Monday, September 20, 2010

It's All Just A Little Bit of Authors Repeating Themselves

How do you feel about an author who switches styles from book to book? Or an author who always writes in the same style? Do you like a one-of-each writer or someone who's more consistent?

I was thinking about this in response to a panel I went to at ReaderCon this year. The panelists talked about the different feelings readers often have when faced with a writer who changes his or her style versus one who doesn't. In the science fiction world, a good example might be China Mieville. He's gone all over the place, from adult-oriented science fiction and "New Weird" (Perdido Street Station), to a young-adult-friendly novel (Un Lun Dun) to a literary detective novel (The City and The City) and back again (Kraken). In literary fiction, Justin Cronin started out as a strictly literary writer who made a wild foray into genre fiction with his heart-stopping The Passage. Scottish writer Iain Banks seems to have two separate lives as a writer, one where he writes literary fiction and thrillers (Complicity, The Steep Approach to Garbadale) and one where he writes dark, violent scifi. He even uses a different version of his name for the scifi- Iain M. Banks, just so readers get the point that this is a "different" Iain Banks.

Then there are writers who mine the same territory over and over. Jane Austen's masterfully crafted novels about love, marriage and money were also formulaic and highly predictable. There is always a woman who has to get married, and who has to choose between a good guy and bad guy. And the good guy always seems like the bad guy at first, and vice versa, and her job is always to grow up enough to tell the difference. In modern literary fiction, writers like Margaret Atwood and A.S. Byatt tend to write structurally similar novels that mine similar veins and themes- women, sex, power, art, etc. (Of late Atwood has been veering between dystopia and her more traditional (for her) literary novels about womens' lives but even in the dystopias she's talking about many of the same things she does elsewhere.) Gary Shteyngart writes comic novels about the Russian-Jewish-American experience; Ian McEwan writes tight, emotionally-charged interpersonal dramas festooned with violence, and so forth.

What do you think? Should writing be about experimenting or about mastering what you do? Is there a difference? Can a writer who sticks with a similar presentation style and theme evolve the same way as someone who switches it up? Or is the switching up itself just a gimmick and a distraction? Do some writers who change their style continue to work in the same themes and ideas, and if so, how significant is it that the window dressing changes?

What about what you're looking for as a reader? Do you read for predictability? I don't mean predictable plots; even if the plot itself is unpredictable, some authors just always seem to deliver the same product, there's a certain safeness in knowing what to expect- you don't have to get used to something new. When I pick up, say, a Shteyngart novel, I know what I'm going to get- or at least, I think I do, and I read because I like what he does and how he does it. I also know China Mieville likes to try on different literary hats and reading him is fun because his books could be just about anything. The other side of the coin is that I'm more likely to not like his books- reading him is taking a risk, whereas reading Byatt really isn't. Do you like to take risks as a reader or do you like to know what to expect?

17 comments:

logankstewart said...

I love taking risks as a reader. I recently tried out a collection of David Foster Wallace essays (definitely a break from SFF novels), and I enjoyed the read. I find it refreshing to change up styles, genres, etc., insofar that I like even alternating points of views in my stories. I can only handle so much 1st Person Limited before my brain stops.

bermudaonion said...

I think sometimes they stick to the same thing because it's selling and I can't say I blame them. I do get tired when they churn out the same stuff over and over again. (By the way, actors and musicians do the same thing.)

jewwishes said...

I am reading a novel called A Secret Kept in which the author, Tatiana De Rosnay is repetitious within the content of the book, to a point it irked me.

She is repeating the same theme pattern of secrets and family dysfunction.

Amy said...

I don't know...I kind of like knowing I'll get a good read, but I also think writers should have the freedom to write what they want. So it's a toughie.

Marie said...

Logan, I know what you mean. Variety is a good thing most of the time.

Bermuda, yes, but that's the very definition of commercial fiction.

JewWishes- ugh. Well as Bermudaonion said, whatever sells. The first book got her a bestseller & a movie deal so she probably figures, hey, if it worked once...

Amy, it IS a toughie! :-)

Eva said...

