Robert Caro’s Obligations to Readers

The 83-year-old is taking time off finishing his LBJ quintilogy to write his memoirs. Is that selfish?

WSJ’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg observes wryly, “George R.R. Martin Isn’t the Only Author Who Can’t Finish a Beloved Series.”

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro will publish a book in April looking back at his life’s work.

Some of his fans would rather that, at age 83, he finished his life’s work.

Mr. Caro has written four volumes about President Lyndon Johnson, and his devotees have been waiting since 2012 for the next and final installment. So the coming release of “Working,” a memoir of his professional life, has been greeted with raised eyebrows.

“Jesus, Bob, you’ve left your fans hanging,” says Joe Kolman, a 64-year-old writer and documentary filmmaker in Queens, N.Y. “Have mercy on us! Reminisce all you want after you finish!”

Jim Sather, a retiree and former attorney who lives in a Chicago suburb, says he isn’t sure “Working” was a wise use of Mr. Caro’s time. “What the hell is he writing that book for?” says Mr. Sather, 71. “I’m not getting any younger and neither is he.”

[…]

In an interview in a New York City apartment he uses as an office, the author says he has personally received pleas from readers to finish the next LBJ book. “People keep saying to me, do the math, meaning I may not get to finish.”

He gave considerable thought, he says, before he halted work on the Johnson book. He wrote “Working,” he says, because he considered it vital to explain what it was like to report and write his books, including working inside the LBJ Presidential Library. “I couldn’t bear the thought that if I died, nobody would ever know these thoughts.”

Reaction to the New Yorker excerpt has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he says, and in recent weeks strangers have stopped him in the street. “That’s never happened to me before.”

Mr. Caro has completed 323 manuscript pages on the next LBJ book, an impressive stack. “If you ask me how many years to go,” he says, “I can’t answer you.”

The first of the LBJ books, which were initially intended as a trilogy,  was released in 1982.  Subsequent volumes were released in 1990, 2002, and 2012. A year before the fourth volume was released, Caro announced that he would need five volumes to finish the tale. Expecting that the book would be finished in 2019 seems odd, in that it would be a faster interval than between any previous volume and Caro is now almost four decades older. Still, one gets the impatience.

The obvious analogue, alluded to in the headline:

If any author can sympathize with Mr. Caro’s quandary, it would be George R.R. Martin, 70, whose series “A Song of Ice and Fire” inspired the hit HBO show “Game of Thrones.” Fans have been waiting since 2011 for the next installment and are growing agitated, especially since Mr. Martin released a different book last year and is executive producing a “Game of Thrones” prequel.

One Amazon reviewer wrote, “Quit fooling around and finish Winds of Winter!” referring to Mr. Martin’s anticipated next title in his popular series.

A spokesman for Bantam Books, which publishes Mr. Martin in the U.S., says the author “is working on it.”

The diversions are different but nonetheless understandable.

In Caro’s case, he has another story he desperately wants told and that he alone has the ability to tell. In a worst-case scenario, someone else could pick up where he left off on LBJ. No one else can write Caro’s memoirs.

In Martin’s case, one presumes he’s enjoying the financial success and personal fame that television brought—and one suspects he hasn’t quite figured out how to he wants his signature series to end.

At the end of the day, it’s not clear to me that Caro or Martin owes us anything other than their best work. One hopes they both finish their masterpieces. But they’re certainly allowed to pursue their other passions in their golden years.

FILED UNDER: Academia, Book Reviews
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    At the end of the day, it’s not clear to me that Caro or Martin owes us anything other than their best work. One hopes they both finish their masterpieces. But they’re certainly allowed to pursue their other passions in their golden years.

    They don’t owe us anything, not even their best. If either decides they are just too burned out by the whole thing and want to pursue hang gliding instead they have every right to.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Every time any human being dies it’s like burning a library. Anyone could finish his LBJ quintilogy. He’s the only one who could write his own memoirs properly. Go for it.

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  3. All of this reminds me of William Manchester, the British historian whose final work was meant to be a definitive three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. His first two volumes, which covered Churchill’s early life up to the point in 1940 when he was brought back into British politics to serve as Prime Minister during what seemed like Britain’s darkest hour, were very, very good, and many were looking forward to the final volume, which of course would cover the crucial years of the war and Churchill’s role in rebuilding Europe and speaking out during the early years of the Cold War.

    Unfortunately, Manchester became ill while still working on Volume III and died before completing it. It took several years, but his family and publisher eventually found a historian to take the manuscript Manchester had left behind and finish it. The final book is a very good book, and I’d recommend it to anyone (although I’d recommend reading the first two volumes first) but you can still basically find the point where Manchester ends and the new guy steps into his shoes.

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  4. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Manchester was an American: born in Mass., died in Connecticut.

  5. grumpy realist says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I’m thinking of similar “left-over tidbits” that have happened in the world of music/opera/literature. (Heck, there are arguments that the first novel ever written (The Tale of Genji) was cut short by the death of the author.)

