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Death of the author: How we grieve for the greats

Great writers give us more than just good stories to read, they help us define ourselves and our place in the world

Martin Amis at his home in London, 1987. Photo: Ulf Andersen/ Getty

Amid all the tributes, obituaries, eulogies and anecdotes that followed the announcement of the death of Martin Amis, the three most significant words of all became lost in the noise – “out of stock”.

Within hours, possibly even minutes, of the announcement of the writer’s death from oesophageal cancer at the age of 73 there was not an Amis book to be found on the shelves of any online retailer. Even second-hand copies of all but his most recondite titles were hard to come by, as death turned Amis into literature’s hottest property.

In some ways it’s understandable, as the logistics of warehouse space dictate that even celebrated authors will have only a finite number of their backlist titles in print. But authorial deaths provoke a flurry of attention that, while found in other branches of the arts and entertainment, seems particularly intense in the literary world.

We’re never more revered than when newly dead and in the age of social media everyone gets to have their say. When the death of a writer is announced, the cycle usually begins with shock and dismay, everyone quote-tweeting the breaking news with exclamations: “Oh no!”, “Awful!”, “What a shock!”

Then, when everyone has stopped trying to be first with the news, come the reactions, streams of posts about the writer’s place in the literary pantheon and reflections on what their work has meant to people, some heartfelt, others trite. Among them are the comments designed to highlight some kind of personal connection that elevates the poster above the status of mere fan. Journalists haul ancient interviews out of their archives, critics start Googling their reviews of the dead author’s work and people connected to the publishing world relate in grave, Pooterish tones the time they met the writer fleetingly at a book launch in a defining moment for both of them.

Mere readers, meanwhile, content themselves with posting photographs of their favourite books, dog-eared and much-loved, and highlighting favourite passages and quotes.

By this time news desks have been through their contact books and obtained reactions from notable literary figures who feel obliged to come up with something that at least sounds profound but which often produces mixed results. Salman Rushdie wrote of Amis through the prism of furniture, describing how “his voice is silent now. His friends will miss him terribly. But we have the shelf”. His long-time literary agent Andrew Wylie said Amis “played on a field that few writers visited”, making him sound like a lonely child with no friends.

The sharing of shock, grief and memories is an understandable reaction, particularly for those who knew the writer personally. Amis’s death produced some beautiful, heartfelt tributes, some of which have appeared in these pages. Yet for all the eulogising, the reaction induced by the demise of an admired writer is an overwhelmingly intimate one because reading a book is one of our most intimate experiences.

We’ve all been affected by the deaths of musicians, actors or sportspeople. Sometimes we can surprise ourselves at how deeply we’re moved, but our
interactions with them are shared in real time with others, at the cinema, theatre, venue or stadium. Reading is different. As an experience it is as
exhilarating as seeing a great actor on the stage or screen or witnessing a
great sporting moment, yet while we stand and applaud from the stalls or the terraces we’re shoulder to shoulder with others seeing and feeling exactly the same thing.

I write this on the eve of the 25th anniversary of Clive Mendonca’s hat-trick for Charlton Athletic against Sunderland in the epic 1998 play-off final at Wembley which is, quite frankly, the pivot on which my entire adult life turns. But it is something I share with everyone else there that day, people who recall the same images and sounds and who shared the agonised tension and joyous relief. It was a profoundly affecting occasion and one absolutely enhanced by being shared.

When it comes to books, however, there is just us and the author. We enter alone the worlds they conjure and have them lead the way through stories and characters, just the two of us. We spend hours immersing ourselves in images that, although we are not the only people who will read the book, are unique to us. You and I might have read London Fields, Wolf Hall and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold but the pictures I have in my head will be wholly different from those in yours.

That’s not to say there is less intimacy in, say, music and cinema, but it’s a different kind to that evoked by reading. We feel a direct connection with the author somehow, something more individual, more bespoke perhaps. We all know the songs on Revolver and we’ve all seen Alien – we can call up the same sounds and images as everyone else as part of a hugely rewarding shared experience. But the characters, plots and locations summoned from the pages of a book are unique to us. That’s why when a writer we admire
dies it feels like a particularly personal loss.

Some might say we are grieving books yet unwritten. Amis was 73, far from elde rly by today’s standards.Hilary Mantel was 70 when she died last year and, it turns out, was working on a novel about Jane Austen, who was only 41 he self when she died. Virginia Woolf was 59, Franz Kafka barely 40, Ernest Hemingway a few days shy of his 62nd birthday. Oscar Wilde and David Foster Wallace were 46. Add together the lifespans of the three Brontë sisters and you still fall short of filling a century.

We can only speculate about what might have been, had each been granted a few more years at the writing desk. But were their deaths felt more keenly than PG Wodehouse’s at 93 or Agatha Christie’s at 85? The world held its breath in 1910 for news of the ailing 82-year-old Leo Tolstoy, gravely ill at a rural railway station while staff solemnly telegraphed updates on his terminal decline – but no-one was fretting over the prospects of a sequel to War and Peace.

It’s not what might have been that gives the death of an author its poignancy, it’s the realisation of what we have. Amis leaves 15 novels, four short story collections and eight non-fiction books. Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is enough to ensure a magnificent legacy alone, let alone her other nine novels, two collections of short fiction, one memoir and a book of collected journalism.

For readers these represent hours upon hours of reading and rereading, some books reminding us of the time in our own lives when we first read them, others the exhilarating thrill of first discovery when we realised how
much we loved this voice and the world it constructed. There are books that helped us through difficult times, books we were gifted by a loved one, books we’ve given to others. Books that have inspired long and heated
discussions, books whose mere mention has helped forge friendship or romance. Books we’ve turned to again and again, books we’ve read once, books we’ve had to replace because they’ve fallen apart, books with authors’ signatures in the front, books we borrowed from the library years ago and never returned. Books that mean everything to us.

Great writers give us more than just good stories to read, they help us define ourselves and our place in the world. They help teach us who we are, who we might be and who we are supposed to be. Their work can help shield us from our worries, grief and trauma and enhance some of the best times of our lives. Their presence in our worlds and on our shelves can be as significant, inspiring and healing as the deepest real-life friendship.

The shock of their death comes with the realisation of a great silence descending. Not so much in the blank pages of books never written, but that
the characters, voices and places they created have been stilled forever in
the place they were born. Our favourite writers have shared so much with us, drawn us into a meaningful intimacy, yet the benefits have flowed entirely in our direction and death makes it too late for any kind of reciprocity.

When a great writer dies it unleashes a torrent of words, some good, some not, some profound, some trite, some heartfelt, some empty, leaving the most significant three words of all barely audible in the din.

“Out of stock” is a blunt, functional phrase, but when it appears on the death of an author it surpasses tribute and eulogy. Whether the flurry of purchases is down to existing fans completing collections or returning to books previously owned, or people inspired by the tributes to try an author they’d always meant to get around to, each sale, each book landing on a doormat a few days hence, represents that precious intimacy we crave and enjoy with our favourite authors.

We lose too many people in life, those close to us, friends, acquaintances, people we admire. Memories will fade and we’ll never create new ones. When our writers die, however, the times we shared can be revived at any time and new ones forged.

That’s the beauty behind the words “out of stock”. Those empty warehouse
shelves celebrate not the end of something but a fresh propagation of intimate immortality.

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