Seven years ago, I hit a midlife crisis that took me completely by surprise. Around me I saw much the same going on with friends. After laughing a fair bit about the state of panic we found ourselves in, I sat down and wrote a book about it.
It was my first book, on the face of it, a story about a housewife and two murders but it wasn’t a murder mystery. It was humour, chick lit and social commentary rolled into one. It was a mishmash of genres and at that point I didn’t really care. I was green enough behind the ears not to, and all that mattered was that I had an ink and paper book of my own to rock myself to sleep with every night.
I have learnt since that publishing houses have lists. Bookstores – both brick and mortar and online – have categories. Mysteries. Thrillers. Romance. Chicklit. Mythofiction. Young Adult. Literary Fiction. And more. I, unfortunately, can’t write to fit into lists. Writing my first book was a process of rapidly typing out a story that had to tell itself, done so quickly it is an embarrassment when recalled.
My fourth novel, The Face at the Window, took the better part of four years to get done, a gentler fiction with a ghost and a life lived out with regrets. What genre did it fit in? I didn’t know. When it was written, a kind reviewer stated I had pioneered a new genre, “Himalayan Gothic”. I then went on to write a second chance romance. Then I turned to non-fiction with a collection of true love stories. More books are in process, but again, different genres from what I’ve written earlier.
A single genre game
Well-meaning folk in the publishing world shake their heads disapprovingly. Stick to a single genre, they advise me. You will confuse your readers. Your readers pick up a book by you, expecting a sunny romance with the mandatory happy ending complete with doves and violins in the background, only to get blindsided by a spooky tale. Will they ever trust you again? Dour marketing teams step in, faces so grim one might think they’d spent the morning drowning puppies. Marketing a multi-genre author is difficult, they say, your books can’t be slotted conveniently on one shelf, they get scattered. Readers who might want to read older books might be disappointed when they realise the previous work is nothing like what they’ve just read. You’re dividing your audience. It hurts your “author brand.”
Sticking to one genre is solid advice to someone who is perhaps just starting out and needs to develop a voice and style all their own. It is comfortable and a safe zone to write from. After all, you know the territory, twists and turns, plot points, character arcs, the pace needed. You’ve done it before. “Before” is a safe harbour, for both the writer and the reader. But then, harbours are safe for ships, as a wiser person than me once said, but that’s not what ships are for.
In illustrious company
There have been several authors, fairly popular ones at that, who have jumped genres quite successfully. Ian Fleming wrote the international super spy James Bond series, with all its intrigue, drinking and seduction as well as the classic children’s tale Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which came about after telling his son a bedtime story about a car that could fly. Roald Dahl wrote for children and for adults, grisly tales with a dark, disturbing undercurrent running through them – layered with frivolity in the children’s writing, sharp and out in the open in the stories for adults. Stephen King wrote the classic horror stories Carrie, The Shining and IT as well as exquisite prison narratives like The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.
Among Indian authors, Kiran Nagarkar wrote the darkly internal Seven Sixes are Forty Three, the delightful Ravan and Eddie, a humorous look at living in a Mumbai chawl, followed by the vivid and historical Cuckold and most recently the dystopian Jasoda. Sachin Garg, a bestselling romance author, wrote a hard hitting tale about the Jarawa tribe in We Need A Revolution. Mythological fiction bestselling authors Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi ventured into non-fiction with Amish’s Immortal and Ashwin’s 13 Steps series. Ravi Subramanian, known for his corporate thrillers, shifted track in his previous book, The Bestseller She Wrote.
To use a pseudonym or not?
The handy pseudonym is widely employed by authors who wish to write in differing genres. Some do it because they don’t want to confuse the reader, others because they want the new writing to be received on its merit and not be weighed down by the expectations that their name brings. Stephen King who wrote his non-horror books under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman said, “I did that because back in the early days of my career there was a feeling in the publishing business that one book a year was all the public would accept.”
JK Rowling wrote her Cormoran Strike series of investigative thrillers under the more masculine name of Robert Galbraith. “Being Robert Galbraith was all about the work, which is my favourite part of being a writer. Now, my cover has been blown, I plan to continue to write as Robert to keep the distinction from other writing and because I rather enjoy having another persona,” she said. Isaac Asimov, the god of science fiction writing, chose Paul French as his pseudonym to write his Lucky Starr series, meant for younger readers. Dean Koontz has written under at least ten different names according to reports because his editors advised him against writing in different genres under the same name. Joyce Carol Oates too published books across genres under her own as well as multiple pseudonyms – Rosamond Smith, Lauren Kelly and Rae Jolene Smith, to name some.
I could have adopted a pseudonym as well. But then, I was far from being well-established in one genre, to be so presumptuous as to adopt a pseudonym for another. And pseudonyms felt like a split personality. For me, writing in different genres was always, like Whitman put it, an expression of “I contain multitudes.”
Why do authors shift genres? Some, like me, have a low boredom threshold and feel compelled to change and reinvent all they know about themselves and their writing ever so often. Others are prosaic and want to straddle different demographic segments and write for potential expanding market.
I enjoy flitting from romance to parenting to horror – after all, romance could turn into horror in the break of a heart, and parenting is a horror all its own. I take heart from stories of these writers. I am not alone in wanting to write in different genres, to play around with different styles, forms and narratives. Is it a risk? Will the reader follow an author across different genres even if they don’t enjoy that particular genre? These are questions I am still searching for the answer to.
What I do try to ensure is that the cover for each book matches the genre expectations, as does the blurb. And I can only hope that my reader recognises that by not sticking to a single genre I am putting myself out on a limb, as someone who will not be contained by the limitations of “genre” writing. I write stories. And I refuse to have them or myself boxed in.
Kiran Manral is the author of eight published books, a TEDx speaker and a columnist.