Which authors show the greatest range of quality within their published works?

In a comment on the recent “Almost-Classics” post, SarahZ says: “Orson Scott Card’s personal hangups and religious agendas can sometimes sabotage his books, so I think he might have some other candidates for this list, but I agree regarding Xenocide [being a failed book].”

I responded: “I think that several others of OSC’s books have failed in more or less interesting ways, though his books can also be tremendously good. He definitely shows a wide range of quality in his work, more than almost any other author I can think of. As far as I’m concerned, though, Xenocide stands out for really turning into a hot mess toward the end.”

This got me thinking about other authors who show this amazing difference in quality — not style, not theme, not genre, but actual quality — from one book to the next.

Now, virtually every one of my favorite authors who’s written more than, say, ten books, has written at least one that I disliked, or even hated. Steven Brust, check. Barbara Hambly, check. That’s why they each have an entry on that “almost classics” post. But also Gillian Bradshaw, Juliet Marillier, Patricia Wrede, CJ Cherryh (yes, really), and even, though it’s even harder to believe than CJC, Patricia McKillip.

But here I’m not trying to think of authors who’ve written a lot of great books that I’ve loved plus one book or a couple of books that I hated. I’m trying to think of authors who have written a lot of great books and also quite a few dreadful books — about the same variations in quality as one sees in Orson Scott Card’s books. Ender’s Game was excellent. Xenocide was terrible. The Lost Boys, one of his early books, was very good (have any of you read that?). Then Homebody, one of his later works, had the oddest structural flaws so that it was quite readable but, I would argue, a failure as a coherent story. And so on.

Barbara Hambly is another author much like that. I use her all the time as an example of how to do wonderful settings and characters and excellent opening scenes — Dragonsbane is my go-to example of how to write the opening scenes of a fantasy novel. Then the next books in that series are so awful. She’s written so many wonderful books — Bride of the Rat God (Yes! Really! The title is corny on purpose), Stranger at the Wedding, the Ysidro vampire stories, the Benjamin January mysteries, lots more. The Time of the Dark trilogy was very good. The associated standalone Mother of Winter was so bad I didn’t finish it. The Nazi duology (Rainbow Abyss, Magicians of Night) was somehow just so boring that I didn’t make it through the first book.

I can think of just one more author who shows this kind of variability — Elizabeth Moon.

Elizabeth Moon wrote the excellent Paksennarion books, followed much later by the far less coherent and frankly rather boring Paladin’s Legacy books set in the same world. She wrote the wonderful space opera Hunting Party, which had several decent sequels and then devolved into, again, a less coherent connected series (the Esmay Suiza books) that I personally found unreadable. The Speed of Dark is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the ten best SF novels of all time (If you haven’t read that one, well, rush right out. Seriously.)

It’s a stunningly wide range of quality.

Surely I don’t need to add that all these judgments are subjective. (But I’m definitely right.)

Some writers start off strong and then totally lose it, either because their editors quit editing their work or because they quit editing their own work (or both, I suppose). Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake series comes forcefully to mind. But so does Stephen King, imo. Some of his early work is outstanding. Then suddenly he decides he will ALWAYS insert a sweet female character in order to provide a tearjerker moment when he kills her, even if he has to do violence to the plot to make that happen. I quit reading his books because they seemed so blatantly, obviously manipulative of the reader. I don’t believe a decline that seems permanent is quite the same thing as huge, unpredictable variation in quality from one book to the next.

How many authors can you think of with that kind of variation? It’s harder because you can’t make that kind of judgment except with prolific authors who have quite a lot of books out, most of which you’ve read. I expect there are others, but the phenomenon does seem rare.

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17 thoughts on “Which authors show the greatest range of quality within their published works?”

  1. I have to disagree on Hambly’s Dragonsbane books. Yes, they are claustrophobic and horrifying. No, they are not bad books. That said, the later Paksenarrion books I agree are plain dull.

  2. Laurell Hamilton was such a disappointment. As you say, the Anita Blake series was fantastic when it started. Basically jump-started an entire genre. But then oh my gosh did they get bad. I tried her Meredith Gentry books in the hopes that a different series might be better, and it was, but not enough to keep me reading it. Suffered from many of the same flaws that had appeared in the Anita Blake series.

    I have read that Stephen King realized he had a serious problem in that editors were no longer editing him, and imposed some self-discipline to do repeated large-scale cuts on his drafts. Overall, though, this is a problem that few authors have. Very few are successful enough that they become uneditable. Unfortunately, those authors are, by definition, ones that a great many people want to read!

  3. LeGuin. Some great, some yawnfests, with the particulars varying with each reader. Shorter LeGuin IMO has a higher chance of being excellent.

    Zelazny. Partly, probably because he tried so many different styles.

    I think David Weber would be on many lists…

    I’ve heard the phenomenom labeled “Brain Eater”. First example was Heinlein’s late work.
    how about Tanya Huff?

    (have read Lost Boys. It was a good read.)

  4. I don’t love Mercedes Lackey, but some of her stuff I’ve enjoyed. And then some has been pretty awful. Sharon Shinn is another… I liked the first few books of hers so much that I had a hard time convincing myself when I started finding some of her books really boring. Sherwood Smith, same thing. Her quality can be through the roof, and then you run into a few that seem written by a completely different person.

  5. I liked OSC’s Lost Boys until I realized that every non-Mormon character in it was evil (almost cartoonishly so), and then I found it really off-putting.

