Shake and Dicks are still with us because they have - rightly - stood the test of time. ...Shake and Dicks are classics because they are classics. They really are that good - great even. That's why we get an endless succession of film and tv adaptations - well, that and the original works are in the popular domain. You're putting the horse in front of the cart. To prove my point, how many film/tv adaptations have any of us seen of "Two Gentlemen of Verona", "Two Noble Kinsmen", "King John", "Pericles", "Cymbeline", "Timon of Athens", and "Henry VIII"?
*Raises hand* I've seen the BBC adaptations of King John, Pericles, Cymbeline, and Henry VIII. Of course, with one exception they were also the only film/TV adaptations of those plays, which proves your point. On the other hand, I think it's universally agreed that not all the works of a prolific author will be equally good, no matter how brilliant he is, and the list of Shakespeare's esteemed and popular works is fairly long: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. The fact that Cymbeline--a play even Shakespeare fans have a hard time loving--has been adapted at all is proof of Shakespeare's cultural cachet. Why can't we have adaptations of Middleton's Women Beware Women or Massinger's The Unnatural Combat instead? I love Jacobean/Caroline drama and sometimes get frustrated that Shakespeare overshadows his contemporaries and successors. But I also have to acknowledge that as a poet and dramatist Shakespeare really was the best of them all. So your point is ultimately true. And yes, people who say Shakespeare didn't write his own plays should be assaulted.
And no English teacher in his - or her - right mind will ever claim "that the only books which stay the distance are the ones which are designated classics." From time to time gems slip through the cracks.
More like all the time! It's surprising how many terrific but little-known books and authors there are. And there are even entire publishing houses, like New York Review Books (not to be confused with the the NY Review of Books) devoted to republishing neglected classics. And yet, popularity itself is no indication of lasting value either--a look at the bestseller lists of 70 or 60 years ago will reveal many books that are now completely obscure. Furthermore, for an author to survive over a hundred years, he often needs cultural validation--Dickens is still read, but how many other Victorian popular novelists enjoy equivalent readership?
And not just English teachers say that Fleming's books remain in print only because of the films. Lots of people say it, myself included. Because it's true.
That I'm not so sure of, as I'll explain later on. I also suspect that some of those hypothetical English teachers make that argument in order to belittle the books--perhaps they don't realize that the Bond films which put the character on the map were all closely based on Fleming.
Moving on to David Jones's comments:
Though I like Dickens and do believe his work has lived on due to merit, it's also due to name recognition which comes from TV and film adaptation. This is more true of Austen, perhaps.
We could look at Fleming's contemporaries and notice their mixed fortunes: Graham Greene is perhaps Fleming's most famous contemporary thriller writer, though this may also be due to his more literary works; Eric Ambler and Nevil Shute remained in popularity for a while, but have faded through the decades, though both, I think, are just about hanging in there. Other literary spies and their authors, such as Desmond Cory and his Johnny Fedora novels, and Manning Coles and his Tommy Hambledon series, have disappeared altogether.
There is a hole in that argument though--Austen enjoyed a hundred years of popularity before motion pictures were made from her books. But there's no denying that adaptations can immeasurably boost a novel or literary character's hold on the public. At one time the plays of Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Raffles, and The Count of Monte Cristo were either more popular than the originals or just as popular. The Bela Lugosi film of Dracula is actually based on the stage play, not the novel. Doyle would still be read today, but Sherlock's popularity would have been far less than what it is without the combined efforts of Gillette, Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch, etc.
This non-conformist attitude has led me to dismiss Shakespeare repeatedly. His work may be good - he may be expressing an observation about human nature, but I cannot hear it as I don't understand the language. I've always thought that it should be performed in modern language. If something as hallowed as the Bible can do it, than so can a few plays. That's the only way it can reach a modern audience who aren't pretentiously forcing themselves to watch it/read it so they can say they have.
I don't think that's true, and I say that as someone who enjoys Shakespeare. An actor with a good command of blank verse can help audiences get the jist of obscure passages. The great literary critic Frank Kermode has suggested that some bits of Shakespeare were even obscure to Elizabethan/Jacobean audiences. And while I think it's a good idea to modernize or replace some words (as long as the meter of the original is preserved), performing Shakespeare entirely in modern English would destroy its poetry. You bring up the Bible, but there isn't a single modern translation that has a fraction of the poetry and beauty of the King James Version.
Moving onto Dustin's comment:
But without the constant reminder to Western pop culture that 'Bond is back' there would be a great deal less fuss about the books. There'd fans and fora and perhaps discussion about who would be fitting for a possible adaptation - but largely on the level of Matt Helm or Travis McGee i.e. an obscure pastime for hardcore fans.
That sounds like a very plausible scenario. I think a couple or a few of Fleming's books might have been still in print, or perhaps an anthology volume like The Blofeld Trilogy.
What guarantees popularity or longevity? In the hard-boiled genre, Hammett is immortal for devising the genre, Chandler for perfecting its language, and MacDonald for carrying on the tradition while adding a sociological emphasis. With the spy novel, Buchan is famous for being one of the first inventor/practitioners, while Greene and Ambler are renown for adding psychological and sociological depth. Fleming's claim to fame--had the Bond films never arisen--would likely be for remodeling the spy novel for the jet age of consumerism, adding a greater emphasis on violence, sexuality, and lifestyle. Let's not forget that even without the films, the books were bestsellers that achieved fame and notoriety--Kennedy's endorsement and Johnson/Bergozzi's attack appeared before the films, as did the comic strip. Taking that in mind, how could Fleming ever be forgotten, in his role as a genre innovator? And yet E. Phillips Oppenheim and Sax Rohmer--the mega-best-selling spy novelists who influenced Fleming--are today little-read and mostly forgotten. There are additional ironies--Le Carre owes his fame for having turned the spy novel genre away from Fleming, but would his fame be as great if the Bond films had not made Bond a super-super-bestseller and increased the demand for an alternative?
One final note--I think there comes a point when a book can no longer depend on the mass audience for its survival. That is proven by the vast number of forgotten bestsellers. True literary longevity depends on the cultural validation conferred by the intelligentsia--the literary critics and cultural arbiters who say this work or that is important and the academics who make young people read those works. Those young people go on to become and reinforce the intelligentsia. Cultural validation can either compensate for diminishing mass audience appeal or it can augment it, conferring validation to works once thought of as unimportant trash.
Fleming's work exists in a no-man's-land between mass audience appeal (held more by the Bond films, which have been sustained by the Broccolis) and cultural validation, which Fleming doesn't fully have. The intelligentsia's original objections to Fleming--based on "sex, violence, and snobbery"--are now irrelevant, but newer ones have arisen. Many academics and like-minded folk view Fleming's works as a toxic, right-wing cocktail of racism, imperialism, classicism, and misogyny--far worthier of cultural condemnation than validation. That is probably the greatest threat to Fleming's survival, since his mass audience appeal can't be permanently sustained. Those of us who believe that supposed toxicity to be grotesquely overstated are on the losing side at the moment. As for the future, very few works enjoy an increase of popularity after half a century. Bond will be no exception, but just how the films or books will fare is not for us to know. Predicting the future of a cultural work is even more difficult than predicting that of society.