Novelists Who Will Not Be Pigeon-Holed

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. RowlingΒ 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.Β 

(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.

135 thoughts on “Novelists Who Will Not Be Pigeon-Holed

  1. Dave, another excellent theme.
    Today Saturday Evening, I am so disappointed with what America has become.
    With the outcome of Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.
    Whites are cheering.
    This is a multiracial, multiculturing Country when it was taken from Indians, folks from all over the World live here and call it their Home.
    Now after killing two and wounding one, the man is set free.
    I thought that the Prosecutor did an excellent job…but…

    Anyway, I just finished the latest of John Grishams , latest.” The Judge`s List ”
    A well known and well respected Judge ( smirk) was secretly killing people who ridiculed him at one point in his life, or for something else.
    And this woman after Her Father was murdered, was on his tail.
    A truly riveting book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe!

      I totally agree that the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, and the way many white right-wingers are celebrating it, is absolutely disgusting. If Rittenhouse had stayed home with his big gun, there would have been no deaths. If a Black person had done what Rittenhouse did, he’d be killed or in prison for life.

      Not surprised that John Grisham wrote another riveting novel. Glad you liked it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • 1) Suppose a fellow was determined, from his apartment in Manhattan, to hunt an elk upstate, without a license for gun or a permit to hunt, with only his hunterly desires to guide him, and winds up with a rifle he’s not supposed to carry deep in the woods, many, many miles from home. If an elk burst from the brush and seemed intent to defend its herd, would you consider the hunter’s discharge of a firearm he wasn’t authorized to carry in a place he had no license to hunt a reasonable case of self-defense?

      Evidently, the answer to this question, as framed by the judge and delivered by a jury in a courtroom in Kenosha, was ‘YES’.

      2) Would you give no thought to the idea that the fellow had gone many miles out of his way, for no legitimate purpose whatsoever,and ought to be looked at as someone who had sought out the danger in which he had placed himself, for the purpose of having an excuse to shoot?

      Evidently, the answer to this questions, as framed by the judge and delivered in a courtroom in Kenosha, was ‘YES’.

      β€œThe master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” –Audre Lorde

      Liked by 2 people

      • Excellent analogies, jhNY.

        The “justice” system has done wrong again — for the umpteenth time — and that’s basically what it’s designed to do. As Audre Lorde’s words allude to, the “justice” system is one of the parts of America’s power structure that buttress the status quo — a status quo that includes maintaining white privilege.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. JK Rowling, as the author of the Harry Potter series, literally created a sales category with the first book, and filled it out with the rest!
    There was a time whenever I saw a book under a kid’s arm it was a Potter book, making it appear that ‘reading books’ was an activity in their experience limited to those tomes she brought into being.

    Her subsequent non-Potter works were made to take their place within a sales category of long standing.

    Given the cost of publication, distribution and marketing, most things that see print conform, at least in the most general ways, to sales categories already labeled on bookstore shelves. So most novelists, and most writers of non-fiction, will be pigeon-holed, usually having deliberately attempted to pigeon-hole themselves, if they have the product that agent, editor and publisher finds potentially saleable and even profitable.

    As a category, the ‘debut novel’ may enjoy the least restrictive genre limitations, as all that authors must do to qualify is to have published no other one before– though even there, expectations of naivete leading to wise insight make many debut novel story arcs predictable.

    Sometimes, artists cannot escape where they’ve been placed. Jerry Lee Lewis put out a pretty good album in the 1990’s– all new songs, well-played, well-produced– but the few times I saw it for sale, it was in the ‘oldies’ section of the record store. Because Jerry Lee was, as a sales item, the personification of an ‘oldie’, to those who shelved lp’s, however newly-made his music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Many good points. There can indeed be lots of pressure on an author or other creator to pigeon-hole herself/himself. In some cases, as you note, the author is happy to be successful in a certain niche — perhaps the case, for instance, with Lee Child and his Jack Reacher books, until recently at least where his brother is now involved in the writing and Lee wants to do other things. It certainly makes things — including sales and marketing — easier. In other cases, authors fight the pigeon-holing — sometimes succeeding and (as per your Jerry Lee Lewis example) sometimes not. (Though in the Jerry Lee Lewis case, what he did could be considered a success creatively even if it wasn’t a success in a market sense.)

      And an interesting observation about debut novels tending to be under the least restrictions. I agree!

      Like

      • I should also have written that authors like King or Rice or Child or Rowling, given their monumental sales, become genres unto themselves and can sell whatever they write– though most often what was loved first by the public will remain the greatest of their successes.

        What makes the Rowling example different, from the start: there really wasn’t a well-developed contemporary sales category for tales told out of witch school until, after much effort, she, having found a publisher, made one.

