When Writers Quit Writing

5 minute read

Michel Faber’s last novel, The Crimson Petal and the White, was an unexpected smash hit. Twelve years later, he’s finally got a new one, but it comes with a caveat: that it will be his last. Faber recently announced that The Book of Strange New Things, his just-released sci-fi romance, is the end of the line–despite the fact that it’s bringing him the sort of critical praise (and steady sales) that spur most writers on. Faber is only 54, and Strange New Things is only his third full-length novel; according to my writerly actuarial table, he could have many more books in him.

For other types of public figures walking away from the source of their fame, the question of what comes next may be treated lightly. A retired athlete can become a sportscaster or investor; the TV actor whose hit show comes to an end can mull over movie scripts. But when a writer retires, it feels, somehow, different: writing novels is less a job one can leave than proof that one sees the world in a certain way. There’s something that seems illogical about a writer declaring he or she is done. Where, then, do all of the observations channeled into metaphor go?

Each year, though, seems to deliver major writers ready to say goodbye to their art. Consider Philip Roth, whose readers hold out hope for another volume despite his claim that 2010’s Nemesis was it. Or Alice Munro, who said last year that she was through. Faber’s declaration happened to coincide with the death of his wife this summer. In Strange New Things his late wife’s cancer was the inspiration for a story about a married couple quite literally worlds apart. As the husband, employed by a mysterious interplanetary corporation, acts as missionary to an alien race, the wife struggles to survive a coming apocalypse.

Having told a story of human mortality through the lens of his own wife’s ultimate death, perhaps Faber feels there is nothing left to write. Yet Faber’s fans, fellow authors and even his publisher have expressed hope that he will change his mind and, like a literary-world Garth Brooks, eventually unretire.

Why can’t we take Faber at his word? Part of it is specific to Faber’s case, certainly. After years of seclusion following The Crimson Petal, which sold half a million copies, he’s on the brink of global fame. His first novel, Under the Skin (2000), was adapted into a Scarlett Johansson film this year, and Strange New Things is a literary leap forward. Faber has spent his career laboring over three perfectly wrought novels; for him to say he’ll never bestow another upon us is an unsatisfying plot development. (NB: His cease-work claim is specific to novels; he may yet produce poetry and short fiction, he has said.)

Writers who announce their retirement are usually much older than Faber and have reaped more acclaim for their work–which they have produced more of. Roth said he was done when he was 79 and 27 novels deep; Munro did so at 81, a few months before winning a Nobel for a career that includes 14 short-story collections (a book of collected stories, Family Furnishings, is also out this month). Jim Crace, the English novelist who has said his most recent novel is his last, is a relatively spry 68 and slender in oeuvre, with 13 books. South African Nadine Gordimer said farewell to fiction writing at 90, claiming she was too disillusioned to go on. (She died three months later.)

Writing may take a relatively minor toll on the body, but it’s hardly easy to keep it up for a lifetime. Munro told a reporter, “I don’t have the energy anymore.” Roth left a Post-it on his computer reading, “The struggle with writing is over.” And one need only look at Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger, both of whom retreated into seclusion following their touches with stardom, to see just how existentially taxing the process of writing–and being read–can be.

But as human as it may be for Faber to have made his decision, it’s human of us to want more. The serious novelist’s job, or one of them, at least, is to stare down the hole and report back. They’re beacons at the darker corners of human nature, and our readership comes with an understanding that they won’t willingly extinguish the light.

If other authors are any indication, we have reason to hope Faber will return. Kurt Vonnegut said Timequake was to be his last, and then went on to produce several volumes of short stories and essays. Munro has waffled. In 2002, Stephen King announced that he was walking away from his horror show. He had been hit by a car and nearly killed in 1999, and the subsequent pain, he has said, has been close to unbearable. But King barely slowed down, publishing three Dark Tower novels in 2003 and 2004 and 12 more novels since. His second book this year, Revival, about a small-town preacher who turns against God, comes out this month; another book is due in June 2015.

Perhaps Faber will be inspired to write again or will simply miss the outlet of the novel. But for readers, yearning is perhaps more satisfying than gratification; whether Faber’s new novel is his last or not, the process of slowly savoring it lends it a particular poignancy.

The Book of Strange New Things is, after all, about mortality. That he’s delivered it with such finality emphasizes the point.

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