The Nobel for literature rewards a ‘body of work’, which oftentimes comes across as a well-meaning back-pat to an author who has plugged on for fifty years, all the while knowing with ever-greater assuredness that the prodigious early novel, the poem from the year that memory expunged, or the play written in a mist of sweet smoke and alcohol will be the thing that’s remembered, taught in schools, perhaps make the grandchildren spoilt with royalties.
But this is more a continuation of the ‘post-fame’ musings. There are a few standard narratives of the literary career: the one-hit wonder; the prodigious beginning, slump and re-emergence, sometimes repeated in cycles; the late flowering; and of course, the ‘early, middle, late’, in which an writer’s final works, often tendentious and exasperating, are given particular attention (I blame you, Beethoven).
Those narratives are usually established well after the fact, though not always, and the search to impose a career path on living authors makes me glad that my studies are largely confined to those long gone, spared the indignity of the Sunday-sheet backscratchers trying to pad their reviews with a couple of grafs on ‘development’.
I suppose the question in all literary careers, for writers as well as for those who read and study them (often two separate disciplines, alas) is ‘how much is enough?’ It was the late Tony Nuttall — damn, how out of it was I to miss his obituaries? — who first drew my attention to a now-favourite passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, in which the young George III contrived an encounter with the great man in the Queen’s library:
His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge. The King, as it should seem with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer, and to continue his labours, then said ‘I do not think you borrow much from any body.’ Johnson said, he thought he had already done his part as a writer. ‘I should have thought so too, (said the King,) if you had not written so well.’—Johnson observed to me, upon this, that ‘No man could have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay. It was decisive.’
Knowing the tensions inherent in Johnson’s attitude towards writing (here, and see what the refresh button brings) drives home the poignancy of this exchange. Necessity unlocked capability: the jobbing early works to survive, the subscription works to justify the monies paid, and Rasselas, most famously, to pay for his mother’s funeral and settle her debts. It casts a sober eye at his contemporaries’ talk of original genius; his work, like so many great writers, is spring-wound-tightly stuff.
Sometimes it’s easy enough to know, as writer and reader, when all has been said. (I do wonder, though, how many great extended careers have been forestalled by an over-generous early advance. Note to publishers: multi-book deals, and deliver the big money late.) Not always, though: and great writing summons an appropriate appetite for more, even if the writer may not always be capable, or know his true capabilities. Then comes the dance of expectations, as we prepare for a career to take a certain next step only for it to throw us off balance, rendering our mental narratives fiction.
Like I said, it’s easier to wait until they’re dead.