At the most basic level, what’s success for a biological organism is success for a literary one—whatever survives, wins. A sequence of words has an effect on a given group of people. Time passes. Those people pass away. But that sequence of words continues to possess an attraction, and have some (usually diminished) effect, on new (usually smaller) groups of people—people who might speak a different language, live by different ideas, and write and read differently.
That is the definition of greatness I find most useful. The definition implies two common characteristics of “great” writing: It retains power over time and transcends its origins. The power diminishes (you might love Shakespearean comedy, but I guarantee you’re not laughing quite as hard as the Globe Theater’s audience in the early 1600’s), and the appeal narrows (Dickens isn’t in our airport bookstores, unless there’s a movie tie-in). The broader a book’s continued appeal and the more palpable its continued power, the “greater” the book seems. And so one generation’s great read becomes another’s Great Literature. Sometimes a writer needs excavation (T. S. Eliot excavated Donne), but there’s no fooling readers. Either that work of distant antiquity is still thrilling and epic (Homer) or it isn’t (Silius Italicus).
Considered this way, we can see, very clearly, that great writing does peak. No scholar of classical literature would insist that the quality of Latin poetry, however you choose to define “quality,” was equal in 420-440 A.D. and 25-5 B.C. It’s just not the case. Try arguing that English literature was equally “great” in the decades 1600-1610 and 1730-1740. Not an easy case to make.
So: Talent frequently clusters, and “great” writing often (but not always) happens in brief collective bursts—this is not, in my opinion, all that controversial a point. Nor, in retrospect, all that interesting a point. Much more interesting to me is the study of what went right.
Because let’s face it: Generations don’t vary drastically in I.Q. or perceptivity or Depth of Soul and all that good stuff. Or at least no one’s ever proven that. So what gives? There’s plenty of potential talent in any given generation: Why do some generations churn out not-so-great work whilst others crowd the Everyman Library?
Whitman’s famous saying is the key to everything here. “To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.” (This applies to writers in general, I would say.) To understand what made the writing great, we have to look to the great audiences, and find out what those great audiences demanded. I can think of three things.
One. A great audience considers language a sufficient entertainment.
Notice how teleplays and screenplays (because of the huge amount of visual information supplied by the camera) are written in a very bare-bones English. No imagery necessary. Contrast that with Sophocles, who had very little in the way of stage machinery and visual dazzle. Dizzying structures of ode and epode, strophe and antistrophe. Elegant variations of meter. Or Shakespeare’s relatively empty stage—if he blocked his metaphors, his audience would have complained. They were the equivalent of special effects.
Most modern-day novelists would agree that you hemorrhage readers the more complicated your language gets. Editors are always blocking metaphors. Fortunately, though, novel-readers (and poetry-readers) still consider language a sufficient entertainment. There are plenty of opportunities for multimedia infiltration of the novel, but it’s been oddly conservative; even in the past, novels and poems have lived or died based on the words themselves. Charles Dickens lives on because of his sentences, not George Cruikshank’s charming illustrations. Manuscripts that medieval scribes once illuminated are today printed in straightforward Garamond, without reproducing the elaborate visuals. The language must be the dominant means of conveying information for writing to be great, that is, to last; historically, great audiences have consistently demanded this.
As a side note: Ever notice how Shakespeare sounds a lot like his contemporaries? The difference is that he’s better than they are; but there are passages in plays attributed to him known to be by other hands (Dekker, Ford), and passages in plays by others that may secretly be the Bard’s. (There used to be collaboration and script-doctoring in Elizabethan times). Similarly, Racine was France’s best writer of the classical-tragedy-in-Alexandrines. Plenty of other French poets were writing the exact same kind of play, just as other Elizabethans were writing five-act comedies. Great writers from the same generation sometimes sound very similar in verbal style and choose to work in the same form: It is this factor that drives competition. Shakespeare sounds so much like Marlowe early on that you can watch him figuring out how to reverse-engineer and outconstruct the Marlovian line. End digression.
Two. A great audience likes depth to have an attractive surface.
