Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott and Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike in the TV series based on J.K. Rowling’s crime novels. (Photo by Steffan Hill.)
Some novelists do variations on a similar theme, book after book. Other novelists think pigeon-holing is “for the birds,” as the saying goes. This post will focus on the latter group of authors.
I’m currently reading Troubled Blood, the fifth in the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott crime series written by J.K. Rowling under the alias Robert Galbraith. Rowling is a prime example of a novelist who has avoided being put in a box. She of course first created the insanely popular Harry Potter series, but, after those seven books were done, went on to pen The Casual Vacancy novel that was wizard-less and not aimed at kid and teen readers. Then she switched to crime fiction — creating the novels starring private investigators Strike and Ellacott that are almost as page-turning as the Potter saga, with the added bonus of adult romantic tension.
(A note: I’m dismayed with Rowling’s recently expressed anti-transgender beliefs — an unwelcome surprise from the otherwise open-minded, philanthropic author.)
Another living author who avoided pigeon-holing in her books is Margaret Atwood. Her first few novels mostly focused on then-present-day women, with a welcome feminist approach. Atwood kept that approach while periodically branching out into speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, etc.) as well as historical fiction (Alias Grace).
John Grisham? He made his name with riveting legal thrillers and such, including The Firm and The Client. But he occasionally diverges into other realms, with his baseball novel Calico Joe one example.
Among authors no longer with us, Alexandre Dumas’ adventure novels starred white protagonists even though Dumas himself had some Black ancestry. But he broke that mold once with Georges — still an adventure novel, but featuring characters of color in the main roles.
Also in the 19th century, much of Herman Melville’s fiction had a sea setting. Moby-Dick, of course, and also Typee, Redburn, White-Jacket, Billy Budd, etc. But Melville took another route with the compelling, controversial, land-based novel Pierre — and with the ultra-memorable short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” about an unusual Wall Street clerk.
Mark Twain’s work mostly starred boys and men, but his protagonist was female in the absorbing historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Well, perhaps the co-protagonist — Joan’s story was told through the lens of a male character.
John Steinbeck set most of his work in the U.S., and, more specifically, California. But his World War II novel The Moon Is Down took place in a European town occupied by the Nazis. Also, Steinbeck’s most famous books — The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden — are nearly 100% serious, but the social-justice-conscious author also displayed a terrific sense of humor in the seriocomic Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday.
Aldous Huxley is of course most known for his dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World. But before that, he wrote more “traditional” novels such as Point Counter Point.
Obviously, many novelists have also varied their approach by writing short stories, poems, plays, nonfiction, and so on, but I mostly stuck with different approaches to novels in this post.
Any authors you’d like to mention who broke their own mold?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which includes a post-mortem of a contentious Board of Education referendum as well as some potentially troubling library news — is here.