Alexander Jablokov

 

I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction, with a new novel, Brain Thief.

The name is pronounced Yablokov, and the legal name is Jablokow.  My best friends can't spell or pronounce it, so you shouldn't worry about it either.

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"How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry", Asimov's Science Fiction (upcoming)

"The Forgotten Taste of Honey", Asimov's Science Fiction, October/November 2016 (out now)

"The Return of Black Murray", Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2016

"The Instructive Tale of the Archeologist and His Wife", Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014

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"Since You Seem to Need a Certain Amount of Guidance", Daily Science Fiction, November 6, 2012

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"The Day the Wires Came Down", novelette, Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2011

"Plinth Without Figure", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010

"Warning Label", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine August 2010

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Brain Thief, a novel, Tor Books, January 2010

 

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« Using the Peloponnesian War | Main | Having a day job means seriously setting priorities »
Tuesday
Dec012009

Five reasons writers don't improve with age

I had dinner with my old friend Bob Klonowski last week, and he asked me an exasperated question:  why do writers seem to get worse as they get older? If writing is a skill (and it certainly is), why shouldn't increased experience with technique, as well as extended encounters with other human beings, cause writers to improve? He had had several bad experiences with writers he had once enjoyed, and was interested in an explanation.

I didn't have an answer, or even any good counterexamples, but in a related article, Terry Teachout, recently wrote about artists who stop producing, indicating that this is often a good thing, because later work, when produced, tends not to match the quality of earlier, thus bolstering Bob's point.

"I'm a big fan of his early work" is a standard joke.  But is it true?  And if it is, why is it true?

I had a couple of explanations for Bob, and a couple I thought of later.

  1. Lack of editing.  Many writers are more the creations of their editors than they would like to acknowledge.  Chop the worst-quality 10 percent (or 20 percent, or 30) of any work, and it likely would be improved.  In a writer's early days, the editorial requirements often cause that to happen. When a writer starts selling, and has a reputation, editing falls by the wayside. Even formerly perceptive friends and colleagues are deluded by the simple fact of success into thinking that editing is no longer as important.
  2. Related to lack of editing is the simple fact that a writer has to be better to make a reputation than to keep one. Once a reputation is achieved, reviewers look less carefully, and readers who have developed a taste for what the writer has to offer are willing to put up with a diluted or cut product in order to get it. Marketers have an existing hook to sell the books with, which makes sales relatively easier to achieve.  Having market dominance means that quality is less important as part of the total sales package.  And, since quality is painfully hard to achieve, and successful writers have speaking gigs, tours, and other distractions to contend with, they are disinclined to torture themselves.
  3. With increasing age, there are basic failures of cognition. Sad, and agist, but unfortunately true. The number of words you can see ahead goes down. The skein of detailed relationships is harder to perceive. The reader of the final book doesn't see it, but the act of writing is as fraught as surfing and as reflexive as Whac-A-Mole. It gets harder to manage, and thus scarier, leading to writer's block. One hopes that increasing experience can compensate, but sometimes it doesn't.
  4. Some writers just don't have that much to say. They have a few experiences, some key perceptions, a limited repertory company of characters, and a couple of verbal tricks. Book One is fabulous and original, Book Two revisits the successes of the first, Book Three is a chastening attempt to try something new that doesn't come off, and successive volumes after that are rewrites of Books One and Two.
  5. And, finally (related to the above), maybe the original books weren't really that good in the first place. You were the right age and having the right experiences to be charged up when you read them, but if you read them now, you would like them no better than that obese volume squatting loathsomely on your nightstand that some enthusiastic review persuaded you to buy against your better judgment.

Not all these explanations apply to every writer, of course.  Maybe the trick is to start late in life, like Penelope Fitzgerald, after some other career, thus avoiding unfortunate comparisons with youth.

Anyone know a decent writer who became better with age?

Reader Comments (4)

Can't disagree with a single one of your ideas. IN fact, I've read interviews with writers (like Stephen King) who lament the fact that once they hit a certain stature (sales-wise) publishers restrain editors because they're afraid to kill the golden goose.

Add to that, I think, is the way publishing constrains all but a few writers into a particular avenue and doesn't allow them to roam freely through the creative landscape. Maybe a writer doesn't have that much to say in, say, Westerns, but has a good couple of novels in mystery or science fiction---but unless they will write under pen names, the publisher won't take the books. Bills must be paid. Writing becomes a salt mine.

Along with the age-related aspect, though, there is a somewhat less codifiable condition I think of as "holistic incontinence", wherein the concerns of the writer expand to an unmanageable degree and the focus which informed earlier work simply dissipates in later work as the writer tries to address, well, Everything. (I'm thinking of Hemingway's last works, which sprawled thematically if not in length, and certainly Norman Mailer suffered from this.) Writers following their muse sometimes follow them down rabbit holes or black holes and leave readers behind. It appeared this had happened to Pynchon with "Against The Day" but then he surprised everyone with a finely-controlled, fun book, "Inherent Vice."

On your point that some writers just don't have that much to say, well, certainly. How much do any of have to say of any worth? But some of us just never feel that we've quite said it, so we take another run at it, again and again. Readers may get bored, but for someone who picks up just one or two of a given author's works, the stretch may not be apparent.

Anyway, surely none of this will happen to us.... ;)

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMark Tiedemann

I sometimes wonder whether self-consciousness adds to the problem. So much value is placed, these days, on the technical aspects of writing that I sometimes think the passion gets squashed. A writer who produced one or two works in a hot fit of creativity suddenly worries about whether his or her work conforms to standards imposed by the genre, literary critics, or peers in a writer's workshop, etc. Maybe the problem can also be excessive editing, rather than the reverse.

December 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteroldhousegeek

I looked at this issue w.r.t. Hugo Award winners (details here), and found that the average age for winning the Best Novel was 45, which was an average of 17 years after first publication. The youngest winner was Zelazny at 29, and oldest was Asimov at 63, and that was respectively 4 years and 44 years into their writing careers. So I'd say that, yes, writers do improve with age at least up to 20 years or so.

December 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjlredford

jlredford-

So there's hope for me yet!

A

December 10, 2009 | Registered CommenterAlexander Jablokov

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