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).