The Peak We Leave Behind: Loving Authors Past Their Prime
Mourning authors is painful, particularly when they’re not dead yet.
Long before our favorite authors go to the big word processor in the sky, they often experience another kind of death.
I thought about this when one of my favorite authors, Terry Pratchett, announced the latest addition to his fantasy series. I was elated because the Discworld series was an important part of my childhood, and my progression as a writer. But I also felt sad because Pratchett doesn’t have many books left in him.
He’s dying. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification. We’re all dying, after all. But Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Barring any miraculous advances in medical science, it's likely that the disease will soon steal his ability to write books.
The sadness only deepened when I learned that Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, planned to continue writing Discworld novels when her father couldn’t. I should have been happy. She’s a wonderful writer, and I love Discworld novels.
So why wasn’t I comforted?
It took me a while to realize it’s because the author I loved was already dead in a way.
Writers, like all creators and performers, have a peak, a point when they are at the top of their game. It’s exhilarating for authors and fans alike, but the peak leads to a decline, and the exhilaration eventually wanes. Sometimes the decline is abrupt; sometimes it’s a nearly imperceptible downward trend. There are even comebacks, but eventually everyone passes their prime.
A couple years ago, I eagerly read one of Pratchett’s more recent novels and felt unsatisfied. Now I realize it was because Pratchett — despite being brilliant and deservedly famous — just doesn’t have the same magic that he once had with words. All the pieces were there, but they didn’t fit as tightly as they used to. The characteristic humor was there, but it wasn’t as sharp as before. The engaging plot was present, but less complex than I was used to.
I had to face it. Pratchett’s best books were behind him.
So what is a fan to do? I struggled with this question for a while. Does it even matter what he writes if he’s past his prime?
Certainly we don’t owe any loyalty to authors, not in any objective sense. But they bring us so much joy. We have a right to like what we like, and dislike what we don’t. But they give us the best times of our lives — epiphanies and crying jags and all. They don’t need us to like them, and yet we have to.
And then an even more depressing thought came along: What is it like to be him? His mind is slowly betraying him, and he must know what the outcome will be. What do authors do when they know their best books are behind them?
That question was posed by Elizabeth Gilbert, the woman who wrote international bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. In a TED talk (bear with me…) she explained the existential dread she felt after her book became a runaway success and she realized it probably wouldn’t happen again. After the initial excitement wore off, she had to come to terms with the fact that “It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me,” even though she still has other books she wants to write.
That’s bleak. Right in the middle of her triumph, she’s reminded of the capricious nature of success and creativity.
Fortunately, Gilbert seems to have coped well with this realization. In an address given five years later, she explained that she had to make sure her creativity survived her success by focusing on the thing she loved the most: writing. No matter what happened, whether her next book was better than the last or the worst thing she’d ever written, she was focusing on the real motivation, the real reason to love her success and failure alike.
And ultimately, that may be the key to how we treat our idols once they start going downhill. We aren’t obligated to follow them all the way down, but we can still find joy in the things we love, the basic elements that thrilled us to begin with, the books that sang to us.
There will be some significant challenges. How many books do you try before you accept that the first book you read is the author’s best? How do you deal with your own changes in taste and temperament? For instance, Ayn Rand doesn’t have a peak book so much as peak reader age. In other words, any Ayn Rand book will never be as good now as it was when you were 15. How do you let go of your favorite recurring character, the one who no longer acts the same as she once did? How do you adjust to an author’s evolving style when it was one of the things you loved the most?
You’ll have to answer those questions for yourself, but remember Gilbert’s advice to return “home” to the things you love. Acknowledge the books that don’t live up to the rest, and understand that other readers may not feel the same. Love the author for her accomplishments, not her failures, and keep on loving the books that made you who you are.
What do you think? Should you stay loyal to a beloved author even after their decline? Who did you stop reading because you couldn’t stand them anymore?
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