January 2, 2013

Career arc: P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves Novels

Baseball statistician Bill James popularized the notion of a career arc for a baseball player, which showed that teams had to discipline themselves not to overpay for famous free agents: you shouldn't be offering a five year contract to a 31 year old that's based on  assuming he'll perform as well as he had over the previous five years. In James' analysis, ballplayers peaked at around age 27 (although developments over the last generation might have pushed that peak back a year or so).

Most such analyses of peak age are pretty depressing. By the time you start wondering what the peak age is in your field, you are probably past it. 

So, here's a more encouraging table: P.G. Wodehouse's 15 comic novels about Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves. Born in late 1881, Wodehouse didn't publish his first Jeeves novel until he was about 37 and published his last in his 90s. 

Jeeves novels are good for making apples to apples comparisons of the impact of age on career performance. Usually, changes in style make comparing an artist's work over time mostly a matter of personal taste. How does Steven Spielberg's Lincoln compare to his Jaws? Well, your mileage may vary depending upon whether you like uplift or terror. Jeeves novels, however, are all written in a single style to a single standard with a single intention: to please readers.

Goodreads offers ratings by an average of 3,751 readers for each Jeeves novel. On a 1 to 5 scale, the average Jeeves novel is rated 4.24. In the table below, red numbers are ratings below the mean of 4.24, black numbers above the mean. 

1882 4.24 3751
Novel Year Age Rating Raters
 My Man Jeeves (Jeeves, #1) 1919 37 (0.13) 2260
 The Inimitable Jeeves (Jeeves, #2) 1923 41 (0.00) 2215
 Carry on, Jeeves (Jeeves, #3) 1925 43 0.02 2749
 Very Good, Jeeves! (Jeeves, #4) 1930 48 0.10 (727)
 Thank You, Jeeves (Jeeves, #5) 1934 52 0.02 638
 Right Ho, Jeeves (Jeeves, #6) 1934 52 0.05 3346
 The Code of the Woosters (Jeeves, #7) 1938 56 0.11 3309
 Jeeves in the Morning (Jeeves, #8) 1946 64 0.11 (1076)
 The Mating Season (Jeeves, #9) 1949 67 (0.00) (1853)
 Ring for Jeeves (Jeeves, #10) 1953 71 (0.20) (2839)
 Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (Jeeves, #11) 1954 72 0.05 (1533)
 How Right You Are, Jeeves (Jeeves, #12) 1960 78 (0.03) (1966)
 Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (Jeeves, #13) 1963 81 0.05 (752)
 Jeeves and the Tie That Binds (Jeeves, #14) 1971 89 (0.01) (1894)
 Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (Jeeves, #15) 1974 92 (0.07) (1879)

The consistency of ratings over time is the most striking fact. But a few temporal patterns can be discerned due to the huge sample sizes of raters. My Man Jeeves at age 37 was a rookie effort, falling 0.13 points below his career mean. Wodehouse hit a long peak from his early 40s into his early 60s with six straight Jeeves novels rated above his career average, but his ratings slip only marginally in his old age.

Another input is the number of raters for each book, with a mean of 3751. The last column notes whether the number of raters was above or below the mean. The number of raters is a measure of the fame or popularity or availability of the book. I suspect that a high rating from a large number of raters is better than an equal rating from a small number of raters since smaller audiences reflect more hardcore fans. The last eight novels all have below average numbers of raters, suggesting that the fairly high ratings of these books are probably a little generous.

The peak is probably 1938's (age 56) The Code of the Woosters. The topical political satire of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascist Blackshirts, as Bertie's nemesis Sir Roderick Spode, leader of the Blackshorts, makes the book stand out. 

The next novel was 1946's (age 64) Jeeves in the Morning (formerly Joy in the Morning), which Wodehouse had a lot of time to work on while he was interned by the Nazis (he was caught at his beach home in France in 1940). It has equally high ratings as Code of the Woosters, although fewer raters. In 1982, Alexander Cockburn designated Code and Morning to be the peaks of the series.

Ring for Jeeves (age 71) is the most obvious dud, but Wodehouse rebounded well. For example, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, published when he was about age 81, garnered above average ratings from over 3,000 raters. That's pretty extraordinary.

