Fairy Tales, Plague and The May Hawk’s Daughter
Something I’ve touched on previously in my blog is the difficulty of writing ‘cross-genre’, of hoping that you can carry your readers, seamlessly, from one literary domain to another, as if by the benefit of open borders but how problematic that can actually turn out to be. An incident from my personal experience highlighted this for me recently (which I’ll come back to), but it puts me in mind of a depressing interview I read a while ago with the marvellous novelist John Connolly.
Connolly is perhaps best known for his series of supernatural tinged crime thrillers featuring ex-policeman turned sleuth Charlie Parker, and these have certainly brought him substantial success in the US. However, Connolly has written many other fine books, and a personal favourite of mine (and indeed one of the best books I’ve ever read is The Book of Lost Things, a fable about childhood, death, grief and the importance of stories. This is a beautifully written and powerful book (from what I understand it is also Connolly’s personal favourite of the books he’s written).
In the interview Connolly ‘cites his 2005 breakthrough Parker novel The Black Angel, which he followed with The Book of Lost Things, an idiosyncratic book of fairy tales about a grief-stricken young boy’s coming of age. “I love The Book of Lost Things. It was certainly the story I wanted to write at the time. But all my momentum dissipated. Those readers [of The Black Angel] didn’t hang around. They moved onto something else.”(1) In another interview I’ve read Connolly say he thought it took years for his sales to recover. So what we’re looking at here is a sense that he’s disappointed his readership, not with what he’s written, but what he hasn’t. Their own expectations – which were based on nothing – have been dashed and they’re therefore ‘punishing’ the author by moving away to something else. With a degree of tongue-in-cheekness but also a certain amount of accuracy, a word has even been coined to describe this feeling of being let down by a future that you’ve not only made up yourself but actively looked forward to – anticipointment.
This is what worries me about writing cross genre. Readers come to expect something, and when you deliver something else, no matter how good it might be, it has consequences. And here, I’m not talking about merely the sense that it’s an area you aren’t interested in, or a genre you don’t like (as with the readers of Iain Banks’ literary fiction not wanting to read Iain M. Banks’ science fiction), but an actual sense of aggrievement, or anger – that an author has personally slighted or tricked you.