry about money at this stage. During
one amazing week in February 1977, he received almost a half million
dollars in film rights and a book advance. Given this state of affairs, some
readers might find the scorn for Hollywood in Daniel Martin as a bit of
hypocrisy. But, to Fowles’s credit, he would have little to do with the
entertainment industry in subsequent years. He lived a quiet life in Lyme
Regis in West Dorset, where he served as curator for a local museum. He
wrote letters to the editor of the town’s newspaper, and embraced causes
that had little to do with literature or culture—complaining about a local
sewage treatment plant or giving a talk extolling the virtues amateur
Although he talked about retiring from fiction, Fowles still had more novels
in him. But the negative reception to Mantissa (1982)—which one critic
even ridiculed as an “idiotic story”—made clear that he could no longer
count on an enthusiastic audience to support his literary efforts. The shift in
the public’s attitude was so marked that Fowles was surprised by the
positive response to his last published novel, A Maggot from 1985. But
Fowles, now a committed recluse, could hardly enjoy the success. He
described the publicity tour of the US as “a bad dream…the people unreal
and myself most unreal by now.”
Fowles would live another twenty years, but many readers may well have
assumed that he was already dead. At an age when most authors are still
productive and engaged by creative pursuits. Fowles stayed mostly silent.
When he died, in 2005, he was 79-years-old, but hadn’t published a major
work since his late 50s. And even after his death, when heirs often release
a treasure trove of previously unpublished works, Fowles had little of note to
share posthumously. Who can be surprised, then, that he slipped from view,
even among those who care deeply about literary matters.
Here’s a measure of Fowles’s marginalization. A few weeks ago, a blogger
took the books on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th
century, and ranked them by their Amazon sales. Fowles’s The French
Lieutenant’s Woman placed number 97 on that tabulation—behind even
such dauntingly reader-unfriendly authors as William Gaddis, John Barth,
Theodore Dreiser, Malcolm Lowry and Flann O’Brien. If you can’t outsell
The Sot-Weed Factor you are in deep trouble. But that’s where John
Fowles’s bestselling novel finds itself in the current day.
Mr. Fowles deserves better. He anticipated so much in contemporary
fiction. He embraced feminist themes in his books to an extent that few
male writers of his generation can match. He was deeply sensitive to the
ecological issues long before they had much impact on highbrow fiction.
His critique of the compromises made by authors who are beguiled by the
crossover potential offered by the entertainment industry is more relevant
now than when Fowles first delivered his harsh judgments. His ability to
draw on postmodern techniques without losing the gusto of his storytelling
reminds me of many of the best authors of the current day.
In short, we may have forgotten John Fowles, but he still has much to tell us.
I don’t blame readers. Fowles himself decided to absent himself from the
literary scene long before he died. And he often had savage criticisms to
make on even his best books. I suspect that he was ambivalent about his
fame, and perhaps felt more than a little guilty at the money he made from it.
In so many ways, he laid the groundwork for his eventual fall into obscurity.
But we shouldn’t let that happen. Now that a decade has elapsed since
Fowles died, let’s take the opportunity to re-experience and re-evaluate his
body of work. My verdict is that Fowles left behind two genuine
masterpieces—The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Magus—and
several other works of lasting merit. I fear they will eventually find
themselves relegated to lists of neglected classics. Fowles himself might
have been content to see his name on such a list. But these books deserve
even more to enjoy the status of classics without the neglect.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent
book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.
Published November 6, 2015
|The Novels of John Fowles:
by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
|Essays on John Fowles (1926-2005)
Ten years after his death in November 2005, novelist John
Fowles is an almost forgotten figure. His novels, once widely
discussed and debated, are seldom read and rarely even
mentioned in current-day literary circles. I am both saddened
and surprised by this state of affairs. I believe that John Fowles
ranks among the half-dozen finest novelists of his generation,
and his books still have much to teach us. With the goal of
spurring more interest in this seminal figure in 20th century
literature, I am commemorating the 10th anniversary of
Fowles's death by publishing 5 online essays on his work.