One thing that’s underestimated about writing is how now-or-never it is, how suddenly it crowds out of a few people. Many of the most powerful, permanent “ages” in literature have actually spanned less than a single writer’s lifetime—frequently, and I have no idea why this is, three or four decades. So the “Golden Age” of Elizabethan literature falls roughly between 1590 and 1620; the Big Four Tragedies of Shakespeare, and many of the immortal comedies, all clustered within the first decade of the seventeenth century. I myself consider the nineteenth century Russian novel to be one of the peaks of human literary expression—at the risk of, er, overstating it a bit, I think it represents, like Elizabethan drama, a formal and psychological leap in the portrayal of the human condition—but between Dead Souls (1842) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) we have, again, four decades. Crime and Punishment was serialized in the same periodical and at the same time as War and Peace.
Talent tends to cluster and crackle on contact—a lot of permanent work gets written by a handful of major writers, all at once, and then things peter off. Now a critic’s tendency here would be to point out something like, hey, the Russian novel didn’t die with Dostoevsky, what about The Death of Ivan Ilych, what about The Master and Margarita, what about this, what about that. I would counter that I’m not saying good or great work doesn’t get written before and after a Peak. The tendency toward the Peak—I dare not say law of—gives us results like any peak in graphed data: We see an upslope and a downslope, and outliers. The tendency, being a tendency, is not without obvious exceptions: Several decades, not just three or four, elapsed between the first play of Aeschylus and the last one of Euripides.
Incidentally, it’s possible for a writer who defines the Peak to outlive the Peak. This is why Tolstoy the writer (d. 1910) outlived the novelist Tolstoy we treasure today. Wordsworth, similarly, ground on writing now-nearly-unreadable political sonnets until 1850, well after English Romanticism’s conventionally delimited thirty-four-year Peak between Lyrical Ballads (1798) and the death of Sir Walter Scott (1832). All of Keats and Shelley and Byron, much of the Prelude, Frankenstein and Ivanhoe and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner—all of those works were clustered in two decades. Many of the major works of English-language Modernism crowded out pretty suddenly, too, with The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Woolf’s major novels coming out over about twenty years. The harder you look, the more you notice this. In retrospect, several of the most cherished works of Latin poetry—Virgil’s Aeneid (19 B.C.), Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 B.C.), and Horace’s Odes (23 B.C.)—were published close together in time as well.
Part of the perception of a Peak has to do with the critical practice of dividing literature into “eras” and “ages.” Some would object to the practice and argue that literary production in a culture takes place on a continuum, both of chronology and quality, and that it is merely the scholar’s desire to circumscribe and define a Subject for Study that influences our perception.
But this widespread critical practice is in place not without justification—it may be that it has come about to describe, as accurately as possible, the hard data of publication dates and the soft binary of permanence/impermanence.
In fact, it may be that the most enduring “works of literature” are actually the sum total of work produced in a Peak. It’s born of the mutual quickening of great rivalries/friendships between writers who look at each other (Shakespeare-Marlowe, Goethe-Schiller), and who in turn look out upon a great, transient, hungry audience. These so-called great ages of literature could be considered as a single, multi-book collaboration between a few individuals and their readership. A few lightning-rod pens draw down, in several sudden flashes, the vast dispersed electrical charge of a society.