Why don’t authors switch genre?

Cinema and literature. Movies and books. It frustrates me how people take for granted certain things in one but not the other. Take genre. Movie directors – if they so desire – are allowed to tackle a range of genres. In the course of his career, Steven Spielberg’s bounces from The Sugarland Express to ET to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan and beyond. Danny Boyle’s practically made a career of picking a different genre for every film he makes.

But what about writers?

Okay, let’s pick a few big names. Terry Pratchett? Oh yes, he writes fantasy – the funny kind to be precise. James Patterson goes for crime thrillers. And that nice Philippa Gregory does historical. Their names might just as well be genre tags. The fact that they’ve all have had work published outside their respective pigeonholes has no effect on the tags they wear – in any case, it’s irrelevant to my argument here; what I’m talking about is preconception and expectation, in short, the way readers don’t like their favourite authors to stray from the straight and narrow path.

Not that this doesn’t happen from time to time. But you have to go about it the right way. There are rules. Iain Banks writes socially aware mainstream fiction, but if you want to read some space opera you’ll have to go to his alter ego Iain M Banks. The M makes all the difference. A marketing man would call it a brand extension. Michael Marshall Smith has concocted some splendid science fiction, but writes about serial killers under his almost-a-pseudonym Michael Marshall. And so on.

So what’s the problem here? Is it the authors who get stuck in a rut or the readers who put them there? Is it the publishers needing handy and reliable blurb, or the merchants needing books that fit under their equally handy and reliable categories? Is it all, god forbid, driven by focus groups? And what about the authors who break the mould? Neal Stephenson’s Anathem was undeniably science fiction, but his Baroque Cycle – which resides next to it – would be arguably more comfortable in the historical fiction section (yes, by many definitions it’s alternate history but the point is it’s a Neal Stephenson, and he’s that chap who does science fiction, isn’t he?). Stephen King? Horror, of course. Except half his books aren’t.

This leads naturally into the question of why we categorise books by genre in the first place. Aren’t they all just stories? But that’s another debate.

I honestly don’t know why it works this way. As a reader, yes, I gravitate to favourite authors in favourite genres. There’s a comfort factor in picking up the latest by your idol and hoping you’ll hit that perfect balance of Reading Something New and Getting What You Expected. But as a writer I like to use my toolbox to make all sorts of different toys. Fantasy, horror, crime, historical, romance or, dare I say it, literary … it’s all the same craft in the end. I guess not every reader likes to experiment, but I’d like to think there’s enough out there who do. Do you?

4 thoughts on “Why don’t authors switch genre?

  1. Genres are like God: if they didn’t exist, we’d have to create them.

    It boils down to a theory of economic efficiency. The ultimate consumer wants neatly categorized shelves so their buying experience can be more efficient (read: more pleasant). Retailers who do a better job managing that categorization (read: making the buyer’s experience more pleasant) will generate higher sales/profits. Publishers (or imprints) that help retailers do that (read: making the retailer’s job easier) will likewise generate higher sales/profits. Then we get into the network effects that apply to agents and writers: as they build relationships with imprints/agents/publishers (and their concomitant categorizations) it’s easier for them to sell more of the same along established tracks.

    If a writer then tries to break out of that track, there’s risk at every one of those points: their previous publisher might not buy it because it’s outside their sphere, the retailer might not know how to categorize it, the buyer might buy it with a different expectation (and then be disappointed, which comes back to bite the retailer, and the publisher, and ultimately the writer). It takes tremendous luck (and success with ensuing name recognition) to transcend these economic realities.

    1. Chris, I’d agree with all your points. In the end, I think, it comes down to respecting brand loyalty. And it is possible to publish in a range of genres, just as long as you play the pseudonym game. There are plenty of big names who do just that.

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