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?