        Expectations of her sales in the beginning were such that UK first editions of her first book command many thousands of dollars when they turn up at auctions.

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, jhNY. Certain ultra-successful authors can write almost anything they want. Some of that might not sell as well, but would still sell.

          You’re right that Rowling broke ground with her wizarding approach. Not totally without precedents, of course — with one previous example being characters like Gandalf in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

          It would be VERY nice to have a first edition of the first Potter book! πŸ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay Dave,
    I’m outta my reading league here.
    However, I am not out of the pigeon-hole league.
    As a costume designer I ran/run into it all the time.
    Oh… you do period work, mostly. This movie is contemporary.
    (What about my 20 contemporary credits?)
    Oh, well 4 of them have magic characters, and our film is strictly ordinary.
    Uch… at this point I see that unless they change their story to a different time period, I am not in the running.
    Actors are type cast. (other word for pigeon-holing)
    Directors, artists, musicians and more all fall prey to the money people’s POV.
    Unlike a writer, it’s difficult to just change your name.
    Perhaps artists have had better luck at this.
    The $ people really hate to see you put a round peg into a square hole, even if it works.
    I say pigeon-holing is just plain coo coo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa!

      SO true that various kinds of people — creative or otherwise — are unfortunately pigeon-holed in various kinds of ways. Sorry that has happened to you as a costume designer despite you having the talent and the past efforts that SHOULD mean you shouldn’t be pigeon-holed at all. The ones doing the pigeon-holing lack imagination, and a certain respect for creative people — who are often creative in multiple ways.

      “I say pigeon-holing is just plain coo coo” — great closing line!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I may be posting this twice, so I’ve condensed it, Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffanys and In Cold Blood, and had mentioned Dostoevsky, but rethinking him. Don’t know what went wrong posting other comment. Thanks Dave, Susi

    Liked by 1 person

    • Forgot to mention Pierre Bouile, Bridge Over the RIver Kwai to Planet Of The Apes, from war between humans to war between primates, and for some bizarre reason that juxtapose makes absolute sense. Like, the author is sitting there starting his next novel and says to himself, in Monty Python fashion, “Now for something completely different”, ha.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Susi!

        Excellent examples of authors who varied their approach. And, on the flip side, yes, all I’ve read by Dostoevsky has a somewhat similar vibe, but what a vibe! Amazing writer.

        Last but not least, I love that SO-appropriate-to-this-subject Monty Python quote. And I love Monty Python in general!

        Like

        • Thanks Dave. In my first comment (which I forgot to post) I mentioned a school district in Kansas having banned a number of Atwood’s books, The Handmaid’s Tale included. Very conservative district, go figur. Geez, I’m so sick of those people and/or the primate crossbreeds, not intelligent enough to be human and void of the natural instincts of animals – yeah, those guys, the GOP, ha. I agree re: Dostoevsky. Even when his books are different, eg Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, it’s basically the same theme,

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree, Susi — so disgusted when books are banned. And these are often excellent books, banned because they’re perceived as leaning liberal — no matter what misleading reason the book-banners give.

            Republicans these days — ugh. 😦

            Like

  5. I always enjoy a good reminder of how great John Steinbeck’s books are πŸ™‚ Both the serious and the comical, the California and outside California tales! As for other authors, I might mention Jennifer Chiaverini for this post πŸ™‚ She actually wrote a bunch of novels centered around quilting (interesting choice, I know) and made a name for herself there. And while I’ve never really read any of those (I’m not much of a quilter…) her occasional forays into women’s historical fiction are quite entertaining, my favorite being “Resistance Women.” Quite a pendulum swing from quilting books to gritty war historical fiction but she pulls it off quite well! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      That IS quite a pendulum swing. Impressive that she does both genres well.

      I guess if an author is good enough, she or he can make almost any topic exciting. I’m thinking of Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Black Tulip,” about a flower contest. Quite a compelling read!

      And, yes, nice to think again about John Steinbeck writing a variety of very memorable novels.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In the context of the Dutch Tulip Mania, that ‘flower contest’ was a bit more significant, since the mania caused a speculative bubble that eventually upended the economy, as were the punishments endured by the chief character attempting grow that black tulip.

        The actual most expensive tulip during that heady time was named the Semper Augustus, a lovely red and white confection, and a single bulb was worth the price of a HOUSE.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Dave, I see no problem with authors changing genres and experimenting with different styles of writing and different audiences. The author who immediately comes into my mind is C.S. Lewis who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia for children and The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce for adults. All his books shared a common Christian religion theme. I also thought about Stephen King’s great writing range although he did use another name for some of his books that were not traditional horror or paranormal. There are also a lot of writers who write poetry and fiction and those are quite different in their style, and frequently, have different audiences too.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Robbie!