Great audiences are, paradoxically, not all that tolerant of opaque poetspeak and stuff that doesn’t make any frigging sense. You can have a character or characters drone on (Levin, the Chorus), but even long-winded characters make sense. Nonsense is limited to the mad characters or the Fool in Shakespeare (like the Fool in Lear), and even then it’s a witty, playful subversion of sense–it’s nonsense, not nonsequitur. The 20th-century Surrealist kind of nonsequitur is missing from most (all?) of the works preserved through the centuries. Historically at least, great audiences seem to prefer a degree of instant comprehensibility and action that develops with a degree of psychological realism, even if what’s happening is over-the-top violent or outright supernatural. This holds true of Homer as it does of the major ages of tragedy (Greek, Elizabethan, and French), as it does of the 19th century novel. Early 20th century Europe introduces several exceptions, but the preference for clarity reasserts itself with Latin American magical realists and several of America’s own excellent, 20th-century novelists. (The kind of lastingness I’m speaking of, however, can’t be ascertained this early for 20th-century writers–even our view of the 19th century, I suspect, is crowded by our proximity to it. So I’ll stick to the Far Retro, where the signal-to-noise ratio is higher.)
Surface clarity, I suspect, helps with longevity. A reader, centuries after the publication date, doesn’t hit a wall. Clarity decreases the discouragement of an encounter across a cultural and historical gulf. Great writers, pressured by their great audience to entertain (“my aim, which was to please”), seem to keep up a certain minimum of action and clarity (not the same thing as simplicity) of expression. The great audience colludes in making the work accessible to the future by demanding that the work be accessible to itself, now.
Impenerable, “experimental” poets take note: If few care for your work today, it’s quite likely that none will care for it in the future. Wilfully obscure writers expecting redemptive posthumous discovery should remember that Emily Dickinson is the exception. And furthermore: Her work is clearer than clear. Her work is so clear it’s light itself, and, being light, its surface is its depth. In other words: Make sense.
Three. A great audience rewards excessiveness.
We tend to think of a great work as a well-made work, perfectly proportioned, not a word out of place. This is the novel as Flaubert conceived it. And yet Flaubert, too, is guilty of his own kind of excess: An excessive attention to every last word. Other lasting writers have indulged in other kinds of stylistic excesses—Shakespeare’s were rhetorical figures and metaphors, Tolstoy’s were digressive mini-essays, Goethe’s were poetic styles—but you will not find any permanent literary beauty without excess somewhere. The guarded, the cautious, the small-scale, the modest, the well-crafted—such books may be rewarded (in our own time, at the national level), but they are rarely preserved. They are not preserved because guardedness, caution, smallness, modesty, and craft can be replaced in any given generation. What is irreplaceable is excess: Of verbal kinesis, religious intensity, intellectual voracity. The 19th century Russian novel, though admittedly not chock-full of poetic firecrackers, is a drawn-out, episodic, digressive, multi-character affair, compared to the kinds of writing that went before it. That particular great Audience rewarded that loose-baggy-monster excess by buying up the periodicals in which these giant works were serialized chapter by chapter. The London theater audience rewarded the flights of imagery and wit in a Shakespearean monologue the way 19th century opera audiences applauded an aria.
The magic of excess is not to be underestimated. It is the key to permanence. I would nominate Moby-Dick as the consummate work of Excess: Everything hypertrophied, whale-like, and accordingly unignorable. Most contemporary writers would point to David Foster Wallace as the supreme recent exemplar of the power of excess. But excess, whether in an individual great writer or clusters of great writers, seems to be the main underlying factor of greatness. The future is as uninterested in works of modest ambition as it is in works of language-bending syntactical experimentation.
So, after all that: How can a writer become capital-G great? The principles seem straightforward enough. Entertain us with words. Don’t shoot for posterity, and don’t shoot for your favorite literary era. Entertain us, the living, here and now, with words. But don’t have too much fun with it, or at least not so much fun you quit making sense (I’m talking to you, author of Finnegans Wake). And finally, pursue excess. Doesn’t matter what kind—but if at least one feature of your literary face isn’t out of all proportion, the future will have nothing to remember you by.