A roll of fallen literary heroes: John Updike, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, further back to Robert Heinlein and Paul Theroux, now, perhaps, joined by Haruki Murakami. Writers whose work once replied to inner urgent whispers, now induce a gelid indifference. Is it that the stream of human events, deaths, loves, sadnesses, journeys, alters our literary needs so that once cherished books cease to offer cathartic release? Or is our literary sensitivity attuned by a higher nutrient diet, purged by Samuel Beckett, J. M. Coetzee and Virginia Woolf? Who are your fallen literary heroes?
Fallen heroes, or merely ones with feet of clay?
Feet of clay; I’ve always enjoyed that expression. Yes, certainly feet of clay, my use of the word hero was flip and not intended with its full implications.
Paul Auster is the first man to enter my mind – .
I never got Auster, though I only tried The New York Trilogy, which I abandoned.
I second Updike, McEwan, and Murakami as having fallen from their ivory tower. Adding Cormac McCarthy on account of The Road and Cities of the Plain.
I’ve yet to get around to McCarthy. There is a force of resistance that keeps me away from his books.
It seems a lot of their fall is about the consequences of ageing as an extremely successful writer, unfortunately. McEwan, Murakami just softened. I don’t think Amis was ever a hero. Philip Roth for me has lessened his legacy with every book.
Thanks for your comment, Steven. I can see the truth in what you say, though I find it painful to revisit their earlier work too, perhaps also the consequences of ageing. Fifteen years ago I might have defended Amis but even ‘Money’ is painfully sad to revisit. I can’t quite give up on Roth as I get something from every book, but that something is becoming harder to unearth.
Beckett is someone I think becomes (for me and others have mentioned it too) tedious with age. So he gets my vote for fallen hero, of course they have to be heroes in the first place, which says more about us then them. Are they mother/father figures we don’t want to see as they are? It is like leaving a cult, realising that you’ve been brain washed by talent. I don’t think other art forms, being more substantially grounded, emotionally or physically in the world, seduce quite like the written word.
So interesting that you should nominate Beckett, not a nomination that I expected. Beckett is far from fallen for me at the moment, and it pains me to think of that prospect in my future.
I quite agree though that our placing of writers on pedestals is far more about us than them. Reading is such a collaborative art form in a way that others are not.
Yes, but maybe I will return to him. A process may be at work. Time will tell.
I wonder if the demands of being a “product” damage their ability to age alongside their readers. The names you mention are all writers who became big in their relative youth and continue as “literary greats” well into their 50s, 60s and onward.
I suspect that is part of the story, the other part being that these are all minor writers, in the grand scheme of things, and unlikely to sustain rereading and exploration in the same way as those more enduring writers.
Is it you that’s changed, or Murakami? Have you reread any of the earlier ones that did speak to you more?
Banks is a good SF writer who for historical reasons writes indifferent literary fiction on the side. His SF will I think last (and was a genuine contribution to the field), his literary fiction though I suspect hasn’t the same prospects of longevity (and didn’t add much to what was already there). He’s a rather unique case, a genre writer who had to break into literary fiction to get published.
Auster may get reassessed and reassessed again. McCarthy I think is hugely overrated, though I grant I’ve only read two so that view may change. The Road though, the more I reflect on it the more I become persuaded that my own review (which was distinctly critical) was too kind – and that it’s ultimately just not a good book.
Amis and McEwan were ever oversold.
A very different sort of author, but recently I came across a battered paperback of a pulp sf writer I loved as a teenager (AE Van Vogt), one of his best known and best regarded novels. I was delighted, held it back for a while and finally started it with real anticipation. It was shockingly bad. Writing is so personal, we take it inside ourselves, that which resonated so strongly at one point may later reveal itself as shallow, clumsy, the strength of feeling all provided by us and none by the text.
The possible difference is that I would say now that the Vogt was genuinely bad. Other books though which spoke to me once but not now, why does my self now have critical priority over my self then? If I read The Bell Jar today would it speak to me as it did in adolescence? I doubt it, but that doesn’t make my adolescent appraisal of it wrong. It just means I’m no longer that book’s reader.
Murakami is unchanged. I take full responsibility. I have sampled earlier Murakami and see what I enjoyed but no longer find the same satisfaction in his work. I plan to reread my favourite (Norwegian Wood) at some time soon.
I agree that Banks SF, particularly The Player of Games, was groundbreaking. His other books never improved on The Wasp Factory, which was merely above average. Banks’ SF would probably stand up to rereading.
Auster and I just don’t get on, and I resist McCarthy.
I could have mentioned many teenage favourites that I could no longer read, Robert Heinlein comes to mind.
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