Crossing the Genre Line

Okay, who here has read J.K. Rowling’s latest, The Casual Vacancy?  I have a copy but I haven’t had time to read it yet.  But I did read an article about it yesterday.  The article more or less said that it sucked and J.K. Rowling never should have attempted to write regular adult fiction.

Frankly, I think statements like that are a little bit of a slap in the face to one of the greatest authors of our time.  And the friend who loaned me her copy of The Casual Vacancy said that she loved it, no matter how different it was from Harry Potter.  But this does bring up a valid question that has been rolling around in my writer’s brain for a while….

I have been told several times that once you stake your claim in the writing world as an author in a certain genre, you really shouldn’t attempt to write outside of that genre.  The reason given was that it upsets the readers who love what you’ve written in the genre of their choice.  My instant reaction is to balk at that suggestion.  But then came The Casual Vacancy.  It seems as though readers have done exactly what those nay-sayers of genre crossing said they would do.  They rejected Rowling’s non-YA fantasy novel.

But wait a minute.  Several authors out there have made successful transitions from one genre to another, right?  I mean, the one that comes immediately to my mind is Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb.  I’ve read a few of Roberts’ historical and contemporary romances, but I’ve never read anything by J.D. Robb.  I know they’re the same person, but in that tricky place known as my mind they are two distinct authors.  And this might just be the point.  Would I have gotten upset if I’d expected to read a romance and instead cracked open a thriller? …  Actually, I probably would have.  But I wouldn’t have held it against the esteemed Ms. Roberts.

Ah, but there’s another angle to this whole sticky equation that has been weighing on my mind lately.  How specific should you be with the genres that you write and when is it time to use a pseudonym for crossing genre lines?

Here’s my problem.  I write historical romance as myself, Merry Farmer.  I chose not to go with a pseudonym because, vain as I am, I wanted to see MY name in print.  But I can already see a certain amount of writing on the wall with some other name tagged to it.  I’ve got this m/m erotica-ish story, for example, and if I ever publish that you’d better believe I would do it under a different name.  The folks in my hometown do not need to know that my imagination goes there!  On the other hand, I have a really fabulous sci-fi series in the works.  I’ve already written first drafts of the first two books in the series.  In theory I could buckle down and have them near publishable early next year.  But they’re not romance.  So in the interest of not annoying readers should I publish those novels under a different name?

This is where strategy comes into play.  My ego would love to see my name on all of my books, of course it would.  But sci-fi/fantasy is a tricky business.  There seems to be a trend towards initialed authors in that world: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, George R.R. Martin.  There also seems to be a slight bias towards male or gender-neutral authors as well, possibly because of the perception that more men than women read the genre.  That being the case, maybe it is a good idea to go with a gender-neutral, initialed pseudonym when crossing genre lines from romance to sci-fi.

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So would The Casual Vacancy have been more successful if the name printed on the cover under the title was something other than J.K. Rowling?  Even if everyone knew J.K. Rowling wrote it?  Granted, it hasn’t exactly been unsuccessful.  The author name itself probably sold more copies of the book than any other name could have.  But according to the article I read, the backlash has been so severe that Rowling has announced she’s going back to kids books for now.  Hmm.Of course, there’s one other aspect to this discussion that’s been on my mind too.  Sure, as authors we can cross genre lines … or can we?  Are we just better at telling one sort of a story than another?

Like I said, I write historical romance.  And sci-fi.  There are actually a lot of similarities between historical romance and sci-fi.  Both involve worlds that are far removed from the everyday.  Both hinge on transporting the reader to an environment that they may be unfamiliar with and sticking to social rules that are different from the world we live in.  That I can do.  But in the last few weeks I started writing a contemporary romance.  It’s got a great premise and by some miracle I was able to write a synopsis of the entire plot before I started.  But at 20k words I got stuck.  I have no idea how to get unstuck.  Which begs the question, should I be attempting to write contemporary romance?  Do I have it in me?

Ultimately, when it comes to crossing genre lines as an author, pseudonym or no pseudonym, it all comes down to what kind of stories you have in you.  I know I don’t have paranormal or horror stories in me.  I’m pretty sure that Michael Crichton didn’t have any historical romances in him.  But evidently Richard Adams had both anthropomorphic stories about rabbits and romantic fantasy in him.  But there was still a thread of the otherworldly connecting Watership Down and Maia.

So what do you think?  Should authors cross genre lines?  Should they use a pseudonym when they do?  Or are there too many people biting off more than they can chew who should stick to what they do best?


11 thoughts on “Crossing the Genre Line

  1. I didn’t like J.K. Rowling’s YA books. Sorry – I know I’m in the minority. They started out okay, imaginative, fun – but then they morphed into something darker. She lost me about halfway through the fourth book – I just didn’t have it in me to finish it.

