Can Writers be Genre Stereotyped?

I recently read the book, ONE SUMMER, by David Baldacci. Now, there are many reasons to admire and like Mr. Baldacci. Of course, he is a first class thriller writer and I have enjoyed his work since the stunning book, ABSOLUTE POWER.  

I also liked the CAMEL CLUB series and the Sean King/Michelle Maxwell books. Finally, he is a highly regarded philanthropist and advocate for literacy. All of this is why I wanted to read ONE SUMMER, although I knew the book was a departure from his usual genre. Still, even knowing that, it was not what I expected. A family drama, featuring a war hero and teenage angst, the story unfolds in Cleveland and South Carolina. There is death, sadness, and love. I had no problem with it but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as his thrillers. When I finished the book, I wondered if my opinion was more a result of my preconceived notions than due to the story he told? What was I expecting? I found myself wondering, if the author’s name on the cover had been different, would my take on it be different, too?

In the music world, we don’t criticize Jon Bon Jovi for trying country or Billy Joel for taking on Broadway. We assume that as artists, they are simply spreading their wings. Actors, too, obviously like to play against type. Can anyone count how many movies Denzel has been the hero and how many times he’s been the bad guy? Clearly, he’s played both. The point is, musicians, actors, and some writers just don’t want to be pigeon-holed.

Many writers solve this problem by writing under pseudonyms. Nora Roberts is one of the most well-known and successful using this method. She has written piles of romances as Nora Roberts while her books under the pen name J.D. Robb lean toward suspense. I’ve also read of many cozy mystery writers who use several pen names to distinguish their series. By doing this, are we writers perpetuating the myth that an author can only write one genre of book under one name? For example, what if J.K. Rowling decided to write science fiction or legal thrillers. Would anybody buy them? Agents and publishers are also guilty of stereotyping an author. Can you imagine what Stephen King’s publisher might say if he pitched a series of historical romances? Uh, what?

So, regardless of whether I loved ONE SUMMER or not, I admire Mr. Baldacci for stepping outside his comfort zone. Whether or not he was successful is up to the readers, but he did stretch his writing and maybe even picked up a few new fans. Maybe readers do prefer to “know what they’re getting” but without trying, a writer can’t be sure.

Do you love your genre or are you trapped in it?

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