At the moment I am simultaneously working on two magazine articles, each requiring me to assess not just a book, but (briefly) a writer's entire career. The writers in question are both prominent, both widely published, read, and appreciated. And yet neither, I think, enjoys a full appreciation of their career--its real scope, with all its twists and turns, its eccentricities intact.
In one case, the writer had one smash hit, and one notorious book everyone hates. In the other, the writer has somehow become known as the author of one really serious book that gets taught a lot in college classes, and a bunch of other stuff generally thought to be a little bit frivolous. But close readings of each (hell, not even that close) reveals these reputations to be woefully inadequate. Both writers are much more interesting than their hits and bombs would suggest. Indeed, the famous books aren't even the best ones, and the bombs are the most interesting of all. (We should all have such bombs.)
It's one thing to read, say, a novel closely. That's the least you should do. But you don't really understand a novel fully until you've examined its context--its place in a stream of developing themes, ideas, and stylistic motifs. I am actually a little bit embarrassed not to have already noticed what I'm noticing now about these writers. They are both better, broader, and stranger than I thought.
The tragedy of all this is that a writer has no control over any of it. It's bad enough that we can never quite get a novel right--try getting an entire life right! As for these two, they are still writing--quite vigorously, in fact--which complicates things even further. They are moving targets.
Perhaps the writer whose career can be neatly summarized, or already is, has already failed. Maybe it's the mystery and misdirection that makes them interesting. Or maybe that's just the thesis that will keep me writing about them.
image: "Book Cell" by Matej Krén. Click for link.