The body of work
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
It’s the same feeling I had when, after reading Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” or Colm Toibin’s “The Master.” How many writers produce book after book of unfailingly high quality? There’s a reason Jane Austen and John Updike and their ilk actually have, well, such a small “ilk.” What they accomplished, book after book, is extraordinary. They just made it look easy.
Part of the disappointment comes from meeting an author for the first time in a book you’ve heard or read good things about. Then, when you want to read more--the atavistic Bobbsey Twins/Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew impulse--maybe what you’re left with are the earlier novels in which literary gifts were being gradually honed. Maybe it’s our impatience to discover the next new wonderful read coupled with the writer’s impatience to be the next brilliant young star. Didn’t writers used to have the luxury of a long, steady apprenticeship out of the spotlight, away from all but private expectations? Maybe writers need to have some unpublished work stashed away in desk drawers.
But I'm also thinking that I need an attitude adjustment. First comes savoring the books that are truly wonderful, giving myself to them slowly and completely without rushing to the end and looking for more. That there may not be more does not diminish what there is.
And second comes discovering a different pleasure: following the development of a gifted writer, reading his or her work chronologically and enjoying watching the gift unfold. How many of us, after all, would want to be judged on our early efforts in anything? Maybe it is not a question of disappointment that a particular writer has not produced more wonderful work but rather, gratitude that he or she produced the one wonderful thing we have in front of us right now.