Tuesday August 21, 2012
Literary world hit by loss of talented writers
By AKSHITA NANDA
The literary world has sustained a number of body blows this year.
AS an avid reader, I resemble a mountain climber. Every new pile of books offers the chance of a thrilling journey, but the joy is tempered by stories that meander, end in dead ends or crumble under the weight of sustained regard.
Happily, some authors ground my annual reading experience. They publish frequently and their books guarantee a journey of at least some excitement and character.
Sadly, these bedrocks of my library are being worn away by time. No fewer than four of my favourite fiction constants died this year alone, leaving me howling with grief that there will never again be new books from them.
In January, prolific British crime writer Reginald Hill died at 75 of a brain tumour, putting an end to his witty and insightful series about detectives Dalziel and Pascoe. Their turbulent relationship and crime-solving skills held a mirror to changes in British society for over nearly 40 years, from A Clubbable Woman (1970) to Midnight Fugue (2009).
On June 5, we lost acclaimed American science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, the creator of hundreds of exquisite stories that captured the wonder and horror of spaceships and Halloween monsters. He also wrote the fabulous Fahrenheit 451, a 1953 novel about a society that suppresses knowledge which inspired filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, about the misinformation campaign that led to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Acclaimed British historical novelist Barry Unsworth expired at 81 on the same day Bradbury breathed his last. And just a few weeks ago, on July 23, we lost Kiwi writer Margaret Mahy at 76, whose young adult novels assured thousands of teens over the last four decades that at least one grown-up understood their confusions and fears.
This is not an obituary for these authors but a lament for what readers like me have lost. Right until the end, all four were writing and publishing new work and the thrill of discovering their names on books hot off the press was often the highlight of an otherwise mediocre reading month. Hill’s most recent tale was printed in 2010 and The Woodcutter was a polished and even frightening thriller about a former prisoner seeking revenge.
Bradbury wrote so many stories for science-fiction magazines that they are still being collected and edited, most recently in last year’s The Collected Stories Of Ray Bradbury: A Critical Edition – Volume 1, 1938-1943. Yet the master storyteller delivered a dozen delightful new treats in the 2009 We’ll Always Have Paris: Stories, and there was every chance the 91-year-old would have had another book out soon.
Similarly, Unsworth delivered a sequel last year to his Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger (1992), about an 18th-century slave ship, and The Quality Of Mercy had The New York Times hailing him as “one of the best historical novelists on either side of the Atlantic”.
Mahy will continue to be published posthumously, with older titles such as the 1978 book for younger readers The Great Piratical Rumbustification & The Librarian And The Robbers being reprinted later this year. But I will miss being able to read fresh insights into the teen mind, from the canny brain that came up with A Catalogue Of The Universe (1985), a heartbreaking tale about a girl coming to terms with an absent father, and the creepy 1982 Carnegie Medal-winning story of family ghosts, The Haunting.
I mourn these losses as I would the loss of close friends, for their books entertained and greatly enhanced my life. If I stop to count the rest of the stalwarts whom I rely on for great reads, the tally is even more depressing. Perhaps because my reading tastes were shaped at first by the books I saw adults devour, many of my idols in the world of fiction are in their 70s or 80s and have admitted in interviews that they have few writing years left.
Bestselling crime novelist P.D. James is 90 and it is widely assumed that last year’s Death Comes To Pemberley, a delightful sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, will be her last title.
Humorist and fantasy writer Terry Pratchett is only 64, but he suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. While he is still delivering at least one book a year, including October’s The Artful Dodger, fans are gloomily and ghoulishly waiting for standards to fall.
Worse are the writers who begin epic sagas which then screech to a halt because of death or lack of time. Patrick Rothfuss’ exquisite fantasy series about a renegade bard, The Kingkiller Chronicles, has me biting my nails, for starters. The author of the fabulous The Name Of The Wind (2007) and A Wise Man’s Fear (2011), each over 500 pages long, has set no date yet for the third book in the trilogy. I have regular nightmares in which Rothfuss abandons the enterprise entirely, or worse, falls under a bus and takes the plot resolutions with him to the grave.
Some of my friends suffer from this “author hit by a bus syndrome” and refuse to begin reading epic series until they are completed. As evidence, they cite Robert Jordan’s 13-volume Wheel Of Time series. The author died in 2007, so the last four books have been written by Brandon Sanderson, a fantastic writer in his own right but incapable of rendering stories in the style of the original.
Then there is George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire saga, better known by the title of the first book, A Game Of Thrones. When I interviewed the 64-year-old writer recently, a chill went down my spine when he mentioned that all the plotlines and endings of the five-volume and ever-expanding series were stored only in his brain. Yes, in the event of his being hit by a bus, no one will ever know what happened.
I am the first person to speak up for a writer’s creative freedom, but readers have rights as well. Perhaps a worldwide petition might be in order to chain writers to their computers until they complete their books. Or perhaps science can deliver life-lengthening drugs to keep my favourite creative minds prolific for decades more. Another option is to dive back into the fiction pile and look for more names to form the foundation of a new library. But no matter how wonderful each discovery is, I will mourn the loss of old friends. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network