Wednesday, June 6, 2012
The Biggest Risk a Writer Can Take
by Sandra Parshall
I picked up the book automatically because it was written by one of my favorite authors. I didn’t look at the jacket copy. I hadn’t read any reviews. All that mattered was the author’s name.
I didn’t realize until I got home that this book wasn’t another of the insightful, character-driven “domestic thrillers” I’ve come to expect from the writer. This one was about terrorism and a government conspiracy, and part of it was set in Iraq. Not the sort of book I usually enjoy.
I was more than disappointed. I felt cheated. I felt, melodramatic though it sounds, betrayed. My reader self whined, How dare one of my favorite authors write a book I won’t enjoy? At the same time, my writer self argued that an author is entitled to write whatever he chooses and shouldn’t let disappointed readers interfere.
However, my rational self (I do have one, although it’s not always on display) knows that any author is taking a big chance when he or she shifts gears and produces a book that doesn’t meet established reader expectations. A popular cozy author who publishes a bloody, action-filled thriller will discover that her cozy readers aren’t as gentle and polite as their book preferences might indicate.
It’s likely, in fact, that an editor will stomp on the thriller notion before it gets past the discussion stage. Your fans won’t follow you, the editor will say, and they’ll be mad at you too. In most cases, the editor will be right. The author who achieves success in one subgenre and switches to something radically different will essentially be starting over, aiming at a new audience. If the publisher goes along with the change, in the hope that the author will break out of a narrow category and find general success, the writer may be asked to use a pseudonym to avoid confusion with the earlier books.
Even a change in tone in an established series will leave readers angry. We’ve seen this happen recently to Nevada Barr, with Burn and The Rope. I’ve read all of Barr’s Anna Pigeon books, and I noticed the tone had gradually darkened in the later ones. The series was never cozy, and Anna’s drinking problem is troubling, but cozy lovers can enjoy the earlier books because they aren’t particularly graphic and they overflow with lovely descriptions of the natural settings I which Anna, a federal park ranger, works. The violence in the later books, especially the violence aimed at Anna herself, is more vivid and prolonged, and her emotional turmoil is acute. With Burn, which got away from the park settings entirely and focused unflinchingly on sexual exploitation of children, a lot of readers said they couldn’t read Barr anymore. I’ve heard complaints about the depressing tone of the latest book, a prequel titled The Rope, although it seems no darker to me than the books that came before Burn. Barr still has enough fans to put her books on bestseller lists, and as both a reader and a writer I’m curious to see what she’ll do next.
Ending a popular series can be as difficult as switching subgenres. Success, and the expectations of fans, can create a golden cage that a writer might never break out of. While the author yearns to move on to fresh material, fans still love the familiar characters and are still willing to pay for the books, and the publisher is happy with a sure thing. Starting a second series is an option, and a lot of writers now produce two (or more) books a year in different series. But kill off a series that’s selling well? It doesn’t happen often.
As for the new book that seemed uninviting to me although it was written by a favorite author, I grudgingly gave it a chance. I discovered that everything I loved about the author’s work is there: the complex characters, the thoughtful dissection of motives and emotions, the tangled relationships. No, I don’t enjoy the descriptions of people being blown up and gunned down in Iraq, but fortunately those scenes don’t dominate the story. I’ll finish it. And I’ll look forward to his next book, which (judging from the description) will get back to what I enjoy most: portrayals of ordinary people forced to work their way out of horrific situations.
Have you ever been disappointed when a writer went in a new direction? Do you think writers should stick with what they do best and what their fans love to read?