Saturday, April 13, 2013

Old Hat?

Do you think after a time, most writers become old hat. Not so much that the quality of their books decline, but rather new writers with a more modern style seem to replace them. Of course, there will always be readers who stick with their favorites, but many readers move on to the next big thing.

Whose books managed to hold off time by evolving from book to book? What writer was able to find a new way to tell a new story? I am most reminded here of Stewart O'Nan and Ian McEwan who didn't allow themselves to tell similar stories from book to book. Kate Atkinson with LIFE AFTER LIFE is doing something completely original and not at all like the Jackson Brodie quartet.

I am sure there are more crime fiction writers who have done similarly. Perhaps Michael Kortya and Charlie Huston?

Who comes to mind for you? Who manages to stay fresh?

20 comments:

Todd Mason said...

I'm not sure I agree completely here...new writers (or old, evolving writers) do new work that breaks from old traditions (or builds on them, or both), but that doesn't make the older fully-realized artists outdated...pfft, what does dead old Jane Austen or Mark Twain (even given that Twain had pretty much no time for Austen) have to say to us now? There's a Bret Easton Ellis rancid confection or a Stephen King ramble to read!

Artists can reinvent themselves, or simply improve in mastery (or slide or coast, of course)...among those who kept challenging themselves, or took quantum jumps who come to mind include John Brunner, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Herman Melville, Twain, Hugh B. Cave, Kate Wilhelm, to some extent Donald Westlake...but all these writers to some extent...even Brunner and Silverberg, who intentionally did a lot of routine work while establishing themselves, were occasionally swinging for the fences even at the beginning, it's just that their suddenly more sophisticated work began to come more readily after their first decades as professional writers.

Gerald So said...

When I think of writing that stands the test of time, I don't necessarily think of writers who try new things from book to book. Instead, I think of writers whose style, if familiar after a time, is fundamentally sound, largely gimmick-free. Classic novels like THE MALTESE FALCON stand up this way, and several series have spanned more than a decade or two with the writers admirably trying to keep pace in story time: John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, Robert B. Parker's Spenser, Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective...

I think gimmicky writing (manipulation of verb tense, punctuation, infinitely split-POVs) shows its age sooner.

George said...

Francine Prose and Karen Russell come to mind as contemporary writers who never repeat themeselves.

pattinase (abbott) said...

If book number 10 does not have some significant changes from book number one, I think there is a problem. To me that would mean that the story, writing and characters are formulaic. Or that the writer has no goal beyond giving readers what they want.
Or maybe that is or should be enough, I don't know.
Topicality might not always be a good idea (Rendell is a case in point) but the character has to evolve. Walter Mosley did this well with the Easy Rawlins series, I think.
No, I am no saying the older writers should be discarded, but that writers that continue to write should evolve. Or tackle new themes, etc. Otherwise the categorization of genre writers really does apply in a negative way.
By switching cops with each book, for instance, Tana French examines a new character in each book while keeping the same general setting.
I would say most of Gerald's list is great writing with the exception of Parker who fell off for me after half a dozen books.
And yes gimmicky writing does show its age. But a series like Grafton's shows her age.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's so much that the writing style becomes old hat but that we as readers become accustomed to a writer's particular style. Thus, what I posted the other day about not reading more than three books in a row by the same author--it's too easy to get burnt out.

Deb

pattinase (abbott) said...

I certainly agree about Prose. Haven't read enough Russell to know. Certainly her writing is exquisite.
John Irving has written the same book many times as has Anne Tyler, writers I loved early on.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I have been stretching out several series to avoid that--French for instance.

Joe Barone said...

For me, some writers are dependable. I know when I pick up one of their books that I will get good reading. Some of their books may be better than others, but I am seldom disappointed or put down a book without having finished it. Ed McBain fits this category.

Given that, I also relish it when I find a new writer who is excellent or surprising. One such book I think of that I read within the last two years is Wiley Cash's A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME. (He puts the title in all small letters.)

Todd Mason said...

Hm. Consider how Oates challenges herself, and yet is frequently accused of writing the same book repeatedly...far more fairly dumped on the likes of Updike, and certainly of lesser lights such as T.C. Boyle or some of my other black beasts.

Jonathan Lethem strives to be inventive with each new book. Excessive divorce from one's past work can be as plodding as the same book come again...Vonnegut is an example of someone who sometimes did and sometimes didn't pull himself out of ruts he'd dug.

Todd Mason said...

And your friend Kathe Koja is pretty diverse in what she tackles...while maintaining a certain unity (in what I've read so far) in how she tackles it...

Gerald So said...

Patti, I agree the Spenser series dropped off. Building continuity into a series was not Parker's strength, but I use the Spenser series as an example because any one of the books can be read without seeming especially dated. Though many have written in a similar vein, no one has quite duplicated Parker's way with words. In that sense, I think his writing has a freshness to it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Do you know what Kathe Koja is up to now? Check out yesterday's FREE PRESS. She is amazing.
Great examples. I would add Ian McEwan to the list. I don't always like his books (although mostly I do) but each is a wholly a different story.
Need to read that Wiley Cash book. It's been recommended to me many times but the snake stuff scares me.
Oates is in a class by herself in terms of trying things out.
Oh, Vonnegut is the perfect example.

Thomas Pluck said...

just because we appreciate the classics doesn't mean tastes haven't changed and moved on.
It's like musicians... some folks want you to stay the same, and others (usually critics) complain when you're not constantly innovating.
What makes challenges exciting is the possibility of failure. Whether you succeed or not, you grow. On the other hand, some good writers do fine dishing out the same stuff, and I enjoy them too. It's like series, I guess.

Richard R. said...

Seems to me that a writer who writes her/his best possible book, which pleases the readers and sells and makes a good living for that author, who enjoys writing those books and those characters, is successful. If the books continue with the same characters, liked or loved by the reader public, then there's nothing wrong if the writer isn't stretching or trying something new, unless that change is what is wanted.

How would we have felt about the James Bond books if the style and character had changed, shifted, altered? The same with many - most - character driven series, and if that's "formulaic" then so be it.

David Cranmer said...

Yes to Mr. Pluck's thoughts.

Chris said...

Since few writers really seem to stretch beyond a certain genre, I don't burn out so much on the writers as I do the genres themselves. Read too much crime writing of a certain style, and pretty soon they all start to seem the same. So I take a break from that, go on to something else, and when I come back it's fun again and I'm reminded what makes those great writers great. I really can't take too much of any one thing no matter who it is.

Cap'n Bob said...

Bill Pronzini does, both in his series and stand alone books. But I have no problem with reading about the same characters in a familiar setting. Stout, Doyle, McBain, even Christie manage to entertain book after book. That's good enough for me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

In the end I think it comes down to the primary thrust of a book. Is it about character or story? Now a great story teller can get away with a fairly static protagonist. I thing especially of John D. Macdonald. He was able to insert Travis into very different situations but Travis was always Travis. Or Lew Archer was always Lew Archer.
But another way to tell a story is with a character that grows from book to book. Or with doing standalones where both things change.

Anonymous said...

Certain people like Janet Evanovich write the same book over and over again. They sell - obviously - and she is clearly OK with that.

I'd say Archer Mayor has done a terrific job keeping his Joe Gunther series fresh first by moving each book to a different part of Vermont and then by swtching him from a Brattleboro cop to a newly invented state agency.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to say that last comment was mine. (We're home, by the way.)

Jeff M.