Columns > Published on August 14th, 2012

Reinvention and the "Genre Trap"

I recently received an advance copy of Tad Williams’ latest novel, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, an urban fantasy featuring a hard-boiled protagonist who also happens to be an angel. The first in a series, Dirty Streets is narrated by Bobby Dollar, a likable, engaging, and funny guy-- or rather, angel-- whose job is to act as Heaven’s advocate for dead souls in the fictional city of San Judas. Unlike some angels, Bobby and his friends spend most of their time on earth, wearing human bodies, and it shows. They drink and curse and fuck, all of which give the characters a gritty, noirish sensibility.

Bobby is also the inquisitive type. He works for Heaven, but he’s not all sure how everything fits together, and he has a lot of questions. Through no fault of his own (well, maybe a tendency to mouth off), he ends up in a load of trouble. Souls, typically sent to Heaven or Hell upon one’s death, are going missing. Bobby’s proximity to these events leaves him caught between the schemes of Heaven and Hell, desperately trying to save himself from a Sumerian attack creature, all the while trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. Oh, and there’s a dame. There’s always a dame...

Many writers find it invigorating and refreshing to continue to try new ideas and push the boundaries of what they’re doing... But there are definitely risks involved.

I’ve been reading Tad’s books for many years and The Dirty Streets of Heaven is one of my favorites in recent memory. It’s also something of a departure for him. Most of his books tend to be fantasy (and even his science fiction series has much of that flavor), but he’s written across the genre. His first book, Tailchaser’s Song, is told from the point of view of a cat. The brilliant Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy is epic fantasy. The Otherland series was his foray into science fiction and genre-mashing, and he tackled modern day Faeries in The War of the Flowers before returning to epic fantasy in the Shadowmarch series.

Still, most of these books share common traits that people have come to expect from Williams. They typically contain multiple character viewpoints and intricate, epic plots, for example. They also tend to be the kind of books that could prop up a car. So it is something of a departure for him to write a modest 400 page book, told from a single, first person point of view.

This isn’t a bad thing, by any means. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a good book. And many writers find it invigorating and refreshing to continue to try new ideas and push the boundaries of what they’re doing. Presumably, he wrote this novel because he wanted to. But there are definitely risks involved. Will Tad Williams’ audience follow him to this new series, for example? I spent some time in my younger years on a Tad Williams message board. I got to speak to a lot of fans who craved the epic scope of his previous books. As far as some of them were concerned, the bigger the book was, the better. Will they be satisfied with a much leaner, more intimate book?

Some of them clearly will. Someone like Williams, who has dedicated fans, will always be able to bring them with him. And even though the subject matter and the form of the book is different from previous outings, there’s something in the voice that is recognizable, that I think would appeal to his fans. And he may gain readers who are already interested in urban fantasy. I can see this book appealing to fans of the Dresden Files, for instance. So with the risks come potential benefits.

It definitely depends on the writer. Neil Gaiman and China Mieville have built their careers on tackling different genres, and often different styles. Their fans follow them because of who they are, and not necessarily what they’re writing. But can everyone in the fantasy field pull that off? And should they?

It makes me think of some of the epic fantasy writers that I grew up with. Several bestselling authors from that era ended up staying mostly within their well-known fantasy worlds or, at the very least, in epic fantasy. Terry Brooks, for example, has written 28 books by my count, 22 of which were part of his Shannara series (beginning with The Sword of Shannara), with 3 more in that series to come. Brooks has written books in another series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover, but the majority of his work has been in the fan-favorite world of the Four Lands.

Raymond Feist, also, has mostly remained within his Riftwar Universe, which first appeared in the book, Magician. Feist has written 29 books set in this universe and shows no signs of stopping. He’s written only one novel, Faerie Tale, that does not take place in that world.

Both Feist and Brooks are bestselling authors, and the success of their series is evident in the fact that they are still able to write them. If either were to try something different -- not just a different world, but maybe even a different genre -- there would clearly be risks. The publishers know they can sell another Shannara book. The potential success of a Brooks biological horror novel might be a more nebulous prospect.

Then there are the fans. Clearly those lining up to pick up the next in the Riftwar series want to know what happens next in that world. Would they be willing to follow Raymond Feist to a paranormal romance series if it meant they wouldn’t get their fix?

I don’t mean to malign the fans at all -- they are responsible for the success of many of these authors -- but that success can also be a kind of pressure. This brings to mind George R. R. Martin and his fervent fandom. Martin was a successful writer of science fiction and fantasy before taking a break to write for Hollywood. When he re-emerged with novel-length fiction, it was with the now hugely famous, A Song of Ice and Fire. This was Martin’s first foray into epic fantasy and was, at the time, something of a reinvention for him. The series took off, though, and now many of his fans are fans precisely because of those books.