    I’m actually looking forward to reading her “adult” book. No question about it, her early writing is good. Making she needed to branch into something new, to give herself a fresh start.

  2. Hi, Merry! You have written a blog that is very close to my heart, because I’m a crosser. I write historical fiction–not romance–and paranormal romance. For a long time I thought I’d never get published in either, and then things got a bit worse for me this summer. My brother died in June, and a week after that an agent took notice of my paranormal romance, then another agent. My mother died in late August, then I got an offer to publish one of my historical fiction ms. I’ve been so tied up in my grief that I haven’t even had time to realize what has been going on. But I decided that my paranormal romances would be published, if they ever do, under a pseudonym. And I would even watch the copyright, like J. D. Robb. I think why J. D. Robb is so successful is because, and you nailed this on the head, that she truly can be two different authors. I think a lot of writers can write whatever they want to. Hey, we mainly write for ourselves, to get the stories in our head out, right? And J. D. Robb/Nora Roberts with her pseudonym created a way to be both kinds of authors for herself. That being said, I think that J. K. Rowling was very brave to do what she did. I think that, like Harper Lee, Rowling created something that many people would think was untoppable. Lee never published another book, but kept writing for the rest of her life, but she never published anything else because she was too afriad her public wouldn’t like it after TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Rowling apparently writes every day, I’ve read from interviews, and the fact that she’s trying to do something outside of Harry is very courageous of her. I haven’t read her newest, but I support any author to stand up and just write what she wants to, because, after all, that’s what it’s all about. Write what you love, and like this every changing life we live, what we love may change. Or die in some cases. My hats off to all authors who just write from the heart!

    • You’re absolutely right about that! At the heart of it all, we writers write for ourselves. And when we do that, when we write what we love to read, it doesn’t matter what genre comes out. Thanks!

  3. Good question, Merry. If I like an author’s style, I will read whatever she writes. I know that’s not true of all readers, though. If I wrote erotica, yes, I’d use a different name.

  4. Authors definitely should be allowed to cross genre lines, but I can see where an author known for one genre might want to use another name for a different genre, so as not to annoy fans. And newbie authors want to establish a presence in one genre to attract fans.

    I write under my own name, but all of my stories, so far, are historical, although I do venture into the paranormal with some of them. But the point, is they’re all historical. I do write contemporary romance for magazines, but don’t have a byline for those, so the name thing doesn’t matter. But I do find that switching genres refreshes my writing. When you write in the same genre all the time, I would think your ideas would eventually go stale.

    • I think you’re right about newbie authors needing to get themselves established within one genre before branching out. But that also makes me wonder how many historical romances I would need to publish before I go out there and publish my sci-fi!

      But you also bring up another point that I’ll write an entire blog post about someday: genres going stale. Personally, I think history is so rich that I would never run out of ideas for historical romance, but I also wouldn’t want to stick to the same time period. I mean, right now I’ve got a Medieval series that takes place in the 1190s and a Western series that takes place in the 1890s. What I find tiresome is the endless stream of Regency romance that all more or less blends together for me. But for whatever reason publishers keep publishing Regency and readers keep reading it. *shrugs*

  5. I think that authors should be allowed to write whatever they want to write. Whether or not we, as readers, like what they write is up to us. We should buy a book by an author because it sounds interesting, or because we like their writing style, but we shouldn’t start berating them for writing outside their genre if we don’t happen to like a book they’ve written.

  6. JK Rowling comes up with good plots, but she can’t write prose.The two time booker winner can write great prose, but has no real plot ideas, as her subject matter suggests. Rowling’s books, the Potter ones, were all plot, had very little in the way of good prose and the character’s were very two dimensional. Selling a lot of books doesn’t make a good writer regardless of genre. (50 Shades… for example). A good writer can cross genres any time. That’s my view any way.

  7. Late to the game…
    I haven’t read Rowling’s latest but certainly enjoyed her storytelling in HP-land though I haven’t read all the books.

    I have a similar conundrum regarding genre because I started writing sci fi short stories and have several published, but my upcoming novel is mainstream, current drama. My other WIP is 12th century historical fiction. I was all ready to plunge ahead with a pen name for that book then started to think about the writing life before me. I’m getting a late start in this novel writing biz; I’m not prolific enough to write & publish 1 book per year to establish myself in any one particular genre. I’m writing what I want to write, the stories that are dribbling from my fingers. Though they are different genres, they’ll all be under my own name. I’d rather see 4 under that one name, then 1 under other names I might choose for each of the novels.

    It does sound like your erotica-ish work might need a different penname. My historical fiction also features a m/m relationship though it’s going to be fairly tame so I’ve decided it will be under my own name. (I’ve already warned my kids and they are wonderfully accepting.)

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