In Cakes and Ale (1930), William Somerset Maugham has Willie Ashenden - his narrator and stand-in - explain that, in reputation-building terms, 'longevity is genius.' He comes out with this idea while discussing the case of his friend Edward Driffield, a Hardy-like figure who becomes the Grand Old Man of English Letters after seeing off late Victorian accusations of impropriety. Ashenden, who finds most of Driffield's novels rather boring and melodramatic, has decided that elderly authors who have 'ceased for twenty years to write anything of interest' are respected in part because younger writers stop seeing them as rivals, but chiefly because 'intelligent people after the age of 30 read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them.' Longevity is also important because it gives the aspiring Grand Old Man enough time to be appropriately prolific. 'It is no good his thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence . . . His production must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.'
LRB 1 September 2005 | PDF Download