Will readers follow when a writer veers too far off course?
A while back, a cousin of mine mentioned that one friend in a group of pals had gotten a book published, so they all read it and did a mini book club to discuss. Though many of her friends seemed to enjoy it, she was appalled. “It was…vulgar. I know you would never write anything like that.”
I nodded and smiled as she told me this, but the thought bubble over my head was, “Uh, oh.”
While it’s true that if they ever made my historical novel into a movie, the screenwriters would need to spice it up to avoid the dreaded, box-office-killing G-rating, not all my fiction is quite so demure. In fact, the contemporary fiction I write, often short stories, is decidedly edgier. It has a bite to it. In fact, some people might find occasion to describe it as, yes, vulgar.
Crossing genres is a conundrum for writers trying to build an audience. Readers come back to a writer when they have enjoyed what they’re read before, and they are usually looking for more in the same vein. The last thing that an author wants to do is splinter an already small cadre of followers.
Some readers read widely across genres (no better example than critic and uber-reader Michael Dirda, who reads everything), but even these folks expect a certain consistency from a single author.
Readers often feel more than disappointed when a favorite writer shifts gears on them; they feel betrayed. That’s why some very popular authors adopt a pseudonym when they range far afield, to avoid confusion and keep the brand pure.
Others have no problem attaching their name to something very different: There were some howls of protest when Margaret Atwood decided to try her hand at graphic novels, with her Angel Catbird series.
When Joseph O’Neill followed his restrained, meditative, and much-beloved Netherland with the antic, frantic, and thoroughly unrestrained The Dog, my review for the Independent tried to make very clear that readers’ enjoyment of the first would have zero bearing on whether they would like the second — in fact, it might argue against it.
One friend of mine looks at this question from the other side, insisting that writing in multiple genres opens an author to a wider reading audience. Another suggests that, since I don’t plan to use a pseudonym, I should use different forms of my name depending on the genre.
As a writer, I write what appeals to me, but if someone is going to invest the time to read my stuff, I’d like them to come away feeling they made a good choice. They shouldn’t have to wonder which version of the author has shown up this time.
As a reader, I sample pretty widely, but my favorite authors tend to keep to a certain voice — each uniquely their own, but a steady one that keeps me coming back. In fact, it was the almost complete lack of Annie Proulx’s signature observational, ironic voice throughout the 700 pages of Barkskins — replaced instead with a hectoring scold — that so disappointed me. I kept thinking, Where are you, Annie?
As a critic, I feel that life is too short and reading time too precious for readers to be sold a bill of goods on what they are picking up.
I haven’t found an answer to all this, but the question cropped up again for me because, this Saturday, I join a gaggle of great writers at the Wonderland Ballroom in DC for another rafters-shaking installment of Noir at the Bar, in which a slate of authors reads their dark and twisted short fiction.
We’ll be raising money for a very worthy cause (more on that below), including by selling books. We’ll also be competing to win the fan-favorite prize of an engraved dagger, which I have an unseemly and unrealistic desire to take home.
Those other writers, though, write dark and edgy stuff all the time, while this is more my side gig. Anyone who might actually like what I read on Saturday and decide to pick up my novel will probably feel baited and switched, just as my cousin, should she ever come across any of my contemporary short fiction, will undoubtedly be appalled.
My apologies to all in advance.
Reading for a Cause, Part I
The “Chilled to the Marrow” installment of the Noir at the Bar series, scheduled in venues nationwide and even in some spots overseas, is focused on raising money for Team Evie, in support of crime writer Duane Swierczynski’s daughter, who is battling acute myeloid leukemia. You can help by coming out Saturday (5 p.m., 1101 Kenyon Street, NW), or you can make a donation to the Go Fund Me site.
Reading for a Cause, Part II
I didn’t know Rob Hiaasen personally, though I knew him from his writing in the Capital Gazette and elsewhere. Certainly, I knew his co-worker John McNamara extremely well, as I’ve written about here more than once recently. Both men were at work on books when they were murdered in the Capital newsroom on June 28th.
Last Friday, I went to the book launch of Rob’s posthumously published debut novel, Float Plan. I am very proud that my publisher, Apprentice House Press, was instrumental in ensuring the book came out, and that they are donating sales proceeds to Everytown for Gun Safety. Float Plan is available from the publisher, Amazon, or by ordering it through your favorite bookstore. It’s also available for checkout through the Anne Arundel County Public Library. You can also support Everytown for Gun Safety directly by going to their website.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle and writes a column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She served as chair of the 2017 and 2018 Washington Writers Conference, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers Association.