    Turandot (Puccini)
    Requiem (Mozart)
    The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens)
    Lord John (Heyer)
    The Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu)
    Cycle of Time series (Robert Jordan)
    …and those are only the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

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  6. @CSK:

    I always assumed he was British. Thanks for the clarification.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @grumpy realist: “The Silmarillion,” finished by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s leftovers, comes to mind.

  8. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Manchester also wrote Death of a President, which caused him untold woe with Jacqueline Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

    What you say about being able to determine when one author leaves off and another picks up is quite true. When Robert B. Parker, the enormously popular mystery writer, died in 2010, his widow and sons hired a number of writers to take over various of Parker’s series. Since Parker’s voice was unique, the difference in the quality of the writing was obvious. Often imitated, never equaled, as they say.

  9. That’s nice and all, but I need a few other authors to finish their series. Jake Bible has sadly gone and taken a non-writing job, and he has like 3-4 series to finish. A couple of my other favorite authors disappeared after writing 2-5 books, then nothing.

  10. CSK says:

    @William Teach:

    A real possibility is that your favorite authors didn’t quit writing. They stopped being published.

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    George MacDonald Fraser, Patrick O’Brian, Roger Ebert and George Carlin are four examples of writers whose death I bitterly regret. But these things happen.

    Different authors have their own feelings about the relationship to readers. I never really thought about it until about a decade ago when social media made my wife and me aware that the Animorphs fandom is still out there. Those readers made us secure economically and in terms of our careers. We owe them. Just as I separately owe the Gone readers.

    But that sense of obligation does not go so far as to dictate what I write next. Caro gets to make that decision.

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  12. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I loved Fraser and Carlin. I enjoyed Ebert. Haven’t gotten to O’Brian yet.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Those readers made us secure economically and in terms of our careers. We owe them. Just as I separately owe the Gone readers.

    But that sense of obligation does not go so far as to dictate what I write next. Caro gets to make that decision.

    Agree.

    Mostly, having created characters and worlds that your readers have become emotionally invested in, I think you owe them to treat those characters and worlds with some care and respect. (I’m not sure, for example, that George Lucas has met that obligation with his “Star Wars” universe.) But I don’t think, for example, that you owe it to them to continue producing work in that genre if the politics of it have sucked the joy out of it for you.

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  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I don’t think, for example, that you owe it to them to continue producing work in that genre if the politics of it have sucked the joy out of it for you.

    There are two kinds of people in this world: those who build a sod hut in Nebraska and eke out a bare existence defying the elements and the hostile locals and the diseases, because by God, they’ve put down roots. . . and then there are people who say, “Are you kidding me? Freeze in Nebraska? I’m going to California.”

    Bye bye YA, hello Hollywood. I’m taking 2019 to play with scriptwriting (and also working on a book with my wife and finishing my second adult crime novel). If that doesn’t pay off I’ll push further into adult books. When someone craps in the pool I go swim somewhere else, and there is always a somewhere else.

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  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    @grumpy realist: @James Joyner:

    Interestingly Parker finished the incomplete Raymond Chandler novel Poodle Springs

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I’m taking 2019 to play with scriptwriting (and also working on a book with my wife and finishing my second adult crime novel). If that doesn’t pay off I’ll push further into adult books. When someone craps in the pool I go swim somewhere else, and there is always a somewhere else.

    Good for you.

  17. Kathy says:

    Virgil died before finishing the Aeneid. this left Rome with an incomplete foundational myth.

    Speaking of which, Isaac Asimov wrote his Foundation stories between 1942 and 1950, which were published in Astounding magazine. These were collected for publication in book form in 1953(*) and packaged as three books, giving the world The Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation).

    Here the Good Doctor fell into a writer trap: advertising a chronology in advance, and growing tired of the series before finishing it. At the outset we’re told the Foundation will shorten the dark ages between the fall of the Galactic Empire and the rise of the Second Empire from 10,000 to 1,000 years. But the series ends around 350 years into the period.

    Fans had to wait until 1982 for Asimov to provide the fourth book, Foundation’s Edge, and to correct the chronology trap. He even published a second sequel book, Foundation and Earth.

    Then he fell into another, more common trap. He wrote a prequel called Prelude to Foundation. It’s an excellent book, but suffers from continuity problems. The prequel sequel, Forward the Foundation, made the continuity matters, IMO, quite worse (it’s also one of my least liked Asimov books).

    (*) Yes, I’m aware of the whole Gnome Press thing.

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  18. Scott says:

    In Martin’s case, one presumes he’s enjoying the financial success and personal fame that television brought—and one suspects he hasn’t quite figured out how to he wants his signature series to end.

    I suspect he doesn’t have an ending. As one of the few who actually read his Games of Thrones series ( and have not see the HBO series), I can understand that. It is unreadable. Really terrible. Just a lot of random plot lines that go nowhere. I don’t believe it was plotted out to begin with.

