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Rogue Mutt Classics: When Do You Say Goodbye?

July 20, 2011

Come on, what better way to lead off the Thursday entries than with a rant about a John Irving book I hated?  If you know anything about me by now, you should know that was the only way to go!  Who needs an intervention more:  him to stop writing shitty books or me before I cross the line from just creepy obsessed fan to creepy obsessed stalking fan?

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In the inaugural edition of Read to Me Thursdays, I’m going to take an issue from a book I read recently.  In this case the book is Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving.  The issue is, when do you decide to pull the plug on an author you’ve enjoyed for years?

The setup for this is that back in 2002 I first read The Cider House Rules and from there I became a huge fan of John Irving.  I read all of his other novels and even the volume of short stories/autobiography–the latter part being disappointing.  I have not only a short story loaded with references to the author’s works, but I also wrote a novel very similar in style to an Irving book.  That’s how much his work meant to me.

In 2005 he released the novel Until I Find You, which was just dismal.  The first 100 pages or so were promising and then it just went off the rails with sexual abuse and situations that were just pointless.  The only reason they seemed to exist was because they happened to the author.  Making it worse was that this was an author who said in The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year that we shouldn’t write autobiographical fiction, especially as therapy.  And here he was doing that exact thing!

Well, not every at-bat can be a home run, right?  Babe Ruth had a lot of homers but he also had a lot of strikeouts too.  So I was willing to give the author a second chance.  Or really a third chance since his previous novel The Fourth Hand wasn’t great either.  And maybe now that he’d gotten the sexual abuse and everything out there maybe he could move on and produce something more like his earlier works.  Or not.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I began reading Last Night in Twisted River.  On the face of things it seemed promising.  He was getting back to New England and another character who becomes a writer.  So maybe it could be like the old days again.  Or not.

Definitely not.  I won’t get into all the details–you can read my review for that–but suffice it to say it was as ill-conceived an idea as my graphic novel idea.  OK, just one little rant:  why would you think I would sympathize with characters who frame someone else for murder?  Come on, that should be obvious!  No one mentioned it?  Not your two assistants, not your son, not your wife/agent, not your many writer friends, and not your editor?  No one brought this up?  I’m the first one to think of it?  Really?  REALLY???

As I was nearing the end, I had one of those epiphanies.  It occurred to me the author’s last passable book was A Widow for One Year, his last decent book A Son of the Circus, and his last great book The Cider House Rules–written almost 25 years ago!  Maybe if I hadn’t started reading his books so late I would have picked up on this trend sooner.  Or not.  (I recently had the same epiphany with Kevin Smith, who hasn’t made a good movie in almost 15 years.)

By the time I got to writing my review, I knew what it should be.  Instead of a standard book review, it should be a Dear John letter.  That the author’s first name is also John is a nice coincidence.  You can read the whole thing from the link above, but the gist is that I’m saying we had some good times and now it’s time to move on to other authors.

Part of the logic here is that the man is almost 70 and considering it takes him 4-5 years to come out with a new novel, what are the odds he’s going to have many left in him?  And from the last three novels, what’s the chance any of those three are going to be great?  I’m betting the odds aren’t very good.

So the issue today is, when do you decide to give up on an author?  I know some people who give up on a book after one page or even one paragraph.  It’s probably a lot easier to do that when it’s the first book you’ve read of an author.  When it’s someone like me and John Irving, where I’ve read a dozen of his novels, it becomes a little more difficult.  There’s more invested into the relationship.

It’s especially more difficult with someone who’s inspired you in the past.  That requires seeing someone you thought of as your hero as just an ordinary mortal.  I mentioned Babe Ruth earlier and that’s a good example of someone many fans saw as a hero but by his last year with the Boston Braves he was just another mortal like the rest of us.

Maybe you have someone like this on your bookshelves or maybe you don’t.  If you do, what would it take for you to break with them?  Or would you ride the bomb all the way to the ground?

For me, I think it’s better to make the break now than to wait and endure another 3-4 terrible novels.  It might be hard to understand, but reading those terrible novels pains me deeply.  Not physical pain, but emotional pain.  I think it’d be better to pull off the Band-Aid now than to go through that a few more times.

That is all.

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9 Comments
  1. Wow. Stephen Baxter was my gateway into Sci Fi, well, sorta, and for a decade he was my favorite author. The last 8 or 9 years his hit to miss ratio fell off the map and led me to skipping several of his novels. A piece of my heart breaks every time I see he has a new book out. He’s a shadow of his former self.

  2. I like how you compare Kevin Smith’s career to John Irving’s career. I think you are dead on the money there with that observation. I’ve noticed that for the most part, writers past the age of sixty or so are unable to write well anymore. James Michener is one of these where his later works just got worse and worse.

    • How old is George R. Martin?

      • He’s 61 I think. You would ask that. If he dies before he finishes this series I’m going to be furious. People keep tellin’ me he’s gonna die and then they laugh as if they get some sick pleasure from it.

      • Yeah if he’s 61 and it takes him 5-7 years to write a book and there’s 2 books left and he doesn’t seem in exactly top health…I don’t like those odds.

  3. I never thought of the sympathy factor in the murder-framing. Like you, I was disappointed in this book on a lot of levels, and like you I am (was?) a huge Irving fan. (I liked “Until I Find You,” so we differ there.)

    I gave up on Patricia Cornwell, an author I previously liked, after two things: First, she wrote a non-Kay Scarpetta book that had, out of nowhere, a chapter told from the point of view of a cat. And second, the last Scarpetta book I read had Kay flying a helicopter around a nuclear reactor and might as well have been titled “For The Love Of God Won’t Somebody Make These Into A Movie.”

    So I quit reading her.

    Other authors, it’s harder. I admit: If Irving released a new book tomorrow, I’d buy it and read it. His many great books warrant that, even if the odds are that the new book will be bad.

    On the other hand, I won’t read another Franzen book; he’s 50/50 and I can’t be bothered.

    My rule would probably be “You read an author until the bad is equal to the good” either in terms of volume (Franzen) or sheer gall (Cornwell.)

    • I remember reading your post on the Cornwell book. Don’t remember if I said anything. But I think in any series it’s harder and harder to keep things from getting unbelievable because you have to keep trying to come up with new ideas or ways to at least repackage the old ones to look new. Or you just “reboot” as comics/movies do!

  4. I’m reading Pagel’s book “Eclipse”. There is no artwork for it on Goodreads though.

  5. Sorry, RM, I know how much John Irving’s writing has meant to you. I’ve only read one of his, Cider House Rules, on your recommendation and it lived up to expectations.

    Sad to admit, but I used to be really into paranormal romance (okay, I still am, shhh) and I cut my teeth on Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series. The first few were great but then they just seemed to become laughable. I bought several more out of some warped sense of loyalty, maybe it was false hope, but probably will never buy another. Could just be me, as she is selling more books now than ever, but at the time, it felt kind of like a death in the family.

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