Statistically minded Wodehouse fans can do the same exercise for his Blandings Castle novels.

Here's the Goodreads page for Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin 20 sea story novels. The first, Master and Commander, published when he was 54, has the lowest rating, 4.07 out of 5. (It offers a lot of nautical know-how. Is there a better introduction to the series?)

O'Brian appears to have hit his peak in his sixties and then maintained something close to that into his eighties. The highest rated book, The Letter of Marque (4.40), was published at age 73.

(By the way, a five-point scale isn't fine enough for high-quality series like Wodehouse and O'Brian.)

On the other hand, the number of raters falls with each book published, suggesting that readers typically start at the beginning of the series and only the most hardcore fans finish all 20 books. So, once again, the ratings of the later books may be a little generous due to a selection effect.

But, overall, pretty impressive.

44 comments:

Education Realist said...

Great idea. I don't know Goodreads well, but I can think of two other very popular genre authors with long careers--Agatha Christie and Dick Francis. I wonder how they do?

In general, I'd guess that film directors have a weak final decade, truly great authors are more likely to fall off the quality cliff during the last third or even half of their careers. Genre authors probably have the longest life of decent to solid productivity.

FredR said...

I could never tell any of them apart anyways, which I suppose is evidence for your argument.

Whiskey said...

Let's not forget the great, Donald E. Westlake, and Rex Stout, who both churned out the Dortmunder and Nero Wolfe novels on a regular basis. In Westlake's case, I'd say his last ones were as good if not better than his first.

Because I think a lot of writing is like great cooking, knowing the ingredients, the methods appropriate to each, and development of skill.

Prof. Woland said...

Franz Joseph Haydn was a classical composer who began writing his best music when he was well into his 40s and continued to do so for a few decades. Mozart, his friend and comtemporary, was dead at 35.

anony-mouse said...

A lot of Wodehouse readers I suspect are old people themselves, so they might better appreciate the tone of a book written by an older person.

They might, rightly or wrongly prefer a type of book (see A. Christie) that over the years is more and more written to formula and familiarity.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There is something of a cumulative effect, however. I have not the energy nor subtlety to untangle that, but The Code Of The woosters, though widely considered the best (or at least in the top few) is not a good place to start. It is a good read only after you have learned what this fuss about Bertram Wooster and his dashed brilliant Jeeves are all about.

Gould K. L. Brownlee said...

You could do a similar analysis with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series. it doesn't cover as many decades, but it is does extend over the last 30 years of O'Brian's life.

I've read all 20 novels a couple of times and there is some noticeable decline toward the end. The writing becomes a little automatic sometimes like he's not really paying attention to what he's doing; writing and day dreaming.

He's still great though. The 20 volumes essentially read like one really long book. Very hard to put down especially if you're interested in the era.

Anonymous said...

I've read Right Ho, Jeeves, Jeeves in the Morning and Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. They were all great.

Writing has a very unusual age profile. I've read really, really good books, top shelf stuff, written by septuagenarians. Can't think of any other field of intellectual endeavor where it is possible to stay on top that long. Crystallized intelligence increases until late in life. Maybe writing uses it.

One other weird thing about writing: I don't think one improves in it with practice. Good writing must be original. The thousandth time you try to come up with an original, amusing turn of phrase isn't any easier than the first time.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I see a big difference between the pre-war Wooster and the stuff done in the 60s.

You'd think writers wouldn't decline as they age, but they do. Hemingway, Twain, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoi - they reach a peak and then decline in middle and old age.

But then look at Bill James, you see the same career arc. And Einstein started out strong, then coasted on his earlier great findings the last 25 years of his life.

Anonymous said...

"You could do a similar analysis with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series."

I've read the first 8 volumes so far, published when O'Brian was 55 to 67. Haven't noticed any difference in quality among them. I think he only became a commercial success midway through the series, at around 70? He'd been publishing since his teenage years.

"Very hard to put down especially if you're interested in the era."

Yes. And it's a shockingly enormous achievement. The amount of knowledge he needed to acquire before starting it seems inhuman, the amount of effort it must have taken to write that much at that high a level seems enormous too. And he started the execution of it, the writing part, so late.

sunbeam said...

For god's sake. How can you call yourself American while fetishizing brits so much?

