When Should An Author Retire?

Alexander Nazaryan’s review of Jim Crace’s Harvest raised the question of when an author should hang it up. Crace’s answer appears to be that authors should find something else to do when they are “no longer fashionable and can only find a marginal publisher and command a tiny advance.”

I’m not sure I can go with that. We’d have lost quite of bit of Herman Melville, and almost all of Kafka if those two writers accepted Crace’s metrics as the standard. Indeed, on fashionability alone, both authors would have traded in their pens long before they wrote their best works, which didn’t become fashionable until after Kafka and Melville were dead. Writers who go into the game expecting to be fashionable and well paid should go into games with better odds, like keno or roulette. In terms of instant marketing, most books fail hideously. That’s the bad news. The good news is that books can sit on shelves, or float around in the internet’s aether, for an incredibly long time, waiting to be discovered. An author’s work can sometimes, after many years, find an audience and grow a reputation.  (Of course, the author may be a corpse by that time, but them’s the breaks.)

In that sense, an author never really does retire, even after the author stops writing. Everyone from Homer to Philip Roth is still working. Readers are free to head to libraries, bookstores, or the internet and gorge themselves on as many books as they have time for.

The continuation of an author’s career, in the sense that an author continues to generate new work, is of interest only to those who have already read the back catalog and hunger for more and to the authors themselves, who keep writing for whatever reasons get their butts into chairs for hours at a time. Authors can choose to continue in order to please their punters, and there’s nothing wrong with that–especially if the readers spend enough to buy their favorite authors houses, cars, and retirement villas in Tahiti. There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling materialistic needs, even if the inspiration is gone. But most authors don’t have audiences that large or well heeled, so the only reason they should not retire is that they still need to sit in that chair and work.

Camus once said that the only serious issue in philosophy is suicide. For writers, the only serious issue is quitting. And, as with suicide, the question for writers to ask isn’t “When should I quit?” It’s “Why shouldn’t I quit?” Those who can’t answer that question convincingly should, regardless of their age, number of fans, or financial condition, quit immediately. After all, if authors don’t need the products of their labor, no one else does.

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