In Revolutions I made a reference to something I like to think of as the Rule of Ten, which I’d first put forward in an earlier essay. Here’s what I said:
Several years ago, in an essay I wrote for Canadian Notes & Queries, I made the point that literary talent typically burns brightly for a decade: “Most writers – not all, but most – are, as Faulkner once put it, ‘hot’ for only a little while. Faulkner himself went through this phase in the 1930s. Hemingway in the 1920s. It usually lasts about ten years.” This was, it seemed to me, such an obvious observation it scarcely needed elaboration. If any were needed, Robert McCrum supplied it when he echoed my thoughts in the pages of the Guardian:
“The truth about most so-called literary careers is that they last 10 years, if you’re lucky. Look at Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad. They all had “careers,” but when you look more closely at the trajectory of literary success, you find that its parabola describes, at best, a decade of creativity. Austen had completed the drafts of her greatest books by the age of 30. Dickens’s supreme decade was 1850 (David Copperfield) to 1860-61 (Great Expectations). With Conrad, Heart of Darkness came out in 1899. An astonishing decade (Nostromo; Secret Agent etc.) followed. But after 1909, there’s really only Under Western Eyes, and nothing else of equal stature. Shakespeare clinches this argument. Hamlet was probably written in 1600, after an extraordinary year in which . . . he also wrote As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Henry V. Thereafter, all the great tragedies appeared in an astoundingly short span. By the end of that decade he was done. The Tempest was given at court in November 1611.”
Are there exceptions to the Rule of Ten? Of course. Alice Munro may be one, though even here, I would argue, there has been some significant dropping off. But the exceptions prove the general rule, and it’s one that holds much the same everywhere in the English-speaking world. One only has to glance across the pond to see a stable of at-one-time major authors – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis – who, since the millennium (at the latest), have done very, very little to burnish their credentials for entry into the literary pantheon. In the U.S., the record has been just as grim. Every publishing season duly brings forth the latest offerings of that nation’s aging literary lions. But who, aside from someone needing to fill a book column, could even begin to get excited by anything written by Philip Roth after The Human Stain? Anything written by Thomas Pynchon after . . . The Crying of Lot 49? . . . no, let’s be nice and say Mason & Dixon. Anything written by Don DeLillo after Underworld, or (and here I know I’m treading on holy ground, but someone needs to say it), anything written by Cormac McCarthy after Blood Meridian? Yes, the big awards continued to pile up. And yes, newspapers continued to run fawning interviews with these titans, reviews gushing over any fresh evidence of their genius. But this was only to prolong a farce that, in all of these cases, had gone on more than long enough. As though, faced with the spectacle of aging, punch-drunk, and pot-bellied boxers coming out of retirement only to stagger on unsteady legs while being clobbered around the ring and into dementia, we should have turned and looked away, saddened and a bit sick at the pathetic spectacle.
This past week I had occasion to think again about the Rule of Ten as two examples came up. In Claire Tomalin’s new biography The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World she focuses on the young Wells both because the formation of a great writer is always more interesting than their decline, and because all of Wells’ major work was done by 1910.
Given that his first novel, The Time Machine, had come out in 1895 this gave him an effective career of fifteen years. Close enough, and I think if you took out Tono-Bungay (1909) you’d have a good argument for making the cut-off date 1905, thus satisfying the Rule of Ten pretty neatly.
The second item was a Robert Gottlieb piece in the New York Times on Sinclair Lewis, “The Novelist Who Saw Middle America as It Really Was.” In Lewis’s case the Rule was strictly in operation, with his vital years running from Main Street (1920) to Dodsworth (1929). Like Wells, Lewis would go on being a celebrity author and keep publishing for decades, but nothing much would come of it. Lewis in particular was a wreck at the end, the sort of sad spectacle I mentioned as being the general rule.
I think everyone is aware of the Rule of Ten, including authors themselves, though it’s not something they like to talk about. It’s interesting that one workaround that has been effected in our own time is for bestselling authors to effectively become brands. This allows for the same names to dominate the bestseller lists not just year after year but decade after decade. Testimony, I think, to the power of the brand in our economy, since in most if not every case the authors in question are far removed from their best work, and in some instances aren’t even the authors of the books being published under their name.
But sales are one thing and critical reception another. As I said five years ago: “Yes, the big awards continued to pile up. And yes, newspapers continued to run fawning interviews with these titans, reviews gushing over any fresh evidence of their genius.” Why? Doesn’t everything we know about how these things play out suggest we should ignore writers at this point, just as Tomalin wisely skips the later Wells? Wouldn’t it make more sense to move on?