Writers Who Don’t Know When to Stop by Susan Cheever
Why do even the best novelists lose their literary magic after a few books? Susan Cheever writes in Newsweek about when to call it quits.
Mysteries are my weakness. Hunky detectives, villainous officials, plot surprises going off like a string of firecrackers—all these are enough to make me forget that I am on an airplane going through turbulence or to keep me up all night. I discovered Lee Child one afternoon when I had a three-hour wait in Penn Station. Sitting on the dirty floor with Jack Reacher, I wished the delay had been longer. Finding a writer who does this for me is like falling in love, but here’s the real mystery—why can’t these guys keep it up after eight or nine books? Why do they all seem to run out of steam?
David Baldacci began Absolute Power with one of the best scenes I have ever read; now, 18 books and 15 years later, I don’t even buy him in paperback. Even the classy Alan Furst just seemed to fade after book No. 10 into shorter, less interesting stories. Janet Evanovich locked herself into writing serial thrillers by using a number in each title—I stopped at Hard Eight. Sometimes it happens sooner. Stephenie Meyer’s first novel, Twilight, was imaginative and compelling, but it was followed by three lesser accomplishments. Consider the wisdom of J.K. Rowling, who announced that she would write seven Harry Potter novels and then wrote seven Harry Potter novels… so far.
Perhaps to keep this from happening, some writers like Michael Connelly write two or three series at once. In Connelly’s The Fifth Witness, coming out in April, the lawyer Mickey Haller is as good as ever. No wonder; it’s only his fifth book, although it is Connelly’s 25th. Child has recently used Arthur Conan Doyle’s faked-death gambit. “I must save my mind for better things,” Doyle confided to his mother before writing the death of Holmes at the hands of the evil Professor Moriarty, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” But Holmes turned out—surprise—not to be dead when Doyle gave in to audience pressure for another book. Similarly, Jack Reacher was dramatically burned alive in Child’s 14th book, 61 Hours. One reviewer speculated that if Reacher was really dead, the next death would be Child’s publisher from a profit-squeeze-induced heart attack. Sure enough, in Child’s 15th book Reacher turns out to have been saved.
Why don’t writers know when to stop? Sometimes they become seemingly enchanted by a particularly great character and the relationship goes on for book after book, long after an amicable breakup would have been ideal. It’s hard to let go of a character who has made you famous and enabled you to build a pool for the kids or buy that condo in Florida. Perhaps you have even named your yacht after that character. In this light, the advice given to writing students to cut by “murdering your darlings” takes on a new meaning.
Perhaps you have even named your yacht after that character.
Are literary writers any different? Not really. Some authors are one- or two-book wonders (Harper Lee, Joe Heller). We can all agree that sequels like To Kill a Bluebird or Catch-23 are better left unwritten. Other writers seem to warm up with their first few books and achieve their greatness at the end of their careers.
In 1980, when he was 57 and his career as a novelist seemed to have stalled, Norman Mailer switched genres, a common and effective way to get a second wind. The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s book with Lawrence Schiller about the murderer Gary Gilmore, is a masterpiece. Louisa May Alcott wrote dozens of unremarkable stories and a novel before the Civil War intervened. Her genre switch to memoir in Hospital Sketches set the stage for her masterpiece, Little Women. Stephen King and Scott Turow both switched genres and then returned to fiction writing, better than ever. A personal tragedy sometimes seems to act as a kind of reset button when it comes to summoning the muse (see Joan Didion).
Many writers secretly obsess over this question. Was the first book they wrote their best one? Should they have stopped years ago? Is it true that, as someone said, we have all our good ideas before we are 30? Or that, as William Thackeray said, a man over 50 should never write a novel?
Even one good book is a kind of miracle. Yet after that first success, most writers’ imaginations seem to wax and wane at will despite the authors’ best efforts. “The hardest thing for a writer to decide is whether he’s burned out or merely lying fallow,” Mailer wrote. Alas, this distinction is not always so hard for the reader to make.
Susan Cheever is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including American Bloomsbury, My Name Is Bill, Note Found in a Bottle, As Good as I Could Be, Home Before Dark, and Treetops. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a director of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Authors’ Guild. Cheever teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars and at the New School.