Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ups and Downs- or Not?

I spent a few minutes at Barnes & Noble with my 86-year-old father this weekend (he can only stand comfortably for a few minutes at a time before his knees start causing him real problems) browsing the "Literature" shelves to see if I might have missed something from any of my past favorite writers, some of whom I've been reading for decades.

I was forced to walk the aisles at a lot quicker pace than I like and, as the names flashed by, I started to wonder something about the ones that caught my eye: in what direction is their work trending? That is, does their later work stack up to what came before?

Here are a few of the names that jumped out at me, along with my gut feelings about the current state of their work (or at least my own reaction to that work):

Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith/Lauren Kelly - As good, if not better, than ever

John Irving - In decline and actually beginning to lose me as a fan

James Lee Burke - see Joyce Carol Oates, above

Robert B. Parker - In terminal decline - I've stopped keeping up with him at all

Ruth Rendell / Barbara Vine - Current work strikes me as better than her earliest work but not as good as her best of her middle period work

Harry Turtledove - seems to write the same two books over and over again

Pat Conroy - has written true classics and is capable of writing another any time out

Anne Tyler - not quite achieving what she did in her earlier books but still one of the best out there

Elmer Kelton - later work is some of his best and includes a classic western or two

Larry McMurtry - his middle years produced his best work but he's still worth a look with every new book

Stephen King - Horror bores me now but I don't know if that's King fault or if I finally just grew up

Elizabeth George - Getting better and better

Tom Wolfe - Last couple of books make me wonder if he was ever as good as I first believed

Jane Smiley - Early work, I loved; later work and her wacko political stance has turned me completely off her writing

Dennis Lehane - later work is excellent but I still miss his Kenzie/Gennaro series
Those are the names that jumped off the shelf at me as I sprinted through the store well aware that my time was limited. I didn't buy a thing because the pace of the visit through me off, and I started to wonder on the way home if the writers have actually changed (declined, as often as not) or if I'm the one who has changed. Maybe my tastes are so different today from what they were years ago that I overrated authors at one point and can see them more clearly now for what they really are...or vice versa. Who knows?


  1. I think our tastes change over time but so do the way authors write. Your fast trip through the bookstore reminds me of my trips through the library w/my son.

  2. John Updike seems to be repeating himself, fiction-wise. This might be a good time for me to explore more of his nonfiction writing.

  3. Larry McMurtry can be great (we just watched "Lonesome Dove" last night; I remember staying up until 2:00 s.m. three nights in a row to finish the book), but he can also be not so great. "The Last Picture Show" was wonderful. The sequels to it were not.

    He has had a few stinkers -- I think they publish him as a brand and sometimes he just wants some cash.

  4. This is an interesting post. I'll have to think of some of my favorites and see how they stack up. I really think the changes are most often a combination of things -- you being in a different place and changes in the author's style, as well. Of course, every author is entitled to one or two less than stellar offerings in a lifetime of great work.

  5. Lisa, you are so right. On the whole, I really like Larry McMurtry.

    You're also right about being in a different place. I hate "Great Expectations" as a ninth-grader; I loved it as a college sophomore. I was convinced it wasn't the same book, but it was I who had changed.

    Maybe I should give "Lord Jim" another chance.

  6. They change; we change. I remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school and liking it, but after having my first daughter, I had much more invested in Hester. Some more current authors increase in skill, some seem to be just revisiting the same theme with little or no improvement. And like you, I wonder why I liked some authors in the first place. Or...conversely, why I didn't. Great topic.

  7. The authors weren't overrated by you years ago, they struck a chord with you at the time. Times change. We as readers and writers as well.

    But I do remember liking Scarlett O'Hara and Heathcliff much more when I read their stories back as a teenager than I did rereading both books in the last couple of years. Oh my. Spoiled snots, both of them.