But Martin’s taken a lot of shit because of them. Many of his more vocal readers seem to think that he should be spending all of his time writing the next book in the series rather than posting about football or spending time in the Wild Cards universe or writing short stories. None of this directly affects Martin, but there’s this feeling of resentment that seems to boil off from some of his fans. A feeling of entitlement.

Neil Gaiman commented on that sense of entitlement in a blog entry from May 2009. It’s a long entry, and worth reading, but I wanted to highlight this section:

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren't coming out on time.

[...]

Some writers need a while to charge their batteries, and then write their books very rapidly. Some writers write a page or so every day, rain or shine. Some writers run out of steam, and need to do whatever it is they happen to do until they're ready to write again. Sometimes writers haven't quite got the next book in a series ready in their heads, but they have something else all ready instead, so they write the thing that's ready to go, prompting cries of outrage from people who want to know why the author could possibly write Book X while the fans were waiting for Book Y.

I think he raises a good point mentioning “series books.” And while there are plenty of series in fantasy, this occurrence is not unique to the genre. There are plenty of series throughout all of literature, and it seems that their respective fan bases all want more of the same and nothing else. Arthur Conan Doyle famously killed off Sherlock Holmes because he was sick of writing those stories, but later resurrected him due to the clamoring of the readers.

It’s not even just limited to literature. History showed us that Bob Dylan going electric was a key step in his evolution as a musician, but there’s no doubt that the folk community of the time was outraged. Dylan survived, but the landscape of publishing these days seems a little less forgiving.

When George R. R. Martin finishes A Song of Ice and Fire, I can see many of his fans following him onto something else, even if it’s a change. But how many? And how far will they go? Will the masses pick up a Martin space opera or a modern day thriller?

So is there a “genre trap?” In a kind of collaborative interview between fantasy writers Terry Brooks and Patrick Rothfuss, they had this exchange:

Terry: I think that periodically all writers yearn to try something different. But it is a slippery slope. Your readers and your publisher all want you to write the same thing you’ve been writing. But now and then you have to stretch yourself. You just have to try something else. The trick is not to stray too far from your strengths as a writer. Very few writers can write successfully cross genres.

Pat: Yeah. That’s one thing that I’ve always admired about Tad Williams. Did Epic Fantasy. Then he switched to hard sci-fi. Then back to fantasy. Now his first urban fantasy is about to come out in a couple months. I got a sneak peek at it, and it’s really good.

I really loved the Landover books. But thinking about it now, they were a big departure from the Shannara books. Still fantasy, but an entirely different style and flavor. Did you have to fight a bit to write those? Did everyone just want you to keep on writing in the Shannara world?

Terry: They did then, they do now. Nothing much has changed. But once they find something they like, readers want you to keep writing it. Once publishers find something that sells, they want you to keep writing it. When the two go hand in hand, look out. It is a nice fit, but artistically you have to stretch yourself now and then. You get that itch. Landover was [Lester Del Rey’s] idea in the first place, so that helped. He saw it as Piers Anthony redux. I saw it as something much darker. It found its own audience, fortunately. But you have to change gears now and then. In fact, I’m starting to get that itch again right now.

If there is a genre trap, it’s certainly selective. There are as many examples of authors writing broadly as there are of those staying within rigid boundaries.

As a reader, my personal preference is that the author writes the book they want to write. The idea being that something they’re invested in and engaged with will capture some of that energy and end up a good book. As a writer I depend on this - that what I want to write now is the right book. And yet I know people who are fans of, say, The Dresden Files, who followed Jim Butcher to the Codex Alera series, a secondary world fantasy series, and didn’t like it (I personally haven’t read the Codex Alera books). This is clearly a series that Jim Butcher was invested in, that he loves enough to put an author’s note in each of The Dresden Files books directing people to them. So what went wrong?

Clearly there are a lot of factors involved. My heart says to encourage writers to try new things, but can you take that chance if your family depends on your writing income to survive? And in a world where one failed novel can sometimes sink a career, is it really worth it to take a chance on that epistolary Bizarro-Steampunk mashup when what you’ve been writing is sword and sorcery?

If there is a genre trap, it’s certainly selective. There are as many examples of authors writing broadly as there are of those staying within rigid boundaries. And if you add short stories to the mix, the lines blur even more. But I think there will always be this tension for successful series writers. Their publishers and fans will always want more of their beloved series, but there will come a time for the writer when they’ll want to do something different. How they handle that will come down to their own personal desires and skills, their publishers and their readership, and how much they want to roll the dice.

As usual, I’ll toss the discussion over to you. Does the genre (or sub-genre) that an author is writing in matter to you? Will you follow a good author anywhere? And what do you think is necessary to reinvent yourself, if anything? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About the author

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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