      I also see no problem with authors changing genres and experimenting. I almost always welcome it. πŸ™‚

      C.S. Lewis is a great example of an author aiming some of his writing at younger readers and some at adults. With of course many adults also enjoying his writing aimed at younger readers. πŸ™‚

      Stephen King does indeed have a wider writing range than some people give him credit for.

      Liked by 2 people

        • Stephen King IS an impressive writer. I’ve read at least a dozen of his novels, but none that he wrote in the past decade, so I don’t know his recent work. I guess it’s not a total surprise that an author will change approach a bit after decades of writing, and of course being graphic is “in” during these times. 😦

          Liked by 1 person

              • Unlike movies, I find that the most disturbing parts of books are not graphic violence, but descriptions of the mind on the edge of madness such as the thoughts of a murderer or a child molester “Crime and Punishment” or a person about to commit suicide “Anna Karenina”. I had a hard time reading those passages.

                Liked by 1 person

                  • Dave, why does the columns in the remarks come across as very narrow sometimes? Is it a glitch in the system? I find it rather hard to read very narrow columns. My last entry had rather narrow columns but not as narrow as some of the other remarks by others that I have seen in your blog (sometimes only one word in a column). Best wishes.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • When a particular multi-comment thread within the comments section gets long, the comments get narrower — at least in the WordPress format my blog uses. Sorry about that. It’s not too bad when I’m viewing comments on my laptop, but it’s annoying when I’m using my phone. I’m on my laptop now, and the above comments don’t look that narrow. It would be a different story on a phone.

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              • Did you ever read Different Seasons, Dave? It was originally a Bachman book and there are four stories included: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Apt Pupil, The Body, and Breathing Method. The Apt Pupil was the most diabolical story I’ve ever read. I struggled to finish it. It made an impression on me, no doubt about that, but I wish I’d not read it. Often when I pet my cat, a recollection of that mad man putting cats in his oven comes back to me and it makes me feel sick.

                Liked by 1 person

                • I haven’t read that King collection, Robbie, and I guess I’m glad I didn’t in the case of “The Apt Pupil.” Scenes in stories or books where horrible things happen to animals are just so painful. Also scenes where beloved pets die of old age; experienced that enough in real life. 😦

                  Like

  7. Hi Dave, what a great post that addresses the versatility of these authors! One that springs to mind (that could have been relevant to your Halloween post) is Elizabeth Gaskell. ‘Cranford’ and ‘North and South’ are excellent and I really assumed that was her genre and she stuck to it. Of course she wrote the biography of Charlotte BrontΓ«, but she was quite adept at ghost stories. I read a very chilling one last year – ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ and I’ve recently dipped into one, which the good ladies of Cranford would be horrified to read, which is about a murder.
    Following on from Shehanne’s comment about Ian Fleming he also wrote (allegedly) the Trout Memo which was a wartime document comparing the deception of the enemy to fly fishing. Quite niche! I suspect we may be hearing more about this with the release of the movie ‘Operation Mincemeat’ next year, which has been preceded by a couple of semi-fictional books – ‘The Man Who Never Was’ and ‘Operation Heartbreak’.
    And another author that I thought maybe quite versatile is Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve only read a couple of his books but he has delved into historical fiction (‘The Remains of the Day’) and also science fiction (‘Never Let Me Go’).

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      Those are GREAT examples of versatility.

      I didn’t know Elizabeth Gaskell wrote ghost stories! Ha — most of the characters in her “Cranford” novel would indeed be scandalized. πŸ™‚

      And Kazuo Ishiguro — absolutely. “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go” are SO different, though they do share a certain subtlety. (I found the first novel riveting but must admit I found the second rather slow-going.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s been quite some time since I read any Ishiguro but did enjoy his writing. Gaskell’s short stories are definitely worth seeking out and she really did write some bone chilling stuff! Who knew??

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’ve read “The Old Nurse”, and maybe another Gaskell ghostie– and you’re right, satisfyingly scary stuff– as well as “Cranford”. On a shelf nearby is “Ruth”, a novel I hope to read, though there are so many on the TBR pile before her.

          Her biography of Bronte has lately come under fire, but I thought unfairly, in the pages of the “Guardian”…

          Liked by 2 people

          • Next week you’ll probably read how wonderful it is…it’s a fickle rag!
            I haven’t read the biography but I am quite impressed at her range. Last year I read an anthology of Victorian ghost stories and β€˜the old nurse’ was the only one that gave me the shivers.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Most ghost stories don’t quite, I have found, in the sense that few really transport a reader to an atmosphere of fresh terror, and I suspect, especially in the golden age of ghost stories, few were intended to have such an effect. My understanding is that the genre really got going because it became a Victorian family tradition at Christmas to read ghost stories aloud, which would make “A Christmas Carol” the perfect example, in a way: a ghost story about a Christmas ghost to be read at Christmas.

