Monday, October 22, 2012

Crossing Over: Does It Really Work?

Perhaps you were one of the many who recently purchased J.K. Rowling's first adult-centered novel, The Casual Vacancy, but quickly became one of the few who finished the book. Believe it or not, there's a real reason why you just couldn't find it in your heart to slog your way through to the end.

Let me preface this post by first saying that I have not read Rowling's latest work, and in all honesty, I have no real desire to read it after the dismal reviews and critiques it has received. According to an article published on Yahoo!News that came out a few weeks ago, the novel was widely panned by several media outlets. 

Here are a few of the comments well-known news outlets had to say concerning The Casual Vacancy:

According to The New York Times: "Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull." 

According to The Guardian: "Generally, though, The Casual Vacancy is a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel."

According to the Daily News: "'The Casual Vacancy,' which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn't dreadful. It's just dull."

But these are just major newspapers. What do they know, right? So, I did a little light reading on Amazon, and guess what I found? Yep, 280+ similar one-starred reviews. Basically, Rowling's attempt at writing adult fiction boils down to three words — sad, miserable, and dull. Not quite the cheery words the author was going for, I would assume.

And, of course, I bet you can't guess what Rowling said would be her next move. That's right! She's going back to writing for children.

But where did it all go wrong and why, when it came to The Casual Vacancy?

According to this article published by Children's Literature Association Quarterly written by David Galef, those authors who wish to write both children's literature and adult literature fall into three categories:

  1. Writers of adult fiction who take up writing children's literature in mid-career. As we all know, this is not what Rowling chose to do, but there have been some authors successful with this formula. One recent example in this category is John Grisham and his Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer series. Unfortunately, those who fail at crossing over into children's lit tend to just dumb-down what they've already written, not taking into consideration that there's a real transition to adhere to when it comes to writing for children. Children are looking to learn something new in a style that speaks directly to them. A few other good examples David Galef cites in this category are Roald Dahl and Antoine de Saint Exupèry. These two authors wrote works that appeal to a broader audience, but are originally intended for children. In some ways, one could argue that Harry Potter falls into this category, but Rowling actually started her career intending her work to be written for the middle-grade audience alone, thus starting her career out in kid's lit, not jumping on the boat later on down the line. 
  2. Those who start out writing for children and later decide to write for adults. This is where we'll find Ms. Rowling and her Potter Universe. These authors have already achieved fame in the children's market, and thus that fandom spills over into their adult works. Let's take a look at Rowling for a moment. She has extensive fame through the publication of her Harry Potter novels, with a very solid fan base. Having these elements in place allowed for her to take her hush-hush adult novel to shelves with nary a word about the storyline. Immediately sales soared on sites such as Amazon, even though barely anyone knew what she'd written. But do blind sales necessarily translate into success? In Rowling's case, no.
  3. Authors who balance an array of diverse projects from the beginning of their careers. These types of writers are few and far between. According to David Galef, two good examples are Louisa May Alcott and C.S. Lewis. They were both prolific authors who learned how to develop the craft well and use it to their advantages. It takes a certain ability to know how to write for various markets. Someone who is a master at writing, say, mysteries, will run into problems if he/she decides to delve into fantasy. This is why we come to associate certain genres with certain authors. When we think of James Patterson, crime fiction easily comes to mind. When we think of Philippa Gregory, historical fiction easily comes to mind, and so on. Crossing over is no easy task, and it takes studying the new genre to make it work for the author.
Having a fan base already in place is about the only good thing Rowling's novel had going for it. She and the publishers were very quiet about the book, not wanting to give away too much of the plot before the book hit shelves. This created curiosity, particularly for those interested in what Rowling could conjure up after taking such a magical ride through her Potter books. Unfortunately, most readers received a strong dose of reality when they cracked open The Casual Vacancy. As many critics have stated, the magic was simply gone. And if an author isn't careful, so will be the audience.

Another curious reason that popped up in many of the lackluster reviews was how Rowling chose to craft the storyline. When in a child's mind, there is a simplistic way of viewing the world. Life tends to be more black and white than the gray world Rowling thrusts her readers into with The Casual Vacancy. Many critiquers bemoaned her choice to use so much profanity throughout the entirety of the book, particularly the f-bomb. Many of these individuals found the characters too numerous and hard to keep track of, not to mention the one-dimensions Rowling thrusts said characters into. Many scenes get overly graphic, causing readers to skip ahead or simply put the book down altogether. And because of these reasons, many reviewers believed Rowling was simply trying too hard to write for an adult market.

