An oeuvre is not the only fruit

I had a conversation this weekend in which I said I had never read the entire oeuvre of a single writer, or even close to it. Some have read everything by Graham Greene, or Douglas Coupland, and await a new arrival eagerly: but not me. I had no ‘brand loyalty’ I said flippantly. I’ve read a lot of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway I said, even Saul Bellow and Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories, and others too, when I think of it (and therefore began to unravel my opening assertion) and I did so almost by accident, without consciously bringing to mind that ‘this is a writer I want to follow’.

I am tempted to think that a writer of fiction produces one or two great books only: where I have read more than that from a single author, I will tend to think one or two are better than the others. If this is the case, then why not turn to another writer, for his or her best one or two works? I also like to read and learn of new voices and, well – the flesh is weak and there are so many books and all that. Martin Amis, reviewing a collection of short stories by Don Delillo (a collection I would certainly like to read), summarises it thus:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”

Amis is more generous than I am in saying that we love around ‘half’ of an author’s work: perhaps he’s right. Perhaps those who wander from one work to the next think instead of the books they will remember before the authors they love.

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