The Millions

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obits From 2020

Strange. In a year when more than 330,000 Americans died from Covid-19, just one person on this highly selective list of literary obituaries is known to have died after contracting the novel coronavirus. Maybe that’s not so strange. This was, after all, the year when everything stopped making sense.

Mary Higgins Clark must have done something right. She didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her forties, but every one of her 57 mysteries after that became a bestseller, selling a total of more than 100 million copies before she died on Jan. 31 at 92. Like other brand-name authors who dominate the best-seller lists (Steel, Patterson, King, Grisham, Roberts, Child), Clark found what worked for her, then stuck with it. In her case, she set out to answer the question: “What happens after bad things happen to good people (usually women)?” It worked so well that in 1988 she became the first American writer to sign an eight-figure deal — a $10.1 million, multi-book contract. She sometimes collaborated with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, and she amassed a fortune that afforded her luxuries few novelists ever experience outside their imaginations, including Cadillacs, jewelry, and homes in Manhattan, New Jersey, Cape Cod, and Florida. Though her fans venerated her, few critics confused her books with literature. She could not possibly have cared less. “Let others decide whether or not I’m a good writer,” this Bronx-born daughter of Irish immigrants said in a 2017 video. “I know I’m a good Irish story-teller.”

A quartet of venerable editors died this year — a woman and three men I have come to think of as The Fantastic Four of the Blue-Pencil Set. , who died Feb. 4 at 87, got her start by editing 1974’s by the Washington reporters and , the chronicle of their investigation of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up; 55 days after the book was published, President resigned. That book birthed a genre that might, , , , , and (who also died this year, see below). The aptly named loomed over American publishing for half a century, a reign that put him in a league with the legendary editor . In his long career, Loomis, who died April 19 at 93, edited , , , , and , among many others. Sheehan, whose nonfiction book, , won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, described Loomis’s approach to editing to the New York : “He would help me to understand what he would have done, and then do it his way to make it a better book. That book would not be the book it is without Bob.” , the most recognizable name among the four, died Sept. 23 at 92, after a two-act run that began with a distinguished newspaper career in London and then crossed the Atlantic for a second act that included stints as president and publisher of Random House, magazine editor, and writer of histories and a best-selling memoir — all the while leading a glittery social life with his wife, Tina Brown. And , who died Nov. 7 at 85, edited more than 50 New York s bestsellers that ranged from the shamelessly commercial to the loftily literary, by writers as different as , , , and . But it was a Russian émigré who most impressed Hills. After working with on his last completed novel, Hills said: “Having worked with many other writers, I still believe that Nabokov was the most dazzling of them all.” These four editors lived an average of just under 90 years, which surely says something about the salutary effects of spending your life trying to improve the writing of others.

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