There’s a lot of talk at present as to whether an author who has had great publishing success in one genre should expand into another. I’ve heard more than one person reference Michael Jordan’s bad baseball career and Donald Trump’s awkward political forays. Very few people mention Jack White’s country music or Ben Affleck’s directing, though. People can change careers or aspects of their career, and do so successfully.
So what is the difference? Why does one personal reinvention flake into ridiculousness while another seems, in hindsight, to be a natural evolution of the soul?
Over at GoodReads author D.M. Dutcher brought up Judy Blume’s Wifey, which is a book I had (mercifully) not thought about for a decade and a half. If you haven’t read it–or indeed, if you have–it is best described as Judy Blume trying to be Erica Jong.
One of the great things that has come out of the whole Casual Vacancy morass is that I’ve really been forced to examine the internal narrative of the author and how it is expressed in work. In my own heart and work I think the truth of things is that there is “what I’m good at” and there’s “what I think I’m good at”, and sometimes even a third “what I want to be good at” which is yet again different from the first two. I know from reviews, interviews and her own website that J.K. Rowling greatly admires Jane Austen and indeed envisioned herself as a writer in the Austen mold. She even said (erroneously, I fervently hope) that “Jane Austen is the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.”
The Casual Vacancy was J.K. Rowling aspiring to be Austen, just as much as Wifey was Judy Blume aspiring to match her contemporary rival (and frenemy?), Erica Jong. Both Rowling and Blume were authors with nearly unparalleled success in an industry infamously hostile to the very idea of succeeding. When writers succeed outside the narrow constraints of Literary Fiction they often feel like a fraud, or like they’ve left something undone.
Even worse, though, for a true writer, is that one story you’ve carried around with you forever. The first story any writer conjures is Who She Is Going To Be. Rowling was going to be Austen. Her first attempt at that hasn’t been so well-received.*
Me? I’ve got so many books and parts of books lying around my house and my head. The problem seems to be, in part, that I haven’t yet gotten on the boat to Ninevah. In fact, I’m not quite sure which port is actually my Ninevah. For awhile I thought I was a romance writer, but I’m clearly not. And I don’t know if I’m all that great at Aga Sagas either. My deepest fear is that what I’m actually best at is speculative fiction, which is something that has only ever appeared in a prologue to one of my other books but is still among the best work I’ve ever done. I hope I don’t take too much longer to figure it out.
So to answer the title question, I don’t know whether or not authors should branch out of their genre as a rule. But I do know that authors are best when they try to tell their story, and not when they try to tell a story that looks like someone else’s.
*She appears to have done Middlemarch this time. Maybe if her next attempt is more Emma or Pride and Prejudice or even Sense and Sensibility it’ll work more to her favour. Because I don’t like Austen at all, but I can tolerate any of those three books I mentioned, as can most readers. But Middlemarch? That’s some diehard Austen shibboleth.