My memory is long. Just 246 years ago these guys had Americans stuffed into hellhole prison ships in Charleston harbor.

I do not forgive or forget until I have the brit responsible, or his descendants, in a position of total submission with a sizeable monetary compensation on the table, and a total understanding of the fact that our fire burns hotter.

If you don't have this, I don't think you should call yourself American.

Mr Tall said...

I'm a pretty big Agatha Christie fan, and I'd say she announced her peak when she was in her mid-30s, with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and maintained her high standards into her early 70s. But there is a marked drop-off after that; her later novels (e.g. Elephants Can Remember) are still fun in places, but are frequently turgid and a bit indulgent, and she almost abandons any attempt to make Poirot, for example, sound like a Belgian detective rather than an aging upper-middle class Englishwoman.

Anonymous said...

"It offers a lot of nautical know-how. Is there a better introduction to the series?

The series tells a single story. I think it should be read in order. As for the know-how, I've been using "A Sea of Words" by Dean King. It's a reference book written specifically for the Aubrey/Maturin series. Personally, I'm glad I learned a lot of this terminology. I feel like I understand sailing, the Napoleonic period and the nature of the British Empire better because of it.

The battle scenes are really, really engrossing. If O'Brian started the first book with one, he would have probably become more commercially successful, and earlier. My advice to people starting the series is not to give up until the big battle scene between the Sophie and the Cacafuego. If you read through that without much interest, then the series is not for you.

bjdubbs said...

Sick Boy: It's certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: What do you mean?
Sick Boy: Well, at one time, you've got it, and then you lose it, and it's gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed...
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: Some of his solo stuff's not bad.
Sick Boy: No, it's not bad, but it's not great either. And in your heart you kind of know that although it sounds all right, it's actually just shite.
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: So who else?
Sick Boy: Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley...
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: OK, OK, so what's the point you're trying to make?
Sick Boy: All I'm trying to do is help you understand that The Name of The Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: What about The Untouchables?
Sick Boy: I don't rate that at all.
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: Despite the Academy Award?
Sick Boy: That means fuck all. Its a sympathy vote.
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: Right. So we all get old and then we can't hack it anymore. Is that it?
Sick Boy: Yeah.
Mark "Rent-boy" Renton: That's your theory?
Sick Boy: Yeah. Beautifully fucking illustrated.

Steve Sailer said...

"The series tells a single story."

How does O'Brian deal with the passing of historical time? The peak of the war at sea in the Napoleonic years is about 1792-1805, with Trafalgar permanently relieving the greatest danger of French sea power.

Cail Corishev said...

I've read nearly all of Dick Francis's books, and my impression is that they became more formulaic later in his life. But then, that could be me -- maybe as I read more of his books, I got better at recognizing the formula. It's hard to separate the two, but I still find his earlier books more interesting and worth re-reading.

dearieme said...

If I may be permitted an observation, Sir, it's valet rather than butler.

Thank you, Jeeves.

dearieme said...

In (British) academic life it used to be that if you lost your taste for research and teaching you would go to an administrative job. The most famous case was Newton going to run the Royal Mint. That all supposes, of course, that there are academics who can be trusted with an administrative job. But there used to be lots of them, which had the huge benefit that universities weren't in the hands of administration "professionals".

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Sickboy's Grand Unifying Theory of Life from the movie Trainspotting. To paraphrase from memory; You get old, and you canna' hack it any more. At one point you have it, and then you lose it. And it's gone, forever.

Anonymous said...

Oh, looks like bjdubbs beat me to it. Never mind.

Education Realist said...

But there is a marked drop-off after that; her later novels (e.g. Elephants Can Remember) are still fun in places, but are frequently turgid and a bit indulgent, and she almost abandons any attempt to make Poirot, for example, sound like a Belgian detective rather than an aging upper-middle class Englishwoman.

Her last few books probably were written while she was in the early stages of Alzheimers. But certainly through her 70s, she was doing respectable work. I'd say her last excellent work was Cat Among the Pigeons, written at 69, and in most of her subsequent books there's at least a twist that's new. Not bad for a woman whose work relied on the twists.

I think her first book, Mysterious Affair at Styles, is far more enjoyable a reread than most of her next ten.

