I’ve long wondered what would happen to my writing career if any success I had trapped me in a genre. By that, I mean, what if the short ghost stories I’ve written took off in the public conscious and my literary agent and publisher pressured me for more—even though I wanted to concentrate on my Cornish Detective novels?
It would make sense to do so, as a recent report by data analysts Nielsen Bookscan found that crime and thriller novel sales rose by 19% between 2015 and 2017.
Despite this, it feels like authors are treated like circus animals, expected to do a limited repertoire of tricks. As an example, one of my favourite authors, John Connolly recently published an imagined biography of comedian Stan Laurel, called ‘he’.
I loved it, but sales were average, for Connolly is famed for his private investigator novels which feature supernatural elements. He’s also published a couple of collections of short stories that step outside the crime genre, as well as a lovely novel The Book of Lost Things that reinterprets fairy tales.
I wondered how much arm-twisting he had to do to be allowed to write something different. I loved them, but again, sales were average.
Indian author Kiran Manral unwittingly pigeonholed herself, for her first novel was called The Reluctant Detective, so there was opposition to her subsequent work not fitting the crime genre.
We’re all librarians at heart, with the world organised by categories so that we can find stuff. At the very least, books need to be shelved, so where do they go? Are they Chick Lit, Science-Fiction, Historical or Erotica—and heaven help you if you’ve written a genre-busting novel that straddles all of these!
Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes said: “Don’t classify me, read me. I’m a writer, not a genre.” But that doesn’t take into account the tactics of book publisher publicity departments trying to market a book.
Writing under a pen name is one way around this problem, with the pseudonym disguising that a beloved author of fantasy novels about a wizard is now penning crime novels…
Agatha Christie wrote six romance novels using the pen name Mary Westmacott. Benjamin Franklin, American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, conned a newspaper publisher into printing a series of charming letters seemingly penned by a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood .
Michael Crichton was already published under his own name when he started churning out stories by John Lange, Jeffery Hudson and Michael Douglas. Stephen King was initially held back by his publisher’s policy of only releasing one title a year, so he persuaded them to print some of his stories under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. Dean Koontz had a similar problem with his publisher and has used at least ten pseudonyms.
As a comment on this situation, one of the recurring characters in my Cornish Detective series, a crusty male newspaper journalist called Brian ‘Hot’ Toddy writes flowery romances under the pen name of Violet Flowerdew.
It’s fun to imagine well-known authors attempting to write in another genre. Think what a historical romance written by Lee Child would read like—would it ring with echoes of his Jack Reacher thrillers? How about a political thriller written by E.L. James?
Do you ever pause to wonder if you’ve placed your eggs in the wrong basket?