But I also said at the end that there are plenty of authors who are not one-trick ponies… so I thought that today, I’d spare a few musings about them as well. (Hmm, I thought: what’s the antonym of ‘one-trick pony?’ My good friend, The Google --- a writer’s best friend these days, actually, although as many people have astutely noted, it does tend to give us very odd (to say the least) and occasionally sinister browsing histories --- informed me that the answer is, rather anticlimactically, an ‘all-rounder.’ Hmm. Okay.) And there are many all-rounders, both historical and modern. However, again, we need to place a caveat on this by saying that even authors known for multiple works whose characters and plots bear no relation to any of their others tend to stay one-trick ponies --- of a sort --- by remaining within a single genre.
Stephen King is arguably one of the most successful contemporary examples of this. In a career starting in the early 1970s and spanning the decades since, he’s written, so The Google tells me, 54 novels and over 200 short stories… but while he’s dabbled with science fiction/fantasy, the overwhelming majority of his work lies in the horror genre. (A few have nothing at all to do with either one --- Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, a gritty prison drama with no ghosts or ghouls or Things That Go Bump In The Night at all, comes to mind immediately, especially since it was made into an absolutely brilliant film by Frank Darabont --- but mention King’s name to people, and horror is the genre they’ll associate him with.) When asked why he writes horror, he has apparently asked why people think he has any choice in the matter.
There are many other well-known authors who have written multiple, independent stories and whose names are synonymous with one genre: Agatha Christie and mysteries, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke with science fiction, Zane Grey and westerns, the Bronte sisters and gothic romances… I could go on and on, as I’m sure you could, too.
Why is this? Why do many authors stay within the comforting confines of a single genre? Well, a couple of reasons: first, as the old cliché rather disingenuously says, you write what you know… or to be more accurate, because most of us have rather limited personal experience with dragons or missions to Mars or even Mafia hit men, you write what you can imagine, what you enjoy, and what inspires you. I like reading mysteries every once in a while, but I can’t imagine writing one, not an Elmore Leonard style mystery, anyway. Second, and much more importantly, as I mentioned in my last post, as a writer, you don’t choose the tale; it chooses you. It comes into your mind, you often know not from exactly where, and that’s the tale you write. You have to, in fact, because you really have very little say in the matter. I think it was Salman Rushdie who said that if you try to ignore the story, or if you don’t work on it, the story sulks, and I think in large measure that’s true. It certainly mirrors my own experience, anyway.
Now, it’s also possible to think of writers who have broken the barrier and published enduring works that span different genres. As an English teacher, Shakespeare comes to mind immediately – he wrote comedies, tragedies and histories (although in the best Hollywood tradition of never allowing the facts to get in the way of telling a good story, his ‘histories’ sometimes play pretty fast and loose with the established historical record), and while most of my high school students are completely incredulous at the idea of anything Will wrote actually being funny, many of his comedies are. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote two very different book series in his Tarzan and John Carter of Mars tales. C.S. Lewis was primarily a writer of Christian apologetics with works like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, but is also known for one of the most famous children’s fantasy series in our times with his Chronicles of Narnia cycle.
Ultimately, all this is more a matter for benign, casual musing and less a matter for any particular existential angst: as writers, we write what we write, we tell the tales we’re given to tell, obeying a deep and almost primal imperative to get the story out of our heads and down on paper (or a screen in these latter days, of course). And if others can then find those stories entertaining or moving or absorbing… well, so much the better.