Brain Pickings

The Creative Pace of the 20th Century’s Greatest Authors, Visualized

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A visual taxonomy of lives and literary greatness.

Almost as contentious as the questions of what the greatest books of all time are and what makes a classic is the question of what goes into the making of a literary masterpiece. We look to the daily routines and odd habits of famous writers for clues, but surely there must something more to it, something unqualifiable and unquantifiable. That’s the sort of challenge that my friend Giorgia Lupi and her amazing data visualization team at Accurat — who have previously visualized such diverse cultural curiosities as the history of the Nobel Prize, the lives of famous painters, science fiction’s visions for the future, and the 100 geniuses of language — like to tackle.

In this graphic analysis originally published in Italy’s La Lettura and adapted in English exclusively for Brain Pickings, they set out to quantify the genius behind the most acclaimed fiction of the twentieth century. Using the Modern Library ranking of the best English novels published between 1900 and 1999, as well as several data sets of biographical information, they visualized the timespan between each author’s debut work and the publication of his or her novel(s) included in the ranking.

Color triangles in each circle depict the author’s age at the time of the debut novel as well as at the time of his or her subsequent masterworks. For nearly a third of the authors — 22 of the 75 authors — the debut and the first masterpiece coincide, so a single yellow triangle points to the age at which that author published the respective novel. The circumference of the circle corresponds to the author’s lifespan, out of a possible 100 years for the full circle. The author’s hometown is also listed, color-coded to indicate the continent of its location. (Larger version here.)

One of the curious insights is that for more than half of the authors — 38 out of 75 — the timespan between the debut and the first masterpiece is no more than five years. What also emerges is a certain taxonomy of author types: the “superauthors” who sustain high creative output over their entire lives (Joyce, Lawrence, Forster, Conrad, Faulkner, Waugh, James); those who peak early, then drop off (Mailer, Hughes, Donleavy, Salinger); and those who the data suggests may have produced a great deal more had they lived longer (West, Orwell, London, Fitzgerald, Lawrence).

For more on what goes into the making of great literature, see the collected advice of famous authors. For more of Accurat’s wonderful visualizations, see their portfolio and their previous Brain Pickings exclusives.

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