              Maybe it’s just my notion, but I have concluded most ghost stories are meant to stir up dread and mystery, but only to a manageable degree, and then, often at the very highest pitch of emotion and expectation of revelation, the reader is returned to his comfortable chair by the fire.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Interesting theory, jhNY, of ghost-story writers not wanting to get readers TOO riled up. Could be some truth to that in the case of some authors, while other ghost-story writers perhaps want to terrify readers but don’t quite have the ability to do so.

                Like

    • Hi Sarah, I have read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography about Charlotte Bronte as I find the Bronte family quite fascinating. I did not know she also wrote ghost stories. Thinking about Ian Fleming and his children’s book, I suddenly remembered Eva Ibbotson who wrote mainly for children about ghosts, witches and trolls [her books are amazing], but also more serious books like Journey to the River Sea and also some books for adults.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Gaskell really seems to have turned her hand to many things. I always thought it very brave to take on a biography when the subject is still living! πŸ˜€
        I don’t know Ibbotson’s work but she certainly had a fascinating life (thank you Wiki). Her later adult writing looks fascinating. I may have to see if I can get my hands on some of her books!

        Liked by 3 people

  8. Such interesting comparisons! One of my favorite mystery authors, Elly Griffiths, first wrote contemporary novels under her real name, Domenica de Rosa. I’ve read and enjoyed several of those earlier books but am so glad she decided to start her forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, mystery series. It is excellent!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love this discussion Dave! The breadth and depth of reading that occurs on your blog is truly remarkable and has again, given me something to think about. Just today, I downloaded a novel by Victoria Holt (aka Eleanor Alice Buford). I haven’t read one of her books since my late teens. She was a brilliant storyteller although many would never consider her books classics. Even so, Eleanor was able to transition between genres with an elegant ease using pen names. Victoria Holt for gothic romances, Philippa Carr for multi-generational family sagas and Jean Plaidy for fictionalized history of European royalty. Her other pseudonyms were Elbrus Ford, Kathleen Kellow, Anna Percival and Ellalice Tate. Born in Canning Town London, England, she lived an extraordinary life. She died while on a cruise, somewhere between Athens and Port Said, and was buried at sea. Somehow it seemed appropriate for a woman whose books continue to enliven readers. She wrote over 200 book, sold more than 100 million copies in 20 languages. Even critics appreciated her quality of writing and accuracy. Thank you, Dave, and all on this discussion for adding to my knowledge and experience.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Such an enjoyable post! Thanks. Didn’t know many of these variations from the maestros. I loved Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and the neighborhood politics. One writer’s whose versatility I have admired is Vikram Seth. His ‘The Golden Gate’ was a purely ‘American’ book, his ‘The suitable boy’ ‘Indian’ and then ‘An Equal Music’ very ‘British’.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I am unsure of her other two dozen or so novels, but I am currently reading “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah. Book is set in 1934 in Texas on OK border during the dust bowl depression that hit the Great Plains. I had read her excellent novel “The Nightingale” which is about two sister’s bravery during In WW11 in Vichy France, narrated by one of the sister’s who is now elderly, recounting the courageous lives they led. It is expansive and detailed, much more engaging than “Four Winds” in my opinion. Dave, if you or anyone else has feedback on her other novels it would give a more details into her “genres.” As she does a lot of research perhaps other novels are historical fiction as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele!

      I haven’t read Kristin Hannah, so hopefully others can chime in. (Mary Jo?) The two books of Ms. Hannah’s you mentioned do sound different from each other, even with them both having historical-fiction elements.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, nonsmokingladybug!

      I must admit I considered not reading “Troubled Blood” because of J.K. Rowling’s intolerant remarks about transgender people, but, unfortunately, there are quite a few great authors with some problematic views. And I was hooked on the series after reading the first four books.

      Stephen King has definitely diverged from the horror genre on occasion!

      Liked by 3 people

      • “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile” and my favorite “Dolores Claiborne” to name a few of the occasions. πŸ™‚

        I loved the J.K Rowling’s series as well and I did read Harry Potter too πŸ™‚
        As for her remark, it doesn’t change her books and until she goes totally off the cliff, I will continue reading them as well.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Those are excellent examples of Stephen King’s range!

          And I agree about the problematic opinions of authors not changing their books — at least a lot of the time.

          Speaking of Rowling and King, I think she blocked him on Twitter when he disagreed with her transphobic views. They of course had met and even spoken at the same event at least once.

          Liked by 3 people

  12. Okay… I was utterly astonished to learn that Ian Fleming wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Huxley and Orwell’s earlier books are certainly different from the beasts they went onto produce. Louisa May Alcott also wrote some rather different books but that was under a different name….

    Liked by 6 people

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