Wake up, Polly Parrot.


Too Old For Rock And Roll
by Brian Plante

Long before I ever thought I'd like to try my hand at producing fiction, I came to the conclusion that writing is mostly a young man's game. Too bad for me, I guess, as I'm not so young anymore, but somewhere along the way I noticed that many of the authors I was crazy about when I was a kid just didn't seem to be producing the same great work in their later years.

Some of it may be that I became jaded as a reader. As a kid, everything is new, and you read with less critical eyes. It doesn't take too much effort to create that sense of wonder for a child the right age. Later in life, though, we've read it all before and it's harder for an author to keep us as enthralled.

But I don't want to take all the blame as a reader. Sometimes I go back and reread some of the old books that I liked a lot as a kid and put away just for this purpose. Sometimes I wonder what it was I saw in those books as a kid, but other times, you know what? I was right! It's not just me that's changed as a reader -- the older books were really better. A lot of my favorite writers just lost the spark somewhere along the way.

Okay, let me give a few examples. When I was a kid, I really liked the action/adventure novels by Alistair MacLean. When I was 12, the movie version of Ice Station Zebra came out, and I started reading his entire catalog up to that point. HMS Ulysses (1955), The Guns of Navarone (1957), South By Java Head (1958), The Secret Ways (1959), Night Without End (1960), Fear Is the Key (1961), The Golden Rendezvous (1962), The Satan Bug (1962), When Eight Bells Toll (1966), and Where Eagles Dare (1967). Wow, I loved those books. But shortly after that, the books started to change. Force Ten from Navarone (1968) was an OK sequel to the earlier Navarone book, but then there were some less-then-great books like Puppet On a Chain (1969), Caravan to Vaccares (1970), Bear Island (1971), and about twenty more unmemorable ones. It seemed the more famous MacLean got, the worse his books were. I'm sure he sold a ton of books, but those last bunch were only shadows of the better books he used to write, and then the final embarrassment: some other writer started putting out "Alistair MacLean" books after he died in 1986.

Thank you sir, may I have another? How about my all-time favorite SF writer, Robert A. Heinlein? Author of such well-remembered books such as The Green Hills of Earth (1951), The Puppet Masters (1951), Double Star (1956), The Door into Summer (1957), Methuselah's Children (1958), The Menace from Earth (1959), Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Podkayne of Mars (1963), Farnham's Freehold (1964), and tons of classic short stories.

My favorite book by Heinlein was 1966's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and then it was downhill all the way: I Will Fear No Evil (1970), Time Enough for Love (1973), The Number of the Beast (1979), Friday (1982), Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1985) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). Certainly, there were still some flashes of greatness in a few of those later novels, but overall I'd call them failures compared to his earlier work. If I had started reading Heinlein with these later books, he wouldn't have the place in my heart he does now.

More? You want more? OK, how about someone who's still alive. How about Stephen King? He practically put the horror genre on the map by himself. The early books like Carrie (1974), Salem's Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), The Dead Zone (1979), Firestarter (1980), Cujo (1981), Christine (1983), Pet Sematary (1983), It (1986), and Misery (1987). The Stand was the best of them, and King continues to put out interesting work to this day, but I think the slide started for him after Misery. After that it's The Tommyknockers (1987), Bag of Bones (1988), The Dark Half (1989), Needful Things (1991), Dolores Claiborne (1992), Gerald's Game (1992), Insomnia (1994), Rose Madder (1995), Desperation (1996), The Green Mile (1996), The Regulators (1996), The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), Storm of the Century (1999), Dreamcatcher (2001) and From a Buick 8 (2002). Sure there's still some good stuff there, but much of the newer stuff just doesn't seem to grab me like the old stuff did. The critics all love King these days, but I pine for the older days when his books were less literary, but lots more fun. I'll take one The Stand over a dozen Rose Madders or Gerald's Games.

So why do good authors go bad? Could it be that they just run out of good ideas and lose the enthusiasm for writing? Perhaps success has spoiled a few authors in their later years: could any editor stand up to Stephen King now that he's a 500-pound gorilla, and ask him to tighten up his prose and cut a hundred pages from that bloated manuscript? Do the writers and editors get lazy when even the author's laundry list is guaranteed to hit the best seller list?

Perhaps I haven't been writing all that long myself, but I can see where writing becomes harder as you get older. I know that sounds a bit counter-intuitive -- you'd expect a writer to get better with experience and the words ought to flow more freely, but there's a problem. As a writer pounds out the stories year after year, the better writers feel they have to keep raising the bar, or run the risk of repeating themselves. A writer really may run out of new, original ideas, and it may be slower going, trying to write with all those years of experience behind you, instead of with the reckless abandon and enthusiasm that the younger writer can bring to the keyboard.

Dean Koontz, another author I really admire, may illustrate how writers can become a bit more stuck-up in their later years. Koontz wrote a lot of great horror & SF novels (probably the best of which is Watchers 1987) but in recent years he's taken a bit more of a literary bent. Some of his early works were cranked out quickly, and I remember reading with horror in his 1972 how-to book Writing Popular Fiction that he recommended that the aspiring novelist write 4 or 5 (?) novels a year. Boy, did that ever make me feel like an underachiever. But later in his career, Koontz started buying back the rights to a lot of his older works, and then polished them up before re-releasing them. It appeared that he was unhappy with some of those quick early novels, and wanted to "correct" them with his new level of experience. But you know what? I liked a lot of those older potboilers better than some of the more refined works he's been turning out lately. No, I wouldn't say Koontz has lost it, but I kind of liked those old books, warts and all.

Oh, there's others I could point a finger at. Will Ken Follett ever write another book as good as 1989's Pillars of the Earth? Can Larry Niven write anything to remind me of the time in the 70's when I thought he'd be Heinlein's successor? There are lots of others I used to love, and now can barely read. Or I read them out of habit, hoping to see a bit of the old magic, and then get disappointed.

But there's hope. Not all writers fail as they get older. Just today, as I write this (4/30/2003) Jack Williamson turns 95, and he's still putting out good work. Jeez, I just hope I'll be able to read at that age, let alone write. Asimov still had some chops till the end, and so did Poul Anderson. Frederik Pohl and Robert Silverberg are still putting out good work. Some of the old guys can still play with the Young Turks.

So here I am, still a beginning writer after having taken it up ten years ago. Am I already too old for this, or will I still be able to come up with an original idea for a story from time to time? Will I still have the enthusiasm and fire to write well, and the naïve persistence to keep sending it out until somebody buys the thing and publishes it?

Well, after ten years, I'm certainly not doing this for the money. I'll keep writing, and let the editors and readers decide how I'm to be remembered, if I'm remembered at all. My only saving grace is that, if it was indeed success that spoiled all those great writers, then I have little to fear.

Copyright © 2003 Brian Plante Count= 5681

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