Saturday, 17 December 2011

Hitchens: The most famous writer I've never read?

It went off without a hitch, if you'll pardon a pun at this sad time in the world of letters. Actually it's broader than that because Christopher Hitchens was, most recently, as well-known for his TV appearances as he was for his famous works, which anyway tended to be the ones that are polemical in nature rather than literary. But what I mean is the universal consensus among the Twitterati that the passing of Hitchens, from complications associated with oesophageal cancer, was a sad event in their day. As soon as the event was announced on the Vanity Fair Twitter account - Hitchens worked for the magazine from 1992 - scores of followers rushed to announce their feelings of regret at hearing the news. Hitchens trended quickly. On Facebook, blog posts appeared (including this one, which is very good) and here, again, the tone was rousing, triumphant, and heartfelt. Hitchens has never been so well-known as he was yesterday (the VF announcement came through in the late afternoon, Sydney time).

The funny thing is that apart from the occasional VF piece by Hitchens, I've never read any of his books, of which there are, apparently, a lot. I count 18 since 1984. What I remember Hitchens for are his TV appearances, which were always stimulating. But for all his writing and talking over the years it seems that the one effort for which many people cannot like Hitchens - his backing of the American war in Iraq - is the thing that caused him to become well-known enough to be invited onto the TV shows in the first place. So I predict a renaissance in Hitchenology now that he has gone to the other side. People will begin to reappraise his work. There will be reassessments in the light of his not-unexpected demise. I foresee omnibus editions, new collected works, and coffee table books for the less text-tolerant among us in the wealthy West.

His death will turn out to be the best thing that happened to him, career-wise. From being a little-known though erudite and effective Left-wing writer on current affairs (think of journalist John Pilger) Hitchens will turn into a person we rely on to confirm the importance of bigger issues, and against whose ideas we will test the constitutions of other people visible in the public sphere. He might not attain the status of an Orwell or a Churchill, but Hitchens will certainly be remembered by posterity. New editions of his works - many of which are not now readily available - will help this process. In a sense, he will be more 'present' in future than he was, I guess, before the second Iraq war. Hopefully, too, he will start to be well-known not just for his writings in defense of atheism, but also for his ideas about politics and literature.

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