One of my biggest lessons as a writer was the discovery that authors are only supposed to be capable of writing what they are known for. If they write something else, the idea goes, they can’t be any good.
It is, I suppose, how writers get seen from outside. Society classifies and sub-classifies professions. Authors get labelled ‘novellists’, ‘short story writers’, ‘historians’, ‘railway enthusiasts’ or whatever, and that puts them in their box. Same logic as applies to any job, I guess.
I find myself relentlessly categorised – in terms of my supposed skill set and knowledge – around whatever my last book was. I’ve been called a ‘social historian’, ‘military historian’, ‘aviation historian’ and so forth. If I write anything else, I find, I am criticised for working beyond what these people, who haven’t met me, insist my competence is supposed to be. Some critics, maliciously, even deny worth purely on that basis.
I never understood that. Apart from writing as a skill of its own I have a wide range of long-standing interests from astronomy and paleontology, evolutionary science, astrophysics, music, sociology, engineering, and the history by which I’m usually classified as a writer. It’s an interesting and wide world out there, and I like finding out about it. And then writing about it.
To me, that’s how it should be. Writers shouldn’t be one-trick ponies.
I think part of the problem is that, to non-writers and – I fear, even some writers – the writing itself is often viewed as secondary to subject expertise.
Whereas I figure things work best the other way around. Writing is a skill of its own. And once mastered – made unconsciously part of your soul – it’s possible to focus on stuff being written about. A writer who has mastered writing could – and should – be able to turn their hand to any genre or field, because they know – or can quickly learn – how to shape their writing to suit.
The best examples I can think of are Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke – top-rate novellists and brilliant non-fiction authors, with output covering an eclectic range of subjects. Asimov especially.
The phenomenon is common in the arts. Musicians are often type-labelled by genre. Some don’t explore much beyond their niche. But some do – I’m thinking Frank Zappa in particular
Zappa did doowop, big-band jazz, funk, rock, reggae, modern orchestral, ‘switched on’ synth realisations of baroque music, musique concrete, ballet music, rock opera and Broadway style musical numbers. A colossal range of styles and genres. All of them spot on as examples of their kind.
The trick to it all is making sure your own voice comes through. Zappa did, musically. Can writers do it in their field? Sure.
Food for thought. Do you ever find yourself labelled as a ‘such-and-such’ writer?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Postscriptum, 14 July: Joanne Rowling has been unmasked as the author of a critically acclaimed detective novel, released under a pseudonym. Why? She was too well known as herself. Check out: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10178344/JK-Rowling-unmasked-as-author-of-acclamed-detective-novel.html Precisely the points I’ve been making. QED.