Lasting reputations: why have some authors dominated the publishing industry?

Life Before Man, The Cement Garden, Grimus. Whilst this may just seem like a list of books published some five decades ago, all these books have one thing in common. Their authors, who found fame in the 1970s, are still being revered for their literary efforts in 2023. Atwood, McEwan, Rushdie – all stalwarts of the “Old Gang” who are still finding their books in best-seller lists today. When so many new authors are fighting to be seen on bookshop shelves and to be promoted on social media, it may seem absurd that we are still returning to books by older authors, but nevertheless, their works have a longevity that have allowed them to continue selling thousands of copies in the 21st century, whether this seems detrimental to the literary industry or not. 

The 1970s was a time of change across the literary scene. In the backdrop of a more turbulent political and social landscape, authors were honing in on a reflective style with texts encompassing an awareness of the changing world they formed a part of. The youthful voice was being captured with the emergence of upcoming authors like Toni Morrison and Martin Amis. Literature was being used as a vehicle for political and social change. Yet, ironically, the call for modernising which was ever present in the 1970s is something that is being halted today by the authors of that era outlasting many of their contemporaries. 

The literary establishment seemed rooted in conservative values and traditions

With book sales in the UK in excess of 3 million copies, two-time winner of the Booker Prize Margaret Atwood cemented herself as a prominent name in the literary world in the 1970s, with her 1972 novel, Surfacing , which was adapted for film in 1981, and Life Before Man (1979) making the final of Canada’s prized Governor General’s Award for fiction. Atwood was clearly emerging as a name to watch out for in the literary world – a position she would clearly assert in 1985 as she broke new ground with The Handmaid’s Tale 

As a fan of dystopia myself, I cannot deny the impact Atwood has had, continued to be made evident by her Oryx and Crake series and The Year of the Flood. Yet, her joint win of The Booker Prize in 2019 for The Testaments began to raise questions about whether the longevity of 70s authors was fair, and whether readers are now costing on nostalgia for the past. Considering the undermining of women’s rights, which was so important given the backdrop of the book’s publication, just a year after the election of Donald Trump as US President, it cannot be denied that Atwood’s latest novel is, no pun intended, a testament to her ever-apt eye for change in the world around us. Johanna Thomas-Corr even went as far to say, in The Guardian, that Atwood was “ahead of everyone in the room” with the publication of The Testaments. However, despite Atwood’s astute observations, views like this reinforce the literary pedestal that authors like Atwood are placed upon. Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which shared the 2019 Booker Prize with The Testaments, proved that Atwood wasn’t the only author that could analyse the world around her and spill raw emotion and feeling onto paper. Exploring themes as wide-ranging as racism, feminism, relationships, and sexuality, Evaristo could have easily held the Booker Prize title on her own. Yet, the longevity of the “Old Gang” meant that she had to settle on sharing the prize with Atwood, the first time this had happened in the award’s history. The literary establishment seemed rooted in conservative values and traditions – harshly ironic considering the change that was being set down by authors in the 1970s.  

However, putting aside this criticism of the “Old Gang” for a moment, maybe we should be paying credit to the 70s authors, who are still standing up for what they believe is right, proving how literature can take a hold of sharing views and opinions which are there to be read, critiqued, and challenged. Salman Rushdie, who came to prominence in the 70s with Grimus, has long been the subject of assassination attempts, following the publication of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which has long been wrapped up in controversy and religious debate, with some Muslim readers seeing the novel as blasphemous and overstepping the limits of freedom of speech. While it is not my place to judge the morality of the novel, Rushdie’s continued presence in the literary world proves how literature can be a space in which views are openly challenged and debated, a value that is becoming increasingly important in a world viewed, by some, to be marred by censorship. Despite being stabbed just last year, Rushdie has gone on to release and promote (albeit, not in public) his fifteenth novel Victory City which was published in February. As he continues to stand up to opposition, why should we simply turn our back on Rushdie as part of the “Old Gang”? The “Old Gang” may be held in a higher esteem by the literary world, but as they continue to challenge the status quo and strive to make change in the world, can’t we find place for both the “Old Gang” and the “New Gang” on our bookshelves? After all, literature should offer us choice, a range of opinions, and a variety of viewpoints.  

Taking a risk on a new author is a big move, and many publishers are just too afraid to

With no sign of the 70s authors taking a step back from the literary forefront in a while, it may simply raise questions as to why we are in a position where older authors are getting more recognition than newer ones. Put simply, familiarity allows the “Old Gang” to immediately sell more copies and promote a book more easily when released. Take The Testaments as an example again. Realistically, Atwood didn’t really have to promote her book much if she didn’t want to – name recognition in itself would have been enough to secure plenty of book sales. Indeed, people were even waiting for hours outside Waterstones stores to get their hands on their copy at midnight. Atwood has ‘status’ in the literary world – publishers will be desperate to publish her works, and indeed works by any established author. With Atwood selling copies by virtue of name recognition alone, publishers are confident that they’ll rake in the money. Stephen King, who also rose to fame in the 70s with Carrie, reportedly received a £30m advance for a three-book deal in 2000. On the other hand, new authors will struggle to find their feet in the literary industry and find a publisher. It’s almost common knowledge now that the first Harry Potter book was turned down by 12 publishers before finding success, but this is a challenge faced by many authors to the present day. Publishers will help promote a book, find an agent, copy edit – but they work on the basis of earning money. Taking a risk on a new author is a big move, and many publishers are just too afraid to do so for the risk of publishing a “flop”. Hence, authors like Atwood and King will keep raking in the publication deals instead. 


It may be time we move on and stop the “Old Gang” having an omnipotent control over the literary industry, overshadowing newer authors who are trying to assert their voice, just as authors did in the 70s, pushing for social change. Yet, the literary world is so diverse and full of many voices, we shouldn’t simply get rid of these older voices altogether. It is time to find a place on our bookshelves for both the “Old Gang” and the “New Gang”. Let’s strive to celebrate the diversity and uniqueness that literature can offer us, as we both hark back to the nostalgia of decades like the 70s and move forward seeing what the new voices of literature can offer us.  



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