Anonymous said...

"How does O'Brian deal with the passing of historical time?"

He started in 1800 and went past 1805 very early, within a couple of volumes, if I recall correctly. The Battale of Trafalgar is not shown. The War of 1812 between Britain and the US is already shown in volume 6. He didn't plan on writing 20 books when he started, so he burned through most of the war in the first few volumes. I've read that in later books he played sleight-of-hand with time, rewinding it and playing it back, but having finished volume 8 I haven't gotten to that yet.

O'Brian didn't need enormous fleet actions to keep Captain Aubrey busy. There were things going on throughout the war that served to provide a single ship with storylines. Some volumes are set very far from the center of things, for example in the Indian Ocean. They're still fascinating.

Anonymous said...

A clarification:

In human terms, at least as far as I've gotten, the Aubrey/Maturin books definitely tell a single story. Who marries whom, who feels what about whom, who gets promoted, who dies - that is best learned in sequence.

Anonymous said...

Dan Brown hit his peak in 1991 at 27.

It is a shame he then went into novels.

chucho said...

You could have farmed out all this intense number crunching to India, probably pro-bono. I mean, they *love* the guy.

Hunsdon said...

Sunbeam: I do not forgive or forget until I have the brit responsible, or his descendants, in a position of total submission with a sizeable monetary compensation on the table, and a total understanding of the fact that our fire burns hotter.

Hunsdon: Magnanimity in victory, Sunbeam.

ribock said...

How about Shakespeare?

LBD said...

The "Jeeves and Wooster" miniseries starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry is outstanding, and very close in letter and spirit to the books.

I always refer to the Patrick O'Brien novels as "Jane Austen for guys". There's the same pleasurable immersion in that era, but from a male rather than a female perspective. I also had to refer to "A Sea of Words" nautical dictionary to penetrate the technical sailing stuff, but it was well worth it. Every man to whom I have recommended the series has loved it and was sorry to finish the 20th book.

Otis McWrong said...

Steve Sailer said..."How does O'Brian deal with the passing of historical time? The peak of the war at sea in the Napoleonic years is about 1792-1805, with Trafalgar permanently relieving the greatest danger of French sea power."

Jack Aubrey just grows older and slowly (very slowly) increases in rank. He spends a lot of time "on the beach" drawing half pay. They're not all based on the Napoleonic Wars. Its been 15 or more years since I've read them but one deals with the War of 1812 (Aubrey thought it was pointless), in another he's wandering around the Pacific, etc.

amendment_xxviii said...

"How does O'Brian deal with the passing of historical time?"

O'Brian mentions the time issue in the foreword to at least one of the later books. One of the details (that illustrates his depth of expertise) is his apology to readers for keeping Admiral Saumarez in theater for an extra month. He does need to compress the duration of some events, and time seems to stand still whenever the action is ashore or out in the Pacific. He also leaves some concurrent events unmentioned to leave the specific timing ambiguous.

It also helps that the scale of events in the later books is much smaller - O'Brian cherry-picks some of the more remarkable single-ship actions from the era and shifts them around in time.

Anonymous said...

I saw an interview where O’Brian said he had to stretch the years a bit. A sort of 1812 A and 1812 B enabled him to fit in two adventures in one year. He regretted that he didn’t start the series in the beginning of the Revolutionary War, instead of at the beginning of Cochrane’s escapades ten years later. By having Aubrey staying on as captain of the frigate HMS Surprise, and not putting him on constant blockade service on a ship of the line, Aubrey and Maturin were allowed to continue to roam the seas.

Gould K.L. Brownlee said...

"How does O'Brian deal with the passing of historical time?"

He starts with the year before the Treaty of Amiens in the first book so that's 1801/02. The second book has our heroes topping it the wild bachelors in England during the short peace. They meet their love interests. Then the war starts back up while they are roaming the continent. They have a narrow escape.

The 18 books after cover the years through 1816. It all goes in chronological order, but two or three books might take place in the same year judging from the historic events alluded to. That's impossible in reality of course, but O'Brian openly admitted to doing this. When he first started the series he had no idea that it would go on so long. In one interview he said he would have started it in the 1790s if he had known.