  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: A friend of mine gave me Master and Commander to read a while back. It’s a good read, but for me it wasn’t good enough to send me to the used book store looking for more. Then again, I mostly read trashy fare that was called “dime novels” in the lamented past. Rex Stout is probably the apex of my taste. John McDonald or Leslie Charteris probably the nadir.

  20. Bill says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    All of this reminds me of William Manchester, the British historian whose final work was meant to be a definitive three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. His first two volumes, which covered Churchill’s early life up to the point in 1940 when he was brought back into British politics to serve as Prime Minister during what seemed like Britain’s darkest hour, were very, very good, and many were looking forward to the final volume, which of course would cover the crucial years of the war and Churchill’s role in rebuilding Europe and speaking out during the early years of the Cold War.

    Unfortunately, Manchester became ill while still working on Volume III and died before completing it.

    Doug,

    Martin Gilbert is acknowledged as writing the definitive biography of Churchill. It was eight volumes and I’ve read it. (Thank you Amazon Kindle Select)

    Churchill wasn’t out of politics at all except for a period in the 1920s from 1900 to the 1950’s. What he was- Out of favor with the Conservative Party. First his stances on India, then his outspokenness about Nazi Germany and the need to re-arm. His stances during the King Edward VIII abdication crisis also didn’t help Churchill. When WWII started he was quickly made Lord of the Admiralty and was still in the cabinet position when PM Neville Chamberlain resigned in May 1940. Chamberlain didn’t know, but he was terminally ill at the time and would be dead before 1940 was over.

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Scott: I don’t think I would say unreadable. I read one volume that had been abandoned in the apartment that lived in while I was at Yeungjin college in Daegu (I don’t recall that I had a TV there, so books of any sort were more important). It was a good enough read, but I understood why the person had abandoned it. I also had the impression that it was random to some extent, but there are a lot of series in literature that do not form story arcs even though they may be sequential. The fact that this one is in a genre where most of the works are finite in length may make this series a mistake, but I don’t portray myself as an arbiter of literary merit at all. As pulp fiction an okay read. But I didn’t bother to read another volume when I found 7 or 8 of them at the Woosong faculty library.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    @William Teach: Ooh, yes–series that I wish the author would finish writing! There are a LOT that just turn into nothing.

    Methinks that in a lot of cases you’ve got a series building up to some over-the-top climax and the author never gets around to writing the last book because a) how can anything you write live up to the fantastic build-up you’ve created? or b) wanting to keep holding on to the series continuing because it’s your gravy train. Sometimes it’s c) I’ve made this such a complicated plot there’s no way I’d be able to resolve all those plot lines and am exhausted just thinking about it.

    Authors I wish had finished off their series (and who have died or who don’t look like they’re going to): Alexei Panshin.(Star Well series). E.E. “Doc” Smith (Lord Tedric series). Three of the other SF/Fantasy authors I follow look to be chugging along after a period of hiatus, so will continue buying whatever they generate.

  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @grumpy realist:
    As I have often tried to explain to editors and producers both, series writing is a different skill from writing single titles. I’ve created 14 series or trilogies and just two single title books and they aren’t quite apples and oranges, but they’re at least oranges and tangerines. Ever notice how many TV series have a great pilot, followed by three pretty good shows, leading to confusion and collapse in the second season? (Cough–Stranger Things–cough cough). The universe of writers who can write a good stand-alone book or pilot is far larger than the universe of people who can pull off a series.

  24. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The thing about Stranger Things is that is was never intended to be a series. It was commissioned as a mini-series. But the economics of television — even the new kinds of television — are such that success demands further seasons.

    When I heard the show had been ordered for a second season, I assumed they’d do it like Fargo or American Horror Story and tell a different story with the same tone and genre — they chose to go the more traditional route. I didn’t dislike the second season the way you seem to have, but I do think the first one was fine on its own.

    This is a situation that will probably never be repeated, by the way — thanks to HBO’s Big Little Lies. That was conceived as a mini-series (and based on a novel). But it turned out to be the network’s first huge success in a long time, and they needed season two. But… since it was a mini-series, no one had negotiated for a second season with the big time movie stars who were in it… and who then demanded huge increases to come back. (One high-level HBO exec complained in a speech that they were getting “raped” — and then had to backpeddle and apologize like crazy…)

    So from that point on, I suspect the mini-series ceased to exist in America. It’s all going to be series from now on.

  25. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    I gather Maniac will be left alone as a mini-series – Jonah Hill and Emma Stone presumably have other gigs – but yeah, it’s very, very hard to turn not-series into series. We did a stand-alone which the editor then asked us to spin out into a series. We owed this editor so we spent weeks trying to figure something out, but it had simply not been designed as a series, the story had been told, the supporting characters were not robust enough, it would have been a stupid mess, so we had to say no.

    I love that TV has become a place for creators to go all-in with imaginative, original stuff, but series (book or TV) by their nature have to be more disciplined. A single title is a one-night stand, a mini-series is an affair, a series is a marriage. They’re all fun, all good, but in different ways.