Mark Terry

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Type Casting

February 11, 2010
Espionage novelist Robert Ludlum once wrote a comic caper novel. It got published, but didn't do very well.

David Morrell's first novel was First Blood, the book that introduced John Rambo (in 1972). He followed it up with a series of books that were westerns, horror novels, etc., until his agent told him to pick a genre. He did, thrillers, and although he's occasionally dabbled in horror, he's pretty much been a thriller writer ever since.

WEB Griffin is known for huge, sprawling epic novels about World War II, by and large, but earlier in his career he wrote all sorts of things for kids under a variety of pseudonyms.

John Grisham, best known for writing legal thrillers, seems to have wandered off the reservation to write uplifting novels about family and sports.

Mitch Albom, still a sports columnist (I think) for the Detroit Free Press, started out writing books about sports before he wrote Tuesdays With Morrie to help with his former teacher's medical bills. I don't even know how to describe Albom's books--preachy, feel-good, inspirational novels and nonfiction books?

My guitar teacher and I were talking about Jimmy Buffett the other day. Buffett's songs are, by and large, wildly simple to play. Really. He never wanders much out of basic chord progressions, his riffs aren't terribly complicated. And although his mid-70s stuff feels like elevator music, his best stuff all rings of Margaritaville, a brand he's worked rather hard to protect over the years. And it's not lack of ambition that has kept him doing that, based on his empire of restaurants, beer, parrothead products, etc.

I'm often struck by how someone, writers, singers, actors, etc., hit it big in one area and then stay there. I think we often forget that Bruce Willis's big break was as a comic actor on a TV show.

Audiences, for all entertainment, generally want their entertainment to be predictable. No one seems particularly interested in Harrison Ford in a light comedy. George Clooney's efforts toward action hero--Batman, The Peacemaker--haven't been as successful as his Ocean's movies or as well-received as his more thoughtful political films (Michael Clayton is awesome, as is Goodnight and Good Luck."

Does it happen to writers?

Yeah, I think so. I've been dabbling in other things over the last couple years--middle grade and YA novels, sci-fi, slower mysteries--but my agent, my editors, and apparently the marketplace itself wants Derek Stillwater in a race-against-the-clock thriller.

Certainly Stephen King, even with variations, has delivered a "Stephen King book" time and again. We're just plain not seeing anything Mitch Albom-like or Jodi Picoult-like books out of King, although I'm sure he's capable of writing them. Hell, if you cut the ghosts out of Bag of Bones, you probably have a Jodi Picoult novel.

I think it's interesting that success tends to breed a narrowness of career. I haven't noticed a JK Rowling follow-up to The Deathly Hallows, although she was supposedly working on a mystery. Maybe she'll surprise us. Or maybe her publishers will just dig their heels in. It's hard to say.

What do you think?


Blogger Eric said...

Most successful artists whether musicians, actors or writers can, I suspect, do a lot more than their work usually suggests. Do you remember that silly teen (sorta) crime fighter Fox show that Johnny Depp was featured in as a pretty face? I wouldn't have guessed he could act. Or for that matter what about John Travolta in Welcome Back Kotter?

A great thing about the sixties is how the bands temporarily had enough pull to experiment wildly from album to album. Creative people tend to want to experiment but publishers and record and movie companies don't like that.

I'm sure writers get trapped writing the same books over and over. Now I would love to write something other than a Byzantine mystery but in all honesty, Mary and I don't confine ourselves to those because the industry has typecast us. We just haven't been able to sell anything else to anybody else . Nor had sufficient time to make enough effort to do so. We'd need to give up writing the Byzantine mysteries which are being published to write other kinds of books with no particular reason to believe we could sell them, which isn't very appealing.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, Eric, that's sort of what's happened to me to-date. No one seems to want anything but the Derek Stillwaters. I do find that just working on something else makes me feel refreshed, even if it doesn't get published.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I sometimes wonder about this, but from a different angle. I mean, I can write apply any subgenre to my genre and pull it off. I always try to write outside the formula and push at the formula... but in reality, each genre has its formula.

Sometimes I wonder: we get better and better at tinkering with and playing off expectations with that one formula, but does all that skill transfer to a new genre, necessarily?

I suspect each genre takes a whole new host of words to really get the feel of it and make it connect as well as one's best genre. Maybe not a million, but...

12:09 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm not sure how I feel about that. I know I tend to give up on series where an author is regurgitating. To me, Gaiman has great variety. I'd say what links his stuff is voice, not necessarily genre (though much of it is fantasy).

Maybe it's more about how writers really only have a few themes that they revisit over and over and certain genres relate to those themes better?

7:09 PM  
Blogger Linda Pendleton said...

Eric said it, "Creative people tend to want to experiment but publishers and record and movie companies don't like that."

They don't like when an author steps out of his or her genre and especially if one moves from fiction to nonfiction, as my husband did.

You have discovered that Mark-- they (agents and publishers)are not visionary like the creative mind is. They want to hold down that creative drive...and mold a person into their idea of what may work.

It reminds me of speaking with an editor at a well known company who thought that the Bridges of Madison County was a "silly romance novel," and would not have bought it if it came across her desk. Then I think of Larry Kirshbaum who had the vision to buy Nicholas Spark's The Notebook.

Some agents and publishers in the business are narrow-minded and narrow-focused.

Also they may want a name change to market a book out of the usual genre of a writer. And that can be a tough decision for a writer who is building a career.

Too much control over the creative endeavors of artists....

Write what you love....

8:25 PM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

Hmmm. Well, I guess I'm the contrary one today ... I don't think audiences want to pigeonhole their entertainers so much as entertainers aren't always the ones to recognize what they do well. Or like you said, maybe they just want to try something new, but that's no reason for an audience to buy it.

Of the examples you gave, both Mitch Albom and John Grisham did VERY well breaking out of their genres. Albom's book sold for a movie and Grisham's serious family novel was a best-seller and met with wide critical acclaim. I don't think these guys were punished by the audiences for doing something different. Stephen King, too, has edged away from horror into science fiction, with some success (although not as striking). And Bruce Willis, of course, went from his comic acting to being one of the biggest action actors of all time to transforming again into a thoughtful actor with a wide range.

George Clooney, on the other hand, pretty much sucks as an action hero. Even he trashes his role as Batman.

I think audiences like it when it works. Paul McCartney can write classical music and do well ... because he writes beautiful classical music. But if it doesn't work, then audiences don't feel much loyalty to an artist experimenting away from his or her strengths.

6:22 AM  
Blogger marion said...

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6:43 AM  

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