In an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Royal Society of Literature of almost 2000 members of the UK public, Ian Fleming was among 400 authors named by respondents when asked if they could name a writer, living or from the past, whose work they would describe as literature. One respondent named Fleming.
I should add that the long list of authors mentioned once is a highly respectable one, and Fleming is certainly in illustrious company. Other authors include John Buchan, Thucydides, Charles Darwin, Mary Shelley, Robert Harris, Iris Murdoch, and Jeremy Clarkson.
It has to be admitted, though, that authors who might be regarded as Fleming's 'rivals' – that is, writers of spy fiction – appear to have a higher profile. Len Deighton was named by two respondents, Anthony Horowitz was named by three people (presumably in respect of his Alex Rider novels, rather than his single Bond book), Graham Greene named by four people, and John le Carré mentioned by five people.
To be honest, I'm not sure I would have gone for Ian Fleming if asked to name an author of literature, and it's understandable why Fleming's 'rivals' are ranked higher. John le Carré, Graham Greene and Len Deighton are generally considered to sit at the more highbrow end of the spy fiction genre, and Anthony Horowitz may have benefited from the young person's vote, the survey being open to members of the public aged 15+.
Nevertheless, it is somewhat disappointing that Ian Fleming, for all the impact his novels have had on spy literature specifically and thrillers in general, doesn't have a higher profile among the public. The survey does, however, present some findings that suggest some reasons why this may be the case.
When asked what might encourage people to read more literature, the top answers among respondents included more local libraries and more local bookshops. The responses allude to the fact that, in the UK at least, towns and cities have seen the closure of libraries and the move of bookshops away from the high street and to online retailers. On the positive side, the responses show that people still value libraries and bookshops. I certainly did when I was discovering Ian Fleming (admittedly a long time ago now). Some of the Bond books, when I read them for the first time, were shop-bought, but others I borrowed (and re-borrowed) from the library.
It's occurred to me, though, that the public may now struggle to find Ian Fleming in the library or on the shelves of anything other than the largest bookshops. Whenever I've popped into the library in recent years, I've seen at best one or two books, but certainly nothing approaching a full set. It's telling that, in the British Library's list of most borrowed authors between July 2015 and June 2016, Ian Fleming isn't in the top 500, or even in the list of top 20 classic authors, which includes Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Graham Greene. So, libraries and bookshops need to be encouraged to stock more Bond novels and increase the visibility of Fleming's work.
Another top response to the question of what would encourage people to read was 'programmes on TV or radio'. We've of course had several adaptations of the Bond novels on Radio 4, but no doubt television would have a much greater impact on book sales. Frequent appearances of their work on television have presumably done wonders for Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John le Carré, and now Len Deighton.
I do wonder whether it's time we had a James Bond television series. This needn't conflict with the film series – the television series could present straight, period-set, adaptations distinct in tone and style from the films – and Eon could still have a hand in it. While the Bond films are extraordinarily successful (and long may they continue), their connection to Ian Fleming is probably not that obvious to the more casual cinema-goer, even with tie-ins with the novels, most recently Spectre (2015).
Given that some of the Bond stories began as treatments for a television series, Bond might find a natural home on the small screen. A television series might also allow some of Ian Fleming's unused treatments to be realised on the screen, just as they're now coming to life on the page in Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis and forthcoming follow-up.