Exploring whether it’s a coincidence that so many famous authors have six letters in both first and last names.
Our currently local newspaper recently carried an article about Robert Jordan, the now-deceased author of what is, apparently, ‘one of fantasy’s most acclaimed series’; to wit, The Wheel of Time. Now, as part of my general dislocation from popular culture, I admit freely that I’ve never heard of these books, although with 44 million copies in print worldwide it’s hard to see how I haven’t tripped over one of them. (I don’t know who Rob and Kristen are, either, although I see their names frequently at the checkout stand. And while we’re at it, can anyone explain to me why the Kardashians are famous? But I digress.)
The article on Mr. Jordan presented his life in a ‘by the numbers’ format:
2 Tours in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner
14 Books in series
179 Weeks on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list for all his books
909 Pages in final book
58 Age at death in 2007
That sort of thing. So that got me to thinking. How might someone summarize my life as a writer, by the numbers? Maybe something like this…
43 Articles accepted and published since 2003
1 Article accepted but never published (Hey, it happens)
1 Article published but never accepted (It was just a little ‘stake)
154 Blogs posted
0 Weeks on anyone’s best-selling list (sniff)
So that got me to thinking too. Which correlates better with writerly success: tours in Vietnam, where I won’t ever be Mr. Jordan’s match, or having six letters in both your names, where I’m on equal footing?
Poking around a bit online for other successful writers, I found Robert Ludlum (note the six and six) who wrote 27 books, littered the planet with somewhere between 300 and 500 million copies of his books, but was also a US Marine. Drat ““ no resolution there. But Thomas Clancy (also six and six) prospered in roughly the same line of storytelling with no military service to his credit. OK, we could be onto something here.
Surveying other genres, I found a strong array of ‘six and six’ writers. Do you want an English satirist? Aldous Huxley’s your man. A Lebanese counterculture poet? Khalil Gibran. An American playwright? Arthur Miller. A concentration-camp survivor, neurologist and psychologist? Viktor Frankl. An Irish poet and playwright? Seamus Heaney. An American-born Canadian children’s author? Robert Munsch.
Are you looking for a Polish anti-hero novelist? Take Joseph Conrad. An American anti-war satirist? Go with Joseph Heller. An English anti-fascist? Choose George Orwell, whose two novels (Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) have together sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th century author (who tracks this stuff?). George, you’ll note, even had the wit to choose his pen name to correct the numerical disadvantages of his given name (Eric Blair).
Can all these double sixes be coincidence? Well, yeah, they can. Just as John Gray, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jules Verne, Franz Kafka, Henry James and Charles Dickens owe nothing to their 4/4, 5/5 or 7/7 status.
As impressive as his numbers are, the interesting bits about Robert Jordan have more to do with the stories behind them. As a casual observer of the human condition and an occasional colleague of retired military personnel, I’d love to know how a two-tour helicopter gunner morphed into a best-selling fantasy writer. As an editor myself, I’d also like to know how hard his editor worked to bring that final book in at exactly 909 pages, or how much fun they had in doing so. But both those stories, I’m thinking, have yet to be written.
And as modest as some of my numbers are, the story there is also yet to be written. As son-the-younger once responded to a request for his six-word obituary, Not finished yet, so can’t summarize. That sounds right. Or, as Yogi Berra said in another context, It ain’t over ’til it’s over. And there are those darned sixes again…