Hurst's involvement during the Harlem Renaissance and her support of African Americans seem to eclipse her literary career among scholars today, though in her heyday she was popular and widely read. By 1925, she became one of the highest paid writers in America. Imitation of Life was adapted for a 1934 film starring Claudette Colbert, and it was remade in 1959 starring Lana Turner.
She is widely considered to have been a mediocre writer, given to clunky metaphors like "The days were transmission belts under her feet, moving her along." In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald criticized Hurst as being among several writers "not producing among 'em one story or novel that will last 20 years." She was the butt of a joke in a 1970 Mel Brooks comedy The Twelve Chairs: "Hope for the best, expect the worst. You could be Tolstoy or Fannie Hurst."
Hurst was at her best with short stories. Once called the female O. Henry, she was lauded for stories like "Hattie Turner versus Hattie Turner," a story published in Cosmopolitan in 1935 that has an abused wife debating with herself over whether or not she has killed her no-good husband. In her time, she was called Queen of the Sob Sisters and admired for her accessible and sympathetic prose. Today critics say her grammar and style were abysmal.
Despite the criticism, Hurst was nothing if not persistent. Her career spanned half a century, and she produced 17 novels, nine short story collections, an autobiography, and three plays. She wrote many magazine articles, was in demand for speaking engagements and, for a year, hosted a television talk show in New York.
Among Hurst's books are Stardust: The Story of an American Girl (1921), Lummox (1923), Mannequin (1926), A President is Born (1928), Five and Ten (1929), Back Street (1931), Hallelujah (1944), Anywoman (1950), The Man with One Head (1951), God Must Be Sad (1961) and Fool, Be Still (1964). Her autobiography, Anatomy of Me: A Wonderer in Search of Herself was published in 1958. Nearly 30 films were produced from her works.