There are no doubt fans of Stevie Smith’s poetry, but for most of us, I suspect she was a one hit wonder with ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. Here you have a case where a single poem is loved by many people.
Robert Frost is one of my favourite poets, but out of a ‘collected works’ running to several hundred poems there is only a handful I regard as ‘great’. In fact, I wonder if greatness in literature is often to do with readers’ responses to a handful of works out of a whole cannon. That’s why when I’m ‘marking’ students of creative writing I always think of the metaphor of the mountain: we measure a writer as we measure a mountain, by the height of the peaks, not by the bulk.
What also happens, I suspect, is that with some writers all of the people think some of the work is great, though not many may think that all of it is, but not all of the people think that the same parts of it are great! We each have different favourites. Academics, taking a more detached view, will recognise the qualities that make for favourites as being present across the board (and on their days off, will, I bet, secretly and guiltily, have their own favourites too – if you’ll excuse the enterprisingly split infinitive).
I wonder if the same is true for short story writers, whose output, in terms of individual works must often match if not exceed that of the poets – saving the presence of those who churn out a poem a day, of course. I am drawing close to having read the entire prose output of A.E.Coppard, as part of an ongoing study, and have found, among the two hundred or so short stories, a handful that for me stand out above the rest. There are many that I enjoyed reading, but only a few that seem truly ‘great’. Curiously this handful lies not only among his earlier works, but also among those which I read first, which makes me question to what extent my first encounters with a writer will tend to be the most rewarding.
I had a similar experience with Cormac McCarthy, enjoying all his novels, but finding them all, to some extent, disappointing compared to the first that I read, the mid-canon ‘Blood Meridian’.
Heretically, perhaps, from an academic, lit-crit perspective, which wants us to value art as we might science (ie, measurably), I wonder if it matters in the least that the shock of the new overwhelms the experience of later readings. Writers may have their trajectories, intentional and not so, but readers are neither duty bound nor necessarily inclined to ride them. After all, it’s what poems and stories means to us that really matters, not what they may have meant to them, or have they fit into somebody’s thesis. I do have to ask though, whether or not, if I start reading at a writer’s later works I will think that he developed as he wrote on; whereas if I start reading at the beginning, I’ll think he did his (or her) best work first? So much for objective evaluations.