And perhaps there in lies the main problem with Rowling's novel. She is used to writing for a market that doesn't need deep prose or the wittiest and catchiest of dialogue. But when it came to crafting a world strictly read by adults, she perhaps felt the need to throw in everything she could get her hands on to make the story believable and relatable to her audience. But throwing too much in destroys a storyline, taking the reader on tangents that don't need to be there.

Grant it, the lady has guts to step out of the box her readers have put her into, but I hope that through this experience she has learned where her true talent lies.

Are you a genre-crossing writer (and by this I mean have you written more than one book pertaining to two completely different genres)? Have you read The Casual Vacancy? If so, do you feel Rowling completely missed the mark or did she actually hit the nail on the head when it comes to writing for the adult market? Can you think of any other authors who have been successful (or unsuccessful) when it comes to crossing over into another genre?


  1. Hm, I was going to read this book but was on the fence. I'm sad that her novel wasn't more well received but I understand that it's difficult to cross genres. Sometimes writers are best left at doing what they're great at instead of experimenting in something else! Then again, how else would you learn? Maybe this was a good way for her to explore another arena.

    1. Saumya, It's true that an author wouldn't learn unless they go exploring. I think, though, that it's important to keep in mind what writers learn just when they're starting out. Learn the craft forwards and backwards, read the books in your genre, and know your audience and what they would enjoy. I'm not so sure Rowling did this and that's probably why the book tanked.

  2. At the moment, the only case that comes to mind is Judy Blume when she started experimented with Women's Fiction and wrote Summer Sisters, which you and I, Sister Mary, have already dissected to death. I can't help but wonder if we're seeing something similar to what happens to actors when they get typecast. Is it the public who won't accept their favorite authors writing a different genre or is it that the writer doesn't quite understand the new genre? Another thing, sometimes when a book or series becomes very successful, it's hard for the writer to achieve the same success with a new book. Just imagine having to compete with the success of Harry Potter (even if you're the same person who created it)!

    1. Ugh, Sumer Sisters! Talk about a book with pointless characters and POVs! Like Rowling has said many times herself, "Lightning never strikes twice!" But maybe it could if she just sticks to what she knows how to do well.

  3. Very current, Sister Mary, Mary! I spent yesterday’s afternoon reading articles about poor Rowling (her book is leading the NYT bestsellers List). I hadn’t heard such rumbling since Ann Rice wrote porn, and she wrote it under a pseudonym. Michael Crichton was conspicuous for jumping genres. Ken Follet skipped spy thrillers to foray into historical fiction, and Stephen King in Dolores Clairborne, and The Shawshank Redemption wandered away from horror stories. They all did pretty well in their new categories.

    1. I love Stephen King's work outside the horror genre (Shawshank, The Green Mile, Stand by Me, Misery). He's definitely someone who succeeds at any genre!

    2. I agree. I'm not a big Stephen King fan, but when he writes something other than horror, it tends to be pretty good.

  4. I haven't read it, and for the same reasons: it's gotten such terrible reviews. I think your analysis that she tried *too* hard to make it adult sounds spot on. She had a winning thing going with her humor and bigger-than-life characters, with all their crazy Dickensian names and traits, not to mention the detail she put into worldbuilding. That was her strength. To move from that to what sounds like an attempt at literary fiction ... without playing up on any of her strengths ... what was she thinking?

    One author that sprang to mind, as an example of successful crossover, is Neil Gaiman. He's all over the place, though he does tend to write speculative fiction. He wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book for the kids (who gobble those books up), and American Gods and Neverwhere for the grown-ups. He can be rude, sexy, and scary ... but knows how to tone it down for the kids without (as you said) *dumbing* it down. Carl Hiaasen seems to have had some success, too, along these lines.

    To answer your question, I have written across genres: YA, fantasy, historical, and current women's fiction. But that's because I'm still finding my writing feet.

  5. I don't think I've actually read anything of Neil Gaiman's, but now I'm curious to see how he writes for both adults and children.

    Don't worry, Stephanie, I like what you write, even if you're still finding your writing feet!

  6. There are many novels nowadays that is having wonderful story. There are also different genres for the different kinds of readers. It is always been interesting to read novels and in fact it would be good for students to read novels so that they can improve their reading skills.
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