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.