Monday, June 21, 2010

When Writers Write Outside Their Comfort Zones

Remember several years ago when John Grisham — master of the courtroom thriller — came out with a slim, satirical novel titled Skipping Christmas?  Reactions were divided. Grisham fans scooped it up and devoured it with a semi-surprised look on their faces that seemed to say "Well, there's no lawyery intrigue here, but this actually isn't half bad." Then, of course, there were the skeptics who, simply upon hearing the title/author combo, guffawed noisely and retreated to the New York Review of Books to learn what Hilary Mantel thinks about VS Naipaul. (Sweeping generalizations are fun, aren't they?)

Despite the risk and the resulting blood-pressure-hike for their publishers, writers who publish outside the basic genre or type they're known for is a relatively frequent phenomenon. Most recently typified by Justin Cronin, an erstwhile literary writer who just published the much-acclaimed apocalyptic thriller The Passage, these cross-genre efforts, more often than not, seem to meet with a fair degree of success.

Take, for instance, arguably the most successful and highest quality example of this cross-genre writing: Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. Follett, known since the mid-70s for his international spy thrillers like Eye of the Needle and Lie Down With Lions, says in the preface to Pillars: "In the book business, when you have had success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life." Certainly, there are many novelists, both good and crappy, following that formula. But Follett had always been fascinated with architecture and how these cathedrals not just were built, but were built so that they've stood for more than 800 years. So he did his research and published the 1,000-page epic. And the result was what Follett considers his "best book" and what readers have definitely made his most popular. Talk about a risk that paid off!

By way of further example, post-modern stalwart Thomas Pynchon recently published a detective novel set in the early 1970s titled Inherent Vice. Reviews are generally positive, and the novel's been acclaimed as Pynchon's most accessible work. Philip Roth (The Plot Against America) and Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) both published wonderful alternate history novels, way outside the zone of their typical literary fare. And then there's the case of John Banville. The Booker Prize-winning (for The Sea), undisputed literary novelist also writes crime fiction under they pseudonym Benjamin Black — almost as if Banville hopes to stay far clear of the cross-genre discussion by creating an entirely separate identity lest his genre fiction goes awry.

And let's be clear, sometimes it really does go awry. Again, our example is John Grisham, whose Playing for Pizza, a sad, silly swing-and-a-miss sports novel, has been roundly booed by his fans and unfans unlike. As a literary snob, I sort of wish there were more examples like this to make fun of. But, as I said, I must begrudgingly admit these novels by writers who defy their own conventions, seem generally to be successful.

So, what's your take? Do you agree that these cross-genre novels seem to generally work? And which novels/novelists am I missing? 


  1. Hmmm, not sure if I can evaluate the whole of cross-genre writing, but perhaps the upshot is that writers know how to write--an ability that is not necessarily bounded by genre (which is a construct anyway).

    I'm also not sure that the Chabon and Roth examples work, since Gentlemen of the Road predated Yiddish and Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theatre and others predated The Plot Against America. And what genre is Pynchon? Hard to corrall Crying of Lot 49, V, Gravity's Rainbow, etc.

    I suppose the great historical examples would be Boccaccio, who wrote mostly ecclesiastical texts, and Tolkien, who wrote medieval criticism.

  2. @Ape - But you'd have to admit that you could categorize books as "potentially happening in the real world" and "alternate reality" - and the Roth and Chabon examples cited are the latter, which neither had written to that point. That's all I meant. And, as I said, sweeping generalizations are fun. Um, I mean, difficult.

  3. I don't think that I have read many bokos by authors that have written outside of their usual genre to be honest. I have read The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follet, a thriller, and so the idea of reading The Pillars of the Earth fascinates me.

  4. Another one I can think of is James Patterson - usually writes thriller, but has a few non-thriller books that are quite popular like Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas. I haven't read enough of his books to comment though!

  5. Dork and Ape, you two astound me with your literary knowledge. I've read the Follett book and some of John Grisham's (until I got tired of the formula . . . after about two books, I think) but I can't even have an intelligent conversation about anyone else you mentioned. That's why I hang around you. I'm hoping some of it will rub off on me. And if you suspect I might be poking fun, I'm totally not. I feel like Wayne when he and Garth met Alice Cooper.