As for the French threat at sea, it is true that their main battle fleet was not a factor after 1805, but there was a smaller war at sea involving squadrons in Asian and American waters. There were small scale battles with the French, Dutch and renegade Turks. Some major events take place during the War of 1812. There were amphibious operations with combined naval/army forces.

The main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin are almost always on smaller ships, mainly frigates, and are only occasionally attached to large fleets. Even when they are, Aubrey will generally be detached for some mission involving a small squadron or just one ship. For instance going to Illyria to help the Turks take out a French-held town or to capture a gold shipment on the Red Sea etc. All things that really happened.

A few of the books also have the captain in command of a privateer. A couple of times he's a Commodore in command of a small squadron sent to nip off some French colonies. Some of the books take place on land and involve espionage. There's no lack of things to do for a British sea captain and his violent, irritable, brilliant sidekick. Great, great stuff.

And it's not all fighting either. Many of the books linger on love interest stories, espionage, shipwreck, financial problems, etc.

O'Brian tried to write in a way that a participant in the era might write. He never breaks character so it's very similar to reading Jane Austen except that there is a lot of fighting and men doing things men do during war time.

Anonymous Rice Alum #4 said...

Publication dates are the best source of information we have pointing to the writer's age, but bear in mind, it may take a year or two between a writer completing a book and the publisher publishing it. And publication dates completely break down in cases like Heinlein's first novel, written in the '30s and published a few years ago.

Speaking of books, Steve, did you ever get my emails about independent publishing? Let me know if I can help you with that.

ironrailsironweights said...

While the n= field is small, Tom Wolfe seems to have slipped as he's gotten older. On the other hand, his fairly close contemporary Umberto Eco writes as well as ever.

Peter

Anonymous said...

Jeeves was not a butler, as he did not head a household of staff.

Jeeves was a valet, a gentleman's gentleman.

Rex Little said...

I'd be interested in an analysis of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, which spanned over 30 years until Parker's death in 2006.

C. Van Carter said...

In this interview Wodehouse describes how being ninety-one and a half has affected his daily output: "Well, I’ve slowed up a good deal now. I used to write about two thousand words. Now I suppose I do about one thousand."

Anonymous said...

The peak of the war at sea in the Napoleonic years is about 1792-1805, with Trafalgar permanently relieving the greatest danger of French sea power.

Captain Aubrey is usually in command of a frigate, which allows more latitude for action; he's not just beating back and forth outside a French port on blockade duty with the fleet, but instead out sailing around on their own having adventures and being involved in single ship actions.

The series begins in 1800 and sort of follows a chronology for a while, but towards the middle they start having five or six 1813's in different locations around the world against different opponents.

Aubrey is modeled on Cochrane, who was quite an amazing character with an improbable number of successful single ship actions against much larger foes.

The series is quite good. You can think of it as Jane Austen for men. O'Brian often has a dry sense of humor.

FredR said...

On the O'Brian-Austen comparisons, it's pretty obvious (even Wikipedia seems to have noticed) that the second book of the series, "Post-Captain", is a direct takeoff from Austen, and I'd say he does a pretty good imitation.

Anonymous said...

side note: His comic novel "Leave it To Psmith" blows away the Bertie stories, IMOP

Anonymous said...

The "Jeeves and Wooster" miniseries starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry is outstanding, and very close in letter and spirit to the books.

Actualy I always thought it made Bertie too much of a nincompoop, though i do like the series.

kaganovitch said...

Rex Little wrote "I'd be interested in an analysis of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, which spanned over 30 years until Parker's death in 2006."

It jumped the shark so to speak with "A Catskill Eagle" in the early eighties and never really recovered. Perhaps the most annoying feature of the series (much worse post A.C.E.)is the heavy ,heavy buy-in to therapeutic culture and the alleged wisdom of its practioners.

Frej Wasastjerna said...

This is pretty encouraging for me as a budding writer at 68.

Cail Corishev said...

Yes, Spenser's wife is a pretty obvious Mary Sue for Parker's wife. I think the characters even split up in the books when the two split in real life. She's way too good to be true.

Parker's early Jesse Stone books and the TV shows with Tom Selleck are good, though, so I don't think his talent dropped off that much; he just gets too in love with his characters.