It is with regret that I report that Gene Wolfe is no longer the greatest living writer in the world. He may be one of the greatest writers in history, however. He passed away last month.
He was my friend and an early mentor to me. Many authors today cite Gene as a primary influence. But many more people have not heard of him.
I met Mr. Wolfe back in the 1970s when we both worked at Technical Publishing. He was then a struggling author. In his generosity he invited me to join with him and a small band of folks who also were struggling authors living in the Chicagoland area. It was a generous gesture to a young writer. Gene and his wife Rosemary never stopped being generous.
My last direct personal contact with him, save a few random Facebook moments, was in 2007 when he sent me a copy of his latest book. The letter that accompanied it was typical wry Wolfe in which he mentioned that his book had won an award, and this had taken him by surprise. “…My work hasn’t won a major award since 1996, unless you count that Hall of Fame thing.”
In his life Gene Wolfe won or was nominated for nearly every single award possible in the science fiction/fantasy genre, including the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1996.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him its 29th SFWA Grand Master in 2012.
The annual Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award was presented to Wolfe during Nebula Awards weekend in 2013.
And of course, there was this “Hall of Fame thing,” being his induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007.
He finished life with many accolades. And he was so much more. In March 2012 he was presented with the first Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Fuller Award, for outstanding contribution to literature by a Chicago author.
Gene has been quoted as saying, “[My definition of a great story] is one that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”
Gene’s writing is tricky and sometimes difficult. It often demands a second or third reading. He is not an “easy” read nor does he try to be. Once upon a time I sought to get everyone I knew to read his books. I learned they are not for everyone. Not everyone wants to make the effort.
In an interview I conducted with him, Mr. Wolfe said to me, “If you want to be a good writer, read good books. If you want to be a great writer read great books.” I use that quote often to encourage other writers, but what I do not say is the rest of his thought. “That is why there are so few great books written these days. No one wants to take the time to raise the bar.”
If you choose to read a Gene Wolfe book, make certain you have a dictionary handy. A really good dictionary.
As an author, I take Gene Wolfe as an example. I do not attempt to emulate his style. It gives me the willies just to imagine working quite that hard. But I do try to write to a higher level, to add hope and vision to the world, rather than fear and despair, wonder rather than worry. Let us give Gene the last word.
“I would like [my readers] to better understand human beings and human life as a result of having read [my] stories. I’d like them to feel that this was an experience that made things better for them and an experience that gave them hope.
“…what we [fiction writers] are saying is that [life] doesn’t have to be like this: things can be different. Our society can be changed…it doesn’t have to be the way it is now. Things can change. And we’re also saying things can change for you in your life.
“We don’t always have to be this. There can be something else. We can stop doing the thing that we’re doing…we don’t have to keep on doing what we’ve been doing. We can do something else if we don't like what we’re getting. I think a lot of the purpose of fiction ought to be to tell people that.”