    There aren’t many well known authors who are as unpredictable as him – most have some predictable trajectory, either getting consistently better, or going off the rails at some point. Charlaine Harris is the only one I can think of. Her early mysteries are ok, but weird, dark, and a bit uneven, then her Sookie and Harper series start strong and go off the rails (Sookie in a big way), and nothing after that was even worth checking out. That series capper to Sookie was one of the strangest things I’ve seen – obits and the like for all characters in the whole series.

  6. Pete, I think you’re probably partly right and I’m biased because I hated the books so much and never re-read them. On the other hand . . . even though I never re-read them, isn’t this the series where Hambly (SPOILER) sends some of her characters through some sort of dimensional portal into, I don’t know, our world maybe? Because I seem to remember scenes of that sort and thinking how unbelievable and silly that whole element of the plot was and how little sense it made. Did you feel that element was actually well integrated and reasonable?

    Allan, I know, I wish I had the problem of no one wanting to bother editing my books. But if that ever does happen, you can bet I will find beta readers who do a great job.

    Elaine, I suspect I agree with you, but the fact is I never really liked anything by LeGuin other than The Tombs of Atuan. It’s probably me, not her. I bet you’re right about Zelazny — in fact, I can think of plenty of books that fall into both the high end and the low end. In fact, though I loved Lords of Light, I think it might be counted as an almost-classic — an ambitious book that, while wonderful, ultimately does not quite work.

    Mary Anne, I have really enjoyed aaaaalllmost everything by Sharon Shinn — but I did find the Shapeshifter books less appealing and the last one actually dead boring. I can see Sherwood Smith here maybe, I haven’t yet read enough of her books to tell, but I didn’t like Lind the Thief at all while A Stranger to Command was one of my absolute favorite books ever, for example.

    SarahZ, dammit, you may have ruined Lost Boys for me forever. That kind of thing is impossible to unsee once you’ve seen it. I remember realizing after reading Mists of Avalon that Marion Zimmer Bradley NEVER put a competent non-evil male character in her books and after that I was completely unable to read or re-read anything by her.

    Also, I think I have now decided never to bother finishing the Sookie Stackhouse series because that does not sound very appealing. I stopped three or four or maybe five books from the end because somehow I just lost interest. I have liked the first couple Midnight Crossroads books though.

  7. Sorry about Lost Boys!

    I mean, obviously your mileage may vary with Charlaine Harris, but that “book” she published after the series ended was seriously strange – just a paragraph or two about every named character from the whole series. Really, who needed to know that Jane Bodehouse died on the toilet?

  8. Whoa – Marion Zimmer Bradley never had a competent non-evil male? Haven’t read her work in years, but thinking back, yeah, that sounds about right. Don’t know how I missed that at the time!

  9. >but that “book” she published after the series ended was seriously strange – just a paragraph or two about every named character from the whole series

    That does sound just peculiar. And yet it got published? I guess her publisher decided it would sell. Perhaps it did.

    And yes, it was definitely my strong impression that MZB never once included a competent, sympathetic male character in her books — but I should add, I only read a couple of the Darkover books.

  10. Robin McKinley falls into this category for me, though she may not be prolific enough to count for you (or maybe her decline is too linear).

  11. I think I felt that McKinley is not prolific enough . . . plus I think I like all her books. Maybe I feel more like she has a range from great to good-but-flawed?

    Except I really did not like Pegasus, but I don’t count that one because it’s half a book. If it ever happened to be completed, I’m not sure I would like it even then.

    The suggestion of linear decline is interesting to me. I liked Dragonhaven a lot, though I know some readers didn’t. And Chalice, though again, I know some didn’t. Whereas I would say that Outlaws of Sherwood had an ending that didn’t work, and actually ditto for Spindle’s End.

  12. After reading the sample of her daughter’s book, about growing up with her parents, I can believe MZB never had a competent, sympathetic male character.

    Sherri Tepper is another who is both uneven and has ‘male character issues’ at least in her sf. My husband pointed them out and then I couldn’t not notice. But for a while there she seemed to be alternately putting out one readable, one drek/yawner. I haven’t read her in a long time, though.

    McKinley I can’t judge properly.. It always seems as if I ought to like her work more than I do. But I agree about the end of SPINDLE.

  13. Elaine, that’s how I feel about China Miéville. Whenever I read blurbs of his books, they sound like something I’d like, but then I almost never get into them.

  14. The “brain eater” phenomenon is definitely real — late Heinlein is the classic example, but late Asimov also went downhill with only a few exceptions (though his nonfiction stayed strong), and there’s a reason Larry Niven is writing everything with co-authors these day.

    But the writers who do it throughout their career are more interesting because harder to explain: Card is definitely a good example. Harry Harrison may be an example among the old-time big names: I was never a big enough fan to read all that much of his output, but even his fluff novels have a wide range in quality.

  15. I hesitate to include Zelazny because, like Elaine, I suspect it’s because he kept experimenting for a long time, and experiments aren’t always going to work out. John Brunner is another one of those.

    Another big-name pro who gives me an impression of strong variability across a long career is Robert Silverberg, but I’ve read even less of his stuff than Harrison.

  16. Oh yes: Tepper. Sam(asnier) in Raising the Stones was a great and fascinating
    male character. Grass has some others. Both are top-notch books-as are Sideshow and some others. But she had a number of books where her politics just got horribly in the way.

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