Writers are more than just what they write

One of the writing tropes to which I totally object is the notion that writers are defined by what they’re best known for – and that they’re somehow incapable of anything else. Or worse, not even capable of writing what they are acclaimed for.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIt happens in an awful lot of places and ways, including fiction circles, where authors get tagged with whatever genre they’ve become known for, and that’s an end to it. If the author does do something different, they risk having critics treat them as if they are incompetent – as if the author has dared to step outside what they know and must, by default, be found wanting. That’s partly, I believe, why J K Rowling used a pseudonym for her detective novel.

The reality – as Rowling’s work makes abundantly clear – is that many authors are quite capable of tackling a wide range of things, brilliantly and with obvious quality. Look at Arthur C. Clarke, whose work ranged from science fact to science fiction (and he understood Einsteinian space-time).

To me that’s all to the good. Personally I couldn’t think of anything more limiting than trawling and re-trawling a specific small territory. I’ve written two books on New Zealand’s First World War, and unless something new occurs to me (which is always possible) that’s enough for the moment. I’ve done three books, to date, on the earlier New Zealand Wars – each ‘cutting into’ the topic from a very different angle. I do want to revise my main analytical volume on the period, but I haven’t much interest in doing anything more.

There is too much else to write about – new, interesting fields that pique my curiosity. Einsteinian space-time, for instance, though truth be told, I knew about that as a teenager – and won a regional science prize on the back of it.

And now?

Watch this space. Geddit? Space? Just remember that, when my next important writing thing happens. You’ll see. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


5 thoughts on “Writers are more than just what they write

  1. I dont like being put in a box either. I am not a professional writer. I write as I am inspired, and today it is commenting on other writers and blog posts. I love writing, but if I stick to one particular field and expect to keep writing on that topic, the well runs dry.

    I enjoyed reading your post Matthew.

  2. This has always bothered me as well, although its not limited to authors by any means.

    Regarding writers, I have one published book (history) and a series of published articles (history, agricultural law and law.). I always think it interesting that anyone familiar with your work in any one area tends to be resistant to the concept of your doing anything else. Why can’t, for example, a historian publish a novel?

    Indeed, its interesting to see how even decades after their deaths, commenters still have a hard time handling a writer who is a real polymath. G.K. Chesterton provides an example. He wrote on absolutely everything. People who like to categorize are still baffled by him. Fiction, non fiction, prose, poetry, everything.

    But this is also true simply of occupations. I’ve ranched and practiced law. But people who know you as a lawyer are resistant to thinking of you as a writer or rancher. They’ll express surprise in a way that suggest that they’re unsettled by the thought. And ranchers and farmers simply can’t fathom a person being a rancher and a lawyer. They’ll always assume that the rancher part is a hobby and absolutely refuse to grasp the opposite if you know them only casually.

    1. I agree. I think you’ve nailed the issue here – the dissonance between the way western society is conditioned to look for categories and specialisation, and the fact that polymaths exist – and, I suspect, in more numbers than we imagine. Humans are smart!

  3. In my experience, I notice people will do almost anything to avoid thinking too hard. Categorizing or pigeonholing people is just one way to do that. If someone can categorize you as a bricklayer, for instance, it’s they can easily to get the measure of you. They can predict you’ll like a certain kind of beer and watch certain television shows and hold certain political views. But if you fail to follow predictable, time-worn paths as society demands, people must think a little to understand you and know what to expect. Most people really don’t like that doing that scary thinking-stuff, and they will blame YOU when their own crudely wrought predictions fail.

    Those who criticize harshly are usually the ones with the very least personal skill. So if a critic claims you can’t be good at this subject because you’re good at this other one, well that critic has illuminated a large neon sign and shot up a flare for all the world to see explaining that the critic is an unwilling thinker. Had they ever stopped to “think” they might realize what they’re really telegraphing. Unfortunately, understanding what they advertise about themselves would require thinking, so they remain in blissful ignorance.

    1. I agree on all counts! I actually wonder if some people actually prefer not to think – if it is easier for them to just follow what otthers say and diss those who innovate because the non-thinkers don’t understand innovation, maybe even view those who think as a threat to the certainties with which they themselves define their self-worth.

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