Top Five AWOL Novelists: Was It Something I Said?

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

You know what would be kind of awesome? If cream-‘o’-the-crop novelists like Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami and Jeffrey Eugenides published kick-ass literary novels at a frequency of even half that of other, um, novelists, like Janet Evanovich and James Patterson.

But they don’t. Probably because they have this irrational hang-up about only affixing their names to books they’ve written themselves.

Snark aside, there are any number of real reasons for long gaps between novels. Usually the simplest explanation is the right one: Novelists have spent their time on other projects, like teaching, traveling, or writing non-fiction, short stories or essays. But the opposite may be true, too: They’re blocked. Or, perhaps they’re actually gone for good, having enrolled at “Harper Lee’s School For Quitting While You’re Ahead.”

(One final theory: They know I’m waiting anxiously for their new books, and they enjoying annoying me….And so now that that joke’s out of the way, this seems like a good time to broach the fact that I do realize this whole post has an air of presumptuousness — that these novelists are nothing but circus clowns, plying their trade to entertain me (us), and the only thing that matters is how quickly they can crank out their next bit of art. I don’t really think any of this, just so we’re clear. Sorry for the detour. Back to the post.)

So, as you surely know by now, last week, Eugenides published a novel (The Marriage Plot) for the first time in nine years. (By way of comparison, James Patterson published…and I’m not exaggerating here, you can count for yourself…58 novels in that same time. 58!)  And that’s gotten me thinking about other writers whose novels I loved, but who we haven’t seen in awhile. Here is my top five:

5. Norman Rush and Robert Stone — I’m lumping these two old, venerable American novelists together here largely because I seem to constantly conflate them in my own mind. They even bear a passing physical resemblance — each sporting a distinguished old-guy white beard. Rush is the author of “intellectual thrillers” Mating (1991) and Mortals (2003), which was his last novel. Stone has published a memoir (Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties — 2007) and a book of short stories (Fun With Problems — 2010), since his last novel — 2003’s Bay of Souls, which, frankly, was a far cry qualitywise from many of the other six novels (especially Damascus Gate, which is incredible!) he’d published over the course of the last 35 years.

4. Claire Messud — Though many people didn’t, I loved The Emperor’s Children (2006), a novel about a clique of single folks in New York City. But Messud hasn’t published another novel since. She had written three pre-The Emperor’s Children novels between 1995 and 2001, so I’m hoping for something new soon!

3. James David Duncan —  The Brothers K, one of my favorite novels of all time, came out in 1992. Since, Duncan has published numerous essays, a volume of short stories, and a memoir…but no novel. Sadly, I think Duncan may be a prime example of the Harper Lee School — if he hasn’t published in 19 years, it’s hard to imagine a new novel is forthcoming. I hope I’m wrong — and he’s actually slaving away at the Karl Marlantes School (30 years to write and publish Matterhorn).

2. Cormac McCarthy — Another Great American Novelist who is getting up there in years (he’s 78). McCarthy’s last novel was The Road (2006). I know this is literary sacrilege, but The Road is actually the only McCarthy novel I’ve liked (and I’ve read a lot of his stuff). And The Road got me just interested enough to keep going with McCarthy. But now he’s made us wait five years. (Incidentally, somewhere, Philip Roth — who definitely reads Book Riot! — just slammed an angry fist onto his typewriter, and commenced a tirade about how age is no excuse to stop publishing.)

1. Zadie Smith — From 2000 to 2005, Smith published three novels — the brilliant White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), and On Beauty (2005). And then…silence (at least novelistically speaking). She’s published several essays (collected in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays — 2010), but no more fiction. Please come back, Zadie. We miss you!

There you have it. Who is on your list? From which novelists are you patiently waiting for something new?