Monday, 17 August 2009

Please Sir, Can I Write Some More? Or, Franchise v Freedom

In 1993, Steven Spielberg directed Jurassic Park, a family action-flick about reconstituted dinosaurs, and Schindler’s List, an Oscar-winning film from a Booker Prize-winning novel about the Holocaust.
Between December 1855 and August 1861, Charles Dickens followed Little Dorrit, a social critique based on his hatred for debtors’ prisons, with the historical Tale of Two Cities and the sweeping contemporary drama of Great Expectations.
Shakespeare wrote historical plays, tragedies, comedies and sonnets. Picasso explored every possible way in which line, colour and form could be used to create art. Mozart composed virtually every form of music available in his time. Bowie spent the mid-70s changing his look and sound with every new album.
My point being, it has always been considered perfectly normal for creative people (and granted, I’ve picked some very, very creative people) to explore different ways of expressing their creativity. And audiences have gone along with them.
So why aren’t genre authors allowed to write more than one kind of book?
I ask because I write a character-based series. I have no complaints about that. I enjoy writing about Samuel Carver, my very own pet killer and the cast of characters that swirls around him. I’m extremely grateful for the fact that other people seem to enjoy reading about Carver, too.
But he isn’t the only thing I want to write about. Since, for family reasons, I am unable to take a holiday this year, I’ve been giving myself a working break by starting a stand-alone book: a psychological thriller, told in the first person by a protagonist who, like me, has no personal experience of violence, until it strikes right at the heart of his life.
I also have two historical sagas and a domestic comedy – what I call an ‘Up Against the Aga Saga’ – that I’d like to write. But the fact is, it will be extremely hard to find a publisher for them, because people want what they’ve already had, and that means more Sam Carver.
God knows far greater writers than I will ever be have had the same problem. Just look at the efforts Conan Doyle made to get rid of Holmes, or Flemings repeated attempts to leave Bond dead (or at least dead-ish_ at the end of his books. And I have to confess tot total hypocrisy, since as a reader I want Lee Child to write about Jack Reacher, James Lee Burke to keep giving me Robicheaux, and I bitterly resent Dennis Lehane for (apparently) quitting on Kenzie and Gennaro.
I can see the commercial argument, from the publisher’s point-of-view, too. It usually takes a while to establish a franchise in the minds of the reading public. So it’s vital to keep going – ‘Punch the bruise’ as Mandelson likes to say.
But how many franchises, in all honesty, produce more than half-a-dozen great books and ten reasonably good ones? And who lasts longer in general: the one-trick pony, or the artist who is willing to take risks, challenge his audience, but keep coming up with unexpected delights.
If anyone from Bantam is reading this, don’t worry: you’ll get your next Carver, as promised. But I’d like to give you, and anyone who reads my stuff, something else as well. Something new. Something that might just be better …

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