We all know that which book or author “takes off” and which one doesn’t is, at least in part, a matter of chance. The process by which large numbers of readers, or a relatively smaller number of critics and judges, “decide” on this or that book contains too many variables to be predicted—most notably, the variable subjective response of individual brains to a fixed sequence of words.
Think about how many memories, experiences, private tastes, and prior readings contribute to your response to a novel or poem: It is an astonishing feat to elicit a consistently favorable response. And may well be impossible; the most popular books in the world, including the Holy Bible and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (whose ratings average is higher than the Holy Bible’s on Goodreads), all have their 2- or 1-star reviewers. You can’t please everyone, as Internet comment threads (and sites like Goodreads) have proven forever. Go on Goodreads.com and filter the reviews of The Diary of Anne Frank for 1-star reviews. Read and marvel.
This is why the job of publishers and editors is so hard; they can pick books to publish season after season, year after year, and sometimes a book sells copies and gains positive reviews, and other times it doesn’t. Publishers guess wrong all the time: Insert anecdote of manuscript rejected several times before becoming cherished classic.
In literature, though, there is a higher form of unpredictability that has nothing to do with sales figures, book-review columns, and the fanfare of awards. Consider the unpredictability of creativity itself: The utter unlikelihood that a given person, or environment, or combination of person and environment, will give rise to some indestructibly attractive sequence of letters. Biographical Easter Egg hunts and influence-parsing is a pointless activity: You aren’t discovering root causes; in fact, you aren’t even discovering loose associations.
Take all early 20th-century English medievalists as a cohort: This group would never, in the year 1950, have been pegged as the one that would produce The Lord of the Rings, that is, a series of novels that would go on to be the basis of blockbuster Hollywood films. Nor could anyone have predicted Othello coming out of an middle-aged Englishman with a grammar school education. It’s only the retrospective gaze that looks from the successful work back to the life and circumstances. This, that, and the other—Medieval Studies, World War Two, his personal heroin addiction—“factored into,” “influenced,” “lurked behind” Tolkien’s magnum opus. Really? Did they? Actually these are incidental elements of personality which, should they recombine a thousand, a million times in different men, would never produce another Tolkien, or another Gollem.
This phenomenon—the creation of a lasting novel or poem—may well be unpredictable, not because it is too complex (see above), but because it is random. This may be why good, or even great, examples of writing are commonplace, at least compared to lasting ones. A lasting novel or poem appears, very often, as a one-off (Joseph Heller and Thomas Gray both wrote a great deal of work besides the ones for which they will be remembered). Robert Frost once opined that his aim was to “lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.” Not a 10-volume Complete Works, but a few poems: He understood the endgame perfectly. And he pursued it the way such an endgame should be pursued: A modest output, and that output all of a piece.
Productivity and versatility are the least of the literary virtues, simply because writers are usually remembered and loved, if they are remembered and loved at all, for one kind of writing, and often for one poem or novel. With poets, this tendency is very clear to see; no poet, to my knowledge, has written a single poem and seen it rocket into permanence, and never written a single poem after it. Several novelists are remembered only for a single novel, even though they wrote many more. We read Don Quijote; Cervantes’ prose fiction to either side of it, in time, fell away. Like Persiles y Sigismunda. Often it’s a writing style that lasts; most know Arthur Conan Doyle as the author of detective fiction, but few know him as the historical novelist of The White Company. I believe this happens, not because an author can’t be “good” at more than one thing, but because the statistical likelihood of that event in question (a writer writing a good book that lasts) occurring more than once is too low. Also, we like to hold a writer in the mind as a single, consistent, coherent person; anything that violates that personhood is ignored or suppressed. So only scholars focus on the Flaubert of St. Antoine and Salammbo. To the literary culture at large, he’s the author of Madame Bovary, as if that were even half of the complete writer we misrepresent with the name “Gustave Flaubert.”
The few writers who do produce numerous good, lasting books or poems get called “geniuses,” and this word has an aura to it, a hint of supernatural or divine origin: In Latin, genius was a word for an “attendant spirit present from one’s birth.” The cult of genius has only grown with the decline of traditional religion among the intellectual class; secular atheists and humanists of all stripes revere human creativity instead of a Creator God. This makes sense: The human in question hasn’t really accomplished this feat with dedication and skill and practice; that person has been the beneficiary of repeated flukes. Winning the lottery once is luck. Winning it “a few” times (in the Frostian sense of “a few”) is an indication the universe likes you better than other people.