  6. Greg-
    I see what you mean; that possible/alternate distinction makes sense, though I'm not sure Operation Shylock is really possible.

    Though on the larger question about genre is interesting. Perhaps switching modes, writers have to re-see their own writing and are thus re-invigorated. They also may not be as beholden to the "new" genre and so can have some fun with it.

  7. @the Ape - Yeah, you're probably right about Shylock. In fact, I got the lit-survey-version of booed in college when I suggested that the plot of that novel was a bit far-fetched. And the more I think about it, I also think you're right that the Chabon example didn't really work - because even if you buy the reality vs. alternate reality notion, the rest of his catalog is so diverse that it's hard to say any of it is "cross-genre."

    Interesting theory about writers re-seeing their own writing. The re-invigoration probably stems from the fact that these "different" projects may have been bobbing around in the back of their skulls for awhile, and so unleashing it on the world is even more a labor of love than any previous novel?

  8. @Becky - If you're into long books, definitely check out Pillars - but don't think of it as a Follett book! ;)

    @Christa - James Patterson is a good example. I can't say I've read anything he's written, but going from suspense to Nicolas Sparks is quite the about-face!

    @Kathy - Ah, that's nice of you to say. As I am, I'm sure the Ape is appreciative as well. Did you like Pillars?

  9. I don't know if this entirely qualifies but I love it when well-established writers dip into the young adult genre. Joyce Maynard did it recently with a book about 9/11 and Sherman Alexie had incredible success when he won the Nation Book Award for his foray into the YA woods. Some titles intended for the field like The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Jim the Boy by Tony Earley and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore are so strong, that you end up feeling cheated that adults weren't offered them first. Lucky damn teenagers.....again!

    I recommend all of the above if you are looking to dip your toe in the pool.

  10. I love Follet's Pillars of the Earth(and it's recent follow-up);tried to read one of his spy novels once but just couldn't get into it. Sometimes,when you catch a writer on a certain groove,it's hard to switch over to his usual train of thought.

    It's funny,but whenever I think of this topic,my mind turns more to movies. Woody Allen,for example,has gone from comedy to comedy dramas to the realm of Very Serious Dramas in the European mode. I'm all for artists trying new things but if something doesn't work after awhile,you need to drop it!

    He hasn't done a movie worth watching in years since Bullets Over Broadway(which spared us from seeing him romancing a leading lady young enough to be his granddaughter-*shudder*). Sorry for the off ramp rant-please go back to your regular programming already in progress:)

  11. I really did enjoy Pillars. I liked the vastness of it, the epic that spans the ages, which is kind of a neat parallel since cathedrals have done the same.

  12. @Laura - Yeah, that's a good point - Michael Chabon has dipped into YA as well. Though, whether The Book Thief is really YA is debatable.

    @lady T - I think your parallel to film is a good one - though, I would disagree that Woody Allen hasn't done anything worth watching in years. Match Point was phenomenal, Vicky Christina Barcelona wasn't half bad, and Whatever Works was strangely watchable! ;)

    @Kathy - That's well-said: The vastness of it being a good metaphor for cathedrals themselves...

  13. Been thinking about your question on and off today. The only author I can come up with is Ian Fleming who wrote the James Bond novels and also Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I guess some of these guys just have a silly side that must be obeyed!

  14. Stephen King created the pseudonym Richard Bachman, primarily to be able to turn out even more books, but some of what he did under that name was vastly different than his other work.

  15. I admire authors who write outside of the genre that made them successful. There are historical romance (Garwood, Coulter) writers who also write crime/suspense/FBI novels. I haven't read those so can't comment on the quality but it is cool those authors can mix it up. I do read James Rollin's science thrillers and also enjoyed a fantasy series he wrote under the name James Clemens. Piers Anthony is most known for his fantasy works but also writes other genres-- I read his American Indian epic Tatham Mound yrs ago and liked it. Like Laura mentioned it seems like more authors are dipping into the YA area-- James Patterson has a couple of YA series. I've not read any of his crime novels but his Maximum Ride YA series was fun.