When I was whiling away a couple of years at Cal State, earning a professionally useless but amusing degree in English, my classmates and I used to entertain ourselves by working out what certain towering figures in literature would be doing, if they were professionally functioning in the arts and letters of the present- or just the last quarter of the 20th century. What would they be writing, and what sort of writing— and given that movies and television would be in the mix— what variant of creativity would be within the scope of time-transplanted literary talent?
There aren’t any definitive answers, of course; the only requirement is to be able to extrapolate amusingly. Herewith some of the proposed 20th-century career paths:
William Shakespeare: Actor turned writer; the movies, of course. Wildly popular, prolific and all over the map, quality-wise, over a long, long career.
Mark Twain: Reporter and writer of very fine magazine articles on popular culture and commentary, and the occasional book. Pretty much what Tom Wolfe, or PJ. O Rourke does now.
Henry James: Still a novelist, producing exquisitely wrought and finely detailed novels. Very high-brow, lots of literary prizes, but not very widely read. Never an Oprah Book Club selection.
Edith Wharton: Ditto.
William Thackeray: Witty, roman-a-clef novels, about people on the fringes of power in various establishments. The public is vastly amused with every one, trying to figure out who they “really” are about. Threatened with legal action on occasion, which just boosts sales figures.
Charles Dickens: Writer and producer of very long, and involved, and wildly popular TV series/miniseries. All of them have long story arcs, many eccentric characters, and enough turns and twists to keep the audiences’ attention riveted for years.
Rudyard Kipling: Also a newspaper reporter turned novelist, poet and short story writer, and entertainer. Doing what Garrison Keillor does now, even to the radio show.
Sir Walter Scott: Enormously popular writer of historical adventures based on historical figures. James Michener, only shorter.
Louisa May Alcott: Empowering chick-lit. Frequent Oprah guest, and Book Club selection.
Jules Verne: Science fiction, of course— but through the medium of interactive video games.
And to cross over into classical music, Richard Wagner would be doing movies too: very elaborate, special-effects laden, Kubrick-ish blockbusters, with thunderous musical scores and eye-catching set-pieces. They would be very popular, and the critics would come away from press showings bubbling over with ecstatic praise, even though they wouldn’t quite understand a lot of it.
Add your own, elaborate on or propose alternatives for mine: just be creative and above all, amusing.
(originally posted at The Daily Brief)