Really great writers, those born with natural talent — as distinct from commercially successful writers, like John Grisham — don’t rest on their laurels. They work and work at their craft, and get better over time, usually much better.
The Grishams of the world, on the other hand, get richer. But they often don’t get better. Rather, they come up with a formula that works, and put out novel after novel using that same formula. Often the later books have lost their edge, and they become boring. That happened for me with Patricia Cornwall. Her early books were riveting. The later books were not, and I stopped reading them, even on airplanes.
Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest American short story writers, published a story called The Geranium as part of her master’s thesis at Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Fourteen years later, just before she died, she rewrote that story and issued it as Judgment Day. If you only read The Geranium, you’d think it’s wonderful — and it is. But the re-write, with the benefit of fourteen years of hard work, is magnificent.
I read Kent Haruf backwards, from the last novel to the earlier ones. When I was in Minneapolis working with Dustin and Emily on their wedding, Emily’s dad Neil gave me the print version of Haruf’s final work, published after his death: Our Souls at Night. It’s a beautiful book, I’d go so far as to say it’s a must-read for those of us who have reached a certain age and care about love and choices and the road not taken. Then I read the Plainsong trilogy, which came mid-career. Now i’ve gone back to read the early books, The Tie that Binds and Where You Once Belonged. They are fine reads. Our Souls at Night, like Flannery O’Connor’s Judgement Day, is magnificent.
Writing isn’t easy, and no one should think it is. Great writing, even for someone born with natural talent, takes years of effort and hard work. But great writing, when you find it, is a gift. If you haven’t yet found Kent Haruf, wait no longer. Start at the beginning, and read them all.