The Death Effect

That’s the title of Terry Teachout’s most recent Sightings column in the WSJ, and in light of the recent deaths of Ed Hoch and Benjamin Schutz – not to mention earlier ones of Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Ira Lavin, Joe Hensley, Magdalen Nabb and many others – it’s worth reading:

What is it about the demise of an artist that so often
triggers a reconsideration of his significance? In the short run, the
Death Effect arises in part from the publication of obituaries that
discuss the whole of his achievement, admiringly or otherwise. Most of
us, after all, have a tendency to take the continuing output of
long-lived creative artists for granted, in much the same way that a
resident of New York City may never get around to visiting a local
landmark like the Empire State Building. If you forget to read their
latest novel or see their new movie . . . well, there’ll always be
another one. Their death is thus a natural occasion for editors to
commission articles that seek to sort them out and sum them up.

Not only can such articles stimulate renewed critical

debate, but they may also have the unintended consequence of bringing a

freshly deceased artist to the attention of younger readers hitherto

unfamiliar with his work….Another aspect of the Death Effect is the undeniable but nonetheless

macabre fact that an artist’s death makes it easier for critics to sum

him up — and for dealers to set a price on his work. You can’t trust a

living artist not to lose his touch or change stylistic direction, much

less to keep his output low enough to make it more valuable to

collectors. Once he’s dead, though, critics and catalogers are free to

do their stuff, and what economists call the “scarcity effect” comes

into play.

Later on Teachout brings up the recent death of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and his belief that “once the Death Effect wears off, his reputation will enter a protracted

period of eclipse. Why? Because it will take a long time for critics

and scholars to sift through his vast output and decide what portion of

it is worth remembering.” That sentiment applies just as well to McBain, which probably explains why – at least from what I can tell – he’s fallen off the radar considerably since his death in 2005. Being prolific meant he could work as a writer full-time, but from a posterity standpoint, what to do with so many 87th Precinct titles, many of which are solid but hardly memorable?

Or put in another way, as much as current fans enjoy that there’s a new Spenser novel year in, year out, is Robert B. Parker diluting his work in catastrophic fashion for future generations? Or is he emulating the equally prolific P.G. Wodehouse, who also wrote much the same thing over and over again and is still enjoyed by many decades after their first publication?

Thinking about literary posterity is a paralyzing thought, but then so is making a will or buying a funeral plot or anything remotely connected to the matter of death and dying in one’s own life, not just the confines of a novel or story’s plot. But preparing way in advance instead of concentrating on the short term, embracing the possibility of what might become of your work after death instead of ignoring it seems, perhaps paradoxically, to be far more advantageous – even if at times it might not work out to the author’s liking.