That is a question that has cropped up a few times in my reading life. Usually when I find an author I like, I read every book (s)he has written. Especially if there is a series, I like to read all the books in the series. However, this sometimes backfires. I have noticed that some authors deteriorate the more books they write. I will give a few examples of authors whose work I have abandoned.
I used to love Wilbur Smith. His earlier works about Africa, about the Courtneys and the Ballantynes are amazing, spellbinding and real page-turners. Even his stand-alone books are without compare. However, at a certain point his books stopped thrilling me. It was when I read Monsoon that I realised it really did not hold my attention. I was not particularly interested in the story, and I could not bother to invest in the characters. Maybe I outgrew Wilbur Smith, although my mother used to love him, and agrees with me that his later works are not as good. (Let me know in the comments if I have that wrong, mom!) I think that Wilbur Smith got too old and decided to just ride on the wave of his fame, getting sloppy with his research and his writing. After having written so many books, who can really blame him? After all, he is already 80.
Lee Child is the creator of the hero Jack Reacher. Every single book he has written features Jack Reacher. I enjoyed reading those books tremendously, even though they are somewhat formulaic. However, the last book I read by him, The Affair, left a lot to be desired. The book takes place before all the others, explaining how Reacher became who he is. A lot of Reacher’s actions just did not ring true to how he was portrayed in the earlier books, making me wonder if Lee Child had lost the way. Now, I think Lee Child has sold out to Hollywood with the making of the Jack Reacher movie. He lost my support when he stated that Reacher’s height was “a metaphor for an unstoppable force” in defense to Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Has he not read his own books? After that, I have lost the taste for more Reacher books, I think Lee Child is only in it for the money nowadays.
I am a huge fan of Michael Connelly and I do not think that he has reached his expiry date yet. However, I think that he better watch out, as something is starting to smell. The last two books I read by him were Nine Dragons and The Reversal, and both were very anticlimatic. They were still perfectly good books, but the edge was gone. Whereas I used to stay up all night so I could finish the book (and be rewarded with a great ending), Nine Dragons did not compel me to keep reading, and The Reversal was compelling only because I expected a good twist, which alas never came. I am not at the point yet that I will stop reading his books, but I am close.
I have mentioned Patricia Cornwell before. Her Scarpetta books were great as long as they focused on solving crimes. But for some reason Patricia Cornwell decided that her readers were more interested in Scarpetta’s personal life and the life of her annoying niece than in the mystery of the crimes and that was when I stopped reading her books. I think this one is a case of an author spending too much time with the same characters and wanting to delve into their personal lives as a consequence. To give credit where credit is due: although Lee Child only writes about one character, with Reacher it never got stale, as he is a loner always on the move, so the reader does not have to worry about any personal attachments.
Now, of course not every author has a sell by date. I think every book Terry Pratchett writes is as amazing, if not more so, than the previous books. He does not show any sign of complacency or laziness. Each book has been crafted with the same care and diligence as the very first books, where he still had to worry about whether it would sell or not.
The same goes for my favourite writer Wodehouse. Although the man wrote about a book a year, each book is simply amazing. Wodehouse never thought: ‘Well, I am famous now, and people will buy my books anyhow, so who cares that the language is not as wonderfully styled as my earlier works? People are still going to love it.’
And that care and diligence, no matter how famous or best-selling you are, distinguishes the great writers from the mediocre ones.