I'm fine with either, as long as an author's writing style is marvelous and characters are real. :)

Most of my favourite authors have a definite 'feel' to them, so even if they write in a variety of genres or formats, their voices still come through.

contemplatrix said...

an author can write the same as long as i am reading a variety of styles via other authors... though after a handful of one style from one author, i am disappointed the author isn't trying to take a risk/change to better their art. --i am also saddened by the idea of an industry and the readership who may discourage these risks.

i like reading a majority of an author's corpus and seeing an idea re-worked, contemplated over and over, explored through a variety of means.

~L

Kristen M. said...

Ditto to Amy and Eva. I think there's a place for both sort of authors in my reading. Sometimes, I like to know exactly what I'm getting and sometimes I just want to know the quality of what I'm getting.

Marce said...

What a great discussion post.

This is exactly why Mary HIggins Clark is my favourite, she found a formula that works for her and has mastered it. I can't wait for her new one each year.

Patricia Cornwell used to be amazing and something with her concept just went off and I feel that almost all her fans thought the same thing.

I prefer to know what I am getting and have authors as my favourite instead of them changing often and it being a hit or miss.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I absolutely adore it when an author changes things up -- I'm not a fan of James Patterson at all because I feel like it's the same thing over and over again. If they want to change styles, why not? Jump into it and see what happens, it might work, and it would make reading even more exciting!

Zibilee said...

I tend to have mixed feelings about authors who like to mix it up. Some authors seem to know which styles work for them, and when they venture off into uncharted waters, things sometimes get messy. For the longest time I would have said that I prefer authors to stay grounded in what they do well, but recently I have had a few authors defy their normal conventions and try something new. When I read these books, I was at first disappointed, and then surprised, because I ended up liking the new stuff just as much as their old tried and true writing. I guess at this point I would have to conclude that it depends on the author, the genre, and the book. I really enjoyed thinking about this, Marie, and am really glad that you brought it up!

King Rat said...

When it feels like the same old same old, I don't want to read it anymore. But reusing themes etc doesn't necessarily have to turn into that. And whether it turns into something awful has a lot to do with the reader. In other words, I like both variety and sameness! As long as they are good, that is.

sharonbially said...

I'm often disappointed when a beautiful, rich and prosaic first novel by a given author is followed by a slap-dash, Dan-Brown-style read. I so wish that authors with a literary gift would continue using it, even if it means more time between published books and less movie potential. (Sometimes it seems that these days, every author's angling for that movie, and as soon as their first novel's out, they do whatever they and their agent think Hollywood might be tempted by in the second.)

On the other hand, I so love and admire authors like Alice Hoffman and Han Nolan who consistently produce fine work that may indeed examine the same themes over and over but do it so brilliantly and from such different angles each time that it always feels fresh and new.

Yvette said...

Great discussion! I suppose my answer would be that I am of two minds about it as well. If I'm reading a series by a certain author then, obviously, I want the books in that series to be similar in outlook, characterization and style. i.e. Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books or Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books.

If I'm reading 'stand-alone' books by an author, then all bets are off. Though once I get used to a certain style of writing, it can be jarring to suddenly find a favorite author doing something COMPLETELY different. But if I like the author, I'll usually go along with it. Creative thought must create, after all.

An example of an author who takes chances in this way, is the amazing Connie Willis. As for China Mieville, I've read THE CITY AND THE CITY and loved it. I do wonder though if I'm going to like the new one as much.

Jeanne said...

I love it when authors try different things even if it means I'm not sure to like their newest. Some of my favorite authors are all over the place--you mention a few and I might add Umberto Eco and Michael Chabon.

jennysbooks said...

I think it's cool when authors try new things, but it does seem to me that they have sometimes overestimated themselves (that's so mean of me to say! but it's true), and in those cases I wish they'd just stuck with they're good at. On the other hand there are authors like Neil Gaiman, who always tries new things and nearly always blows me away. So I'm cautiously in favor of experimentation.

Alexia561 said...

Great discussion! I think I have a foot in each camp, as some authors are talented enough to expand their horizons, while others are one trick ponies.

For instance, I'm bored with James Patterson, but some of my co-workers love him. At the same time, there are certain authors that reading their books are sort of like comfort food for me, in that I know what to expect.

I guess as long as the story is good and the writer is talented, I'll read the book. I love to be surprised by an author, but it still has to be a good read!