Another Round of the Posterity Game

Robert B. Parker is 76 years old, the same age that John Updike was when he died earlier this year. So it’s hard not to think of his potential legacy – not to mention just how many more books he has in him – when he’s cranking out some of the same old answers in interview like the one published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. Where RBP got more interesting was with this particular exchange:

WSJ: You wrote your Ph.D. thesis on the
American hero, and included authors Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett
and Ross Macdonald in it. Do you think any of them will be read in 50

Mr. Parker: I don't think Ross Macdonald will be
read. The other two, yes. Dashiell Hammett because of "The Maltese
Falcon," which is an excellent novel, and Raymond Chandler because he
was a master of the language. I don't know many who wrote better than
he did. It seems to me that Macdonald became one note, one theme. I
never found the wit there that I was hoping for. He was almost, but not

WSJ: What does that say about the genre novel, then? In theory, only literary works survive.

Mr. Parker: I don't think of myself as a genre
novelist. I think of myself as a person writing novels about people
involved with crime. I go through the same process that Updike went
through, but he may have gone through it a little better. It's all
about the limits of your imagination and the limit of your skill.

Since the posterity game got brought up with Chandler/Hammett/Macdonald (and I do agree, more or less, with Parker’s assertion) it’s hard not to jump forward in time and wonder, as I often do, which of today’s writers will be remembered years from now. But it’s tough to answer that question because writers and styles fall in and out of fashion; someone mired in obscurity today may be tomorrow’s greatest discovery. Still, Graham Powell zeroed in on what’s a better question to ask: which crime writers working in the 1970s and early 80s, the time when crime fiction was by and large a midlist enterprise and not yet part of the commercial echelon, will be remembered from now? And will Robert B. Parker be one of them?

Gerald So thinks so: “RBP’s legacy is that he helped re-popularize PI fiction in the 70s and has had a long career since.” Except with each published book that is clearly a first draft, Parker helps diminsh that legacy a little at a time. Are readers going to return to the early Spenser novels when there’s a caveat attached along the lines of “well, don’t read any after A CATSKILL EAGLE” or “you might want to skip the later books”? They might – the early books really are that influential – but why not turn attention to writers with fewer books to their credit? And as much of a game-changer as Parker was, I’d argue he may not seem as much of one later down the line.

It's why, if I had to be a betting woman, I'd put my money on Joe Gores, a year older than Parker. Not just because SPADE AND ARCHER is bringing him more attention than he's ever had, or because it's a much better Hammett pastiche than POODLE SPRINGS was a Chandler pastiche, but because of this: his talent shows in the sentences. The DKA novels, INTERFACE,HAMMETT, on and on, it is so readily apparent Gores worked those sentences over and made the words count. But Parker's success with THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT onward, to my mind, relied more on character and situation than finding just the right word to go with the next, and the one after that.

That said, I also doubt Parker cares all that much if he's remembered after he's gone. And even if he did, it's not like he's going to write second drafts anytime soon. But wouldn't it be fantastic if it turned out it wasn't too late for change?

UPDATE: Speaking of prequels, one of Robert B. Parker's upcoming projects is CHASING THE BEAR, a young adult novel published by Philomel this May that tells the tale of "Spenser’s formative years spent with his father and two uncles out West." I will resist the urge to editorialize further.