Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author

You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

                                                                                                                                             –Truman Capote

 

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy (Photo credit: Darlene Acero)

 

Avid readers, do you remember a time when you discovered a new writer, fell in love with one book, then went crazy looking for all of his or her other publications?

This has happened a number of times with me, from my early days of reading with authors like Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott, then ramping up to Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Crichton, and then Stephen King. In every case, I devoured their books, as many as I could get my hands on.

But sometimes… sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sure, every prolific author has an off-book or two. Even in the middle of bestseller series, it’s not uncommon to have a middle-of-the-road slump. (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix comes to mind.)

Sometimes, it’s no fault of the author’s, though, because they get pigeonholed. They commit the unforgivable sin of writing outside of one particular genre and so get panned by masses of once-adoring fans.

This often happens with actors. Think about how many of them, in the effort to avoid being typecast, take on just about any role they’re offered to prove they can do something other than what originally made them famous. You might be disillusioned when your favorite child actor tries to show she’s all grown up by portraying a risqué character.

Now, authors aren’t going around in the nude to prove that they’re all grown up. But sometimes we treat them as if they’re doing just that. If you find out that your favorite children’s author has an adult title coming out soon, don’t be shocked that it’s not all “See Dick and Jane” anymore. Dick and Jane might be doing something that you don’t want your children to read about. And that’s fine. Writing for children doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer the writing world.

The opposite it true for authors such as Stephen King. Many people shy away from him because he’s known primarily as an author of “horror” stories. But I’ve found that he actually writes much more fantasy and suspense than horror, not to mention moving love stories, at least one hard-boiled mystery, and one of the best non-fiction books on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read. (Check it out here.)

Truman Capote was right: we can’t blame writers for what their characters say and do. There is a certain amount of censoring that automatically happens if your story is meant for younger audiences, but the truth must always prevail. As Stephen R. Donaldson writes about the creative process:

[N]one of us can explain how it works. In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers. They happen to us. If we don’t submit to their power, we lose them; so by trying to control or censor them we can make the negative choice of encouraging them to leave us alone.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds very unattractive to tick off my muse by not letting the story be the story. I recently posted about striking gold with a story idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo. When this idea first occurred, I assumed that it would be another young adult novel. After all, the main characters are teenagers, and most of my stories end up going the middle grade or young adult route.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this new premise, I’ve realized that my novel might actually be for adults. That’s not to say that young adults wouldn’t ever read it – after all, I started reading Stephen King when I was 14 – but the amount of censoring I’d have to do to make it appropriate would change the intent and tone of the story. I suppose I could make it work, but would that be right?

This reminds me of a book I read recently, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yeah, she wrote that itty bitty Harry Potter series that a few people around the world seem to like.

Okay, if you know me, you know that I’m a Harry Potter nut. I bought The Casual Vacancy, which Rowling published as an adult novel, with no illusions of it containing wand-wielding teenage wizards. In the early pages, I sometimes scratched my head over this being the same author of the seven books I so dearly love. True, there are teenagers in her new book, but they’re facing very real temptations and demons, not the fantastical kind. The language, the grittiness was sometimes hard to reconcile with my previous experience of this author.

But knowing how hard it is to force a story into a genre that it’s not, I had an easier time – making my preconceived notions of Rowling disappear into the background – than many other readers who gave up on the book when they discovered it’s not about adult wizards. Rowling still has her fingerprints all over it, but in the form of turns of phrase, descriptions, and little gems that claim her no matter what the genre.

As much as I love most things young adult and fantasy, what I love above all are characters that come to life on the page and stories that pull me in. When I allowed the story to take over, it both compelled and moved me. It took a lot of courage for Rowling to put herself out there and publish something so different than the series that made her a household name. I know of people she’s upset because they expected more of the same, but I admire her for letting the story take the lead.

If you’re an author wrestling with a story unlike anything you’ve ever written, here’s some great advice from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “[S]ome days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Getting out of your own way means ditching those preconceived notions about what you can and should write. Let the story tell itself – at least in the first draft – and you can figure out what’s still appropriate to keep in the revision process.

And if you’re a reader who tends to pigeonhole, open your mind a little bit. Realize that the best authors, the ones that convey the truth through pages and pages of lies, are simply doing what Stephen R. Donaldson wrote about: they’re allowing the creative process to work as it should. To censor it, to hold back, would be to lie in the worst possible way.

For writers to deny themselves the chance to branch out into other genres and interests is to deny growth within the craft, to deny them doing what they’re meant to do.

Writers don’t just love to write – they must. Lamott also says:

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Amen? Amen.

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