The end of the decade took its toll on a number of literary lions. (Grumpy Cat, while perhaps not “literary,” I think would find joy in being called a lion.) As readers, we’re lucky that these authors’ words live on in our favorite books as well as books we’ll read in the future. But the end of these authors’ creativity makes the world a poorer place indeed.
Our hearts go out to their families, who knew and loved these writers in a more personal way than we could ever expect to, no matter how often we re-read their books.
Included in this non-exhaustive list of notable authors are two publishing executives who put their distinctive stamps on the book business. Sonny Mehta, the longtime editor-in-chief of Knopf, passed away on December 30, 2019. A quiet man who was nonetheless a powerhouse in the publishing industry, Mehta worked with a great number of both commercial and literary authors during his 54-year-long career. Under his leadership at Knopf, many authors won awards for their works, including Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, who passed away this year.
We also lost Betty Ballantine, who with husband, Ian, increased the availability of paperback books to the reading public and launched a number of publishing businesses, including Ballantine Books in 1952. Ballantine Books published many of the world’s most prestigious and popular sci-fi writers, including Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Ray Bradbury, and Anne McCaffrey, among others. Ballantine passed away on February 12, 2019.
Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
Mary Oliver captured readers’ imaginations with her poems about nature and the emotional landscape. She won critics over as well, gaining the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for American Primitive and the National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems. Born in Ohio, Oliver lived for several years at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upper New York state, companion to the poet's sister, Norma, before moving to Massachusetts. She spent more than 40 years living and writing in Provincetown, after which she moved to southeastern Florida. She died at age 83 on January 17, 2019.
Rosamunde Pilcher (1924-2019)
Rosamunde Pilcher, the bestselling author of many novels, died on February 6, in Dundee, Scotland. She was 94. Her breakout book was The Shell Seekers, published in 1987, when Pilcher was in her early sixties. Pilcher described the novel in an interview with People magazine as "a beach book for smart women who want to lose themselves in a big novel." Rosamunde Pilcher was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2002 by Queen Elizabeth II for services to literature.
Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)
Born in New York, Gene Wolfe fought in the Korean War and was an engineer before publishing the novels that won him acclaim as a sci-fi and fantasy author and a dedicated readership. The novels in his Book of the New Sun series are among his most popular as well as complex works, which follows the epic adventures of former torturer Severian. Said Neil Gaiman in an article titled "How to Read Gene Wolfe," "There are wolves in there, prowling behind the words. Sometimes they come out in the pages. Sometimes they wait until you close the book." In 2012, Wolfe was named by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America its 29th Grand Master. He died April 14, 2019, at age 87.
Herman Wouk (1915-2019)
Born in the Bronx, Wouk served in the US Navy during World War II, a segment of his life that inspired much of his writing. During his time in the Navy, he began writing his first novel, published in 1947. Wouk’s best-known work is The Caine Mutiny (1951), which won the Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a film starring Humphrey Bogart. Among Wouk’s other bestselling works are The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Wouk published his memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author, upon his 100th birthday. He died on May 17, 2019, in Palm Springs, California, at age 103.
Grumpy Cat (2012-2019)
The youngest and only non-human author on this list, Grumpy Cat was the pen name of Tardar Sauce, a cat born with feline dwarfism, which gave her a perpetually grumpy expression. While Grumpy Cat never won any literary awards, she had calendars, mugs, pajamas, and stuffed animals made from her likeness, and she spawned many, many memes. She died on May 17, 2019, and is survived by her brother Pokey, who is also an author.
Tony Horwitz (1958-2019)
A journalist and author, Horowitz won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1995 for a series of articles he wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the working conditions of low-wage earners. A few years later, his nonfiction book Confederates in the Attic, about the strong connections some Americans still feel to the Civil War, became a national bestseller and his best-known work. Horowitz died on May 27, 2019, at age 60, while on tour for his newest book, Spying on the South.
Judith Krantz (1928-2019)
Born in New York City, Krantz became an editor of Good Housekeeping by age 25, and she later wrote a number of magazine features, many with a scandalous bent. At age 50, she decided to learn how to fly and how to write fiction. She published her first novel in 1978, titled Scruples, which hit No 1. on the New York Times bestseller list and launched her blockbuster writing career. She continued writing “sex and shopping”-based novels through 1990s, selling more than 85 million copies in more than 50 languages. Krantz died at her home in Bel Air on June 22, 2019, at age 91.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Although she did not write her first book until the age of 39, Morrison enjoyed a career that spanned five decades, garnering her the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Toni Morrison started writing The Bluest Eye while she was a textbook editor at Random House in Syracuse, waking up each morning at 4 a.m. to write. Later she became a fiction editor in Random House's New York office, publishing writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others. After she left publishing to focus on her writing, she released Beloved in 1987, a hugely successful bestseller that also earned her the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993, she became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; she also taught at Princeton from 1989 until 2006. “I know it seems like a lot,” Morrison stated in a 2003 New Yorker profile. “But I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.” Morrison died at age 88 in New York City on August 5, 2019.
Ernest J. Gaines (1933-2019)
Born on a plantation in Louisiana, Ernest J. Gaines wrote nine novels and numerous short stories about the lives of African Americans, Cajuns, and Creoles in the rural South. He moved to California in 1948, where he wrote his first novel as a teenager—a manuscript that Gaines burned after it was rejected by a New York publishing house. He returned to Louisiana in 1963 and kept writing, and his first published novel, Catherine Carmier, was released a year later. Gaines’ most well-known novels are The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Lesson Before Dying (named a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and an Oprah Book Club pick), and A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines died in Louisiana on November 5, 2019, at age 86.