Thursday, February 26, 2009

Too little too late

Sarah Weinman's post today discusses a somewhat snarky column in The Guardian about Ruth Rendell's novels over the past ten years or so. The critic complains that Rendell's books are now out of touch with the world today. Her books are filled with anachronisms and attitudes of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

I'm always sorry to see someone I admire as much as Rendell get harpooned this way, especially since the steely point of the weapon is aimed directly at age.

But I have to say this is a legitimate discussion. Here's Sarah's take:

"While I think (Imogen Russell) Williams is being a bit nitpicky here, there is a larger concern when authors keep at series for a long time, or deliver a book a year on subjects that they owned in their heyday but have a less firm grasp on as they age. There's a point when many people realize they don't have the time, energy or inclination to keep up, stay modern, or alter their viewpoints with changing times, and frankly, the result of such efforts between pages (or read with e-ink) can be pretty damn embarrassing."

I think most writers try to stay current in the obvious ways. Making sure that they know the differenc e between a cell phone ad Blackberry etc. Shaping their fiction to fit the dominant tropes of the era is another matter. Writers like to laugh (and understandably) at the suggestions of agents who tell them to work in the current popular form. In the Eighties many of us were told to write Mary Higgins Clark novels. Then Robert B. Parker novels. Then Carl Hiaasen novels. And on and on. The problem with these suggestions is that they produce terrible books. When I was editing Mystery Scene I got bombarded with letters and galleys. And I could generally tell in the first few paragraphs of the cover letter what was going on--guy who'd been writing p.i. novels was now doing a Mary Clark or a Stephen King or a Dean Koontz.

Clark-King-Koontz--all great writers and for one reason. Because they're writing what they believe in. Their books don't have anything to do with marketing. Their books are expressions of their own hearts and souls.

That's one of the problems older writers have. The other is simply the the relentless march of decades. Just about every ten years or so a new style or new form comes along. Right now neo-noir is the darling of the critics if not large numbers of readers (but it's getting there). And with writers as good as Guthrie, Starr, Bruen, Swierczynski, Piccirilli, Faust and Zeltersman (among many many others) we're seeing an explosion of enormously talented writers striking out on their own and taking noir in new and exciting directions.

Their own directions. Their attitudes shaped by their age, their experience, their beliefs. You can fake it if you want and try and write like them but it'll always be bogus. Because it's theirs not yours.

And there'll always be a new kid in town. Ten, fifteen years from now the wheel will turn once again. Something else will come into fashion.

But faking it is a sorry thing to see. I always think of the poor crooners in the sixties when the Beatles came in. Sinatra, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis--all covering the Beatles and looking damned silly doing it on the tube. Hell even Tony Bennett was forced by Columbia to do an entire album of Beatles covers. For him that had to be painful. He's a Rodgers and Hart man.

It's a dilemma for every writer because every writer will someday face just what Ruth Rendell is facing now (though I still think she's one of the most brilliant writers alive).

12 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I've thought about this a lot lately. Having fulfilled my most recent contract, I'm trying to decide if I should even bother doing a proposal for another book because I feel like an old poop that the times have passed by. Then I think about Tony Bennett. He hung in there, and now he's almost as popular as ever. And he's not singing Beatles songs.

Iren said...

As a reader I tend to fall away when someone tries to be something that they are not. I think it's the job of writers, singers and film makers (just to name three creative types) to stick to what they know and if the bean counters who keep the gates don't get it, tough.... which is easy for me to say, I have a day job.

Anonymous said...

"Then I think about Tony Bennett. He hung in there, and now he's almost as popular as ever. And he's not singing Beatles songs."

And if he does it's only because he enjoys it.

John McAuley

Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, I still remember Sinatra singing "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown". I loved Sinatra, but that was just embarrassing.

As a newer writer (newer as in finally getting published), what I find daunting is the massive collection of great hardboiled crime fiction dating back to Hammett and Cain. Each decade produced great hardboiled/noir writers, from Hammett, Cain, Latimer, Woolwich, Williams, Brewer, Thompson, Willeford, Marlowe, Spillane, Westlake, Block, etc., how can new writers in the genre get noticed when there 1000s of great hardboiled crime books out there?

Vince said...

The article also raises the possibility that in Rendell's case, the issue is class as much as age. Everybody gets older. Not everybody gets rich.

Anonymous said...

Ed, this was one of the finest posts you have ever done, written with tenderness, wisdom and insight.

Richard Wheeler

Todd Mason said...

I'm not sure that for every PLAYBACK or CONDOMINIUM there isn't an OUR LADY OF DARKNESS , or THE BOOK OF SAND,...and there's even a certain pleasure in seeing where, say, Sturgeon was going with GODBODY, even if he didn't get there. Or if MARCO POLO AND THE SLEEPING BEAUTY was no Esterhazy, it was still solid work.

Is there stil any joy to your writing? Do you still have an audience? Why quit, unless the answers are essentially no?

Ed Gorman said...

I'm not suggesting giving it up. If you're a full-time professional you have to adjust to the market, no doubt about it. But I think there are ways of doing that while staying more or less true to yourself. Chandler always talked about giving the audence what they wanted and then doing your own work inside the parameters of the story. Within reason of course. There are some genres I'd get lost in and would turn in an empty but hopefully professional job. As I said a few nights ago I have to find the human center no matter what I'm writing. This has applied to my mysteries, sf, fantasy, horror and certainly westerns. As for thre joy, writing's still a joy to me when it's going well--and something less (grumble grumble) when it's not. And I think that's true of all my friends who're in their fifties and sixties. Hell writing's what we were born to do.

Ed Gorman said...

BTW I think Vince raises a good point.Rendell's earlier books were blunter, angrier. Sitting in the House of Lords probably changes your persoective evenif you try to guard against it.

Ed Gorman said...

BTW I think Vince raises a good point.Rendell's earlier books were blunter, angrier. Sitting in the House of Lords probably changes your persoective evenif you try to guard against it.

Bill Crider said...

And speaking of those hardboiled guys, look at what Stephen Marlowe was doing in his later years. Fine stuff!

Janis Gore said...

Oh, bah, Mr. Crider. I've read everything from the library you've written so far, and always look for your name on the new book shelf. You, too, Mr. Gorman.

What I need to do is quit smoking so I can allocate some money to writers' books. I read three or four a week. It's almost as bad as my other addiction.

And I talked a new Kindle owner into buying Small Crimes based on what I've seen here.