Cross Genre-ing

I got into a conversation on Twitter this morning with PC Bushi that grew to include several other individuals. Mr. Bushi initiated things by saying Leigh Brackett’s short story “The Woamn From Altair” demonstrated her range as a writer because it was a well-written story that wasn’t an adventure story.  I agreed. (If you’re interested, my review from a couple of years ago is here.)

Early in the course of the conversation, he linked to a post he had written about Jack Vance and Andre Norton, discussing their versatility as writers.  He says some good stuff, and you should check it out.

The conversation moved onto to all the genres Brackett wrote in.  In addition to space opera and science fiction, she also wrote detective stories (which is what got her the job writing for Howard Hawks on The Big Sleep) and westerns. This discussion got me to thinking…

Specifically  the following tweet got me thinking:

This is a true statement, and anyone who wants to write good stories should pay attention to it.  While it is possible to write stories readers keep coming back to that are all in the same subgenre, it’s much more challenging to do so than writing across multiple genres.

At least I think so.

Allow me, if you will, to give some additional examples to the ones Bushi and I have listed.  (Brackett, Vance, and Norton, in case you weren’t paying attention.) I don’t pretend for a moment for the following names to be a definitive list.  Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.  In no particular order, my suggestions are:

Poul Anderson:  One of my personal favorites, he wrote fantasy, science fiction, and mysteries. Many of Anderson’s science fiction novels are structured like mysteries. While he is best remembered for his hard science fiction, he wrote in a number of subgenres of both science fiction and mysteries.

Fredric Brown:  Brown isn’t as well known today as he deserves to be.  His novels Martians, Go Home and What Mad Universe are best known among his long works in the science fiction field.  At short lengths, he was a master of the short-short with a twist ending. But it was in the mystery field where he really made his mark at both short and long lengths. His work is worth studying.

Robert E. Howard: He wrote fantasy, horror, historical, serious westerns, humorous westerns, and boxing stories, both funny and serious.  And let’s not forget the poetry. Need I say more?

Ed Gorman:  Gorman is primarily known as a crime and mystery writer. He was also accomplished in horror, fantasy, and especially westerns.

Loren D. Estleman: Estleman, like Gorman, is known for his mysteries. Unlike Gorman, he’s not written much in the way of the fantastic.  If you like traditional PI stories, though, Estleman’s Amos Walker is your guy. He’s also an award winning western author. Finally, in his book Writing the Popular Novel, he says life is too short to spend it talking to people who don’t read short fiction.  My kinda guy.

Louis L’Amour:  Did you know he wrote adventure, detective, boxing, and historical fiction, not just westerns?

Joe R. Lansdale: Joe writes, well, Joe Lansdale stories.  His work blends horror, crime, mainstream, and historical. He’s pretty unique. He’s also one of the best writers working today.

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore: Both together and collaboratively, this husband and wife writing duo wrote science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mysteries until Kuttner’s untimely death.  Together and separately they wrote some of the classics of the pulp era.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch:  Kris has won multiple awards in a number of genres.  She’s writes science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and romance under several different names. Kris is one of my favorites, especially her science fiction.

So there’s a list of ten writers, some still active and some passed on, who I think are among the best in multiple genres.  I think a lot of that is because they wrote in multiple genres.  Who do you think should be added to the list?

I’ve noticed when it comes to my own writing I tend to write cross genres.  I’ve got two short novels I need to polish and edit and send into the world.  One is a cross between the traditional PI and science fiction.  The other is a blend of fantasy and who-dun-it.  I finished a story the other day that mixed hard physics with a ghost story.  Does that make me a great writer? Probably not in and of itself.  I do know I enjoy reading across multiple genres, and that’s what shows up in my work.  And that I’m going to keep reading writers who cross genre lines.

11 thoughts on “Cross Genre-ing

  1. Jason

    I’m actually not the biggest multi-genre or cross-genre fan in principle, though I do admit that it’s a challenge and having the ability can be impressive and the results can be, too. Anderson, Brown, and Kuttner/Moore take up substantial shelfspace for me. 🙂 Not to mention Vance and Howard taking up some shelfspace and some TBR pilespace.

    There are many folks I thought about adding but the first person I thought of was Fritz Leiber. Hard SF, soft SF, urban fantasy, sword & sorcery, horror, non-fiction and more. John Shirley has a similar fictional range. And, not usually thought of in this sense, but Isaac Asimov wrote a lot of SF and a lot of mystery and some SF-mystery, tried his hand at fantasy, has a story that frequently appears in horror anthologies, wrote under almost every non-fictional subject in the universe, and wrote for young, old, and in between. (And talk about shelfspace.)

    Before Ace did the Tolkien paperbacks and Ballantine started the “Adult Fantasy” line there was less of a fantasy market, aside from Unknown and some dribs and drabs, and some people still wanted to write fantasy (e.g., de Camp) and so they more or less had to be at least SF & F writers. While some people still range across genres these days, I think there may be more pressure to stick to your niche and not risk a dangerous drop in sales from one book to the next if you confuse or lose your audience, which can result in the “publishing death-spiral” where the computers order fewer of your next book because of the sales of your last. I don’t know this, but it seems possible. Short fiction authors have a lot more freedom to experiment then and now, anyway.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Excellent points, Jason. I should have included Asimov; I thought about it, but decided to stop at 10. I also tried to include writers who wrote outside the fantasy/sf/horror genres. I didn’t state, and should have, that I was looking for writers who wrote in at least on nonfantastic genre. Leiber was one of the greatest writers of the last century, and the more I read (or reread) him, the more I appreciate him in ways I couldn’t when I was a teenager and rest a lot of his short stories. I don’t think he did much outside of sf/fantasy/horror, or if he did, I’m not aware of it.

      John Shirley I haven’t read. Where do you suggest I start.

      I think your point about writers being pressured to stick to a niche is a valid one. Certainly if they are published by a major publisher that’s true. I’ve seen too many writers say things along those lines regarding when they wanted to do something different to doubt it. And your right, there is a lot more freedom in short fiction. Probably why it’s been called the lifeblood of the field.

      1. Jason

        Oh, okay. I can’t think of any mainstream authors who haven’t been mentioned. Well, Ted Sturgeon did write one mainstream novel (for very weird values of “mainstream”) with Some of Your Blood and also wrote Westerns and mysteries and historical novels, often under pen names, in addition to his great SF, fantasy, and horror.

        As far as Shirley, my favorite novel of his is Eclipse, which kicks off his “A Song of Youth” trilogy. All three have been collected in a revised omnibus but I don’t know what was done to them and only know the originals. For collections, I like a lot of stuff in Heatseeker and The Exploded Heart so either of those could work. There again, he’s got other bigger retrospective-type collections (such as Really, Really, Really Weird Stories) that might be better but I haven’t read those. Not necessarily a place to start but just the most recent book of his I’ve read and an example of cross genre-ing is Doyle After Death which is a “posthumous fantasy” which stars Arthur Conan Doyle and the equally dead ex-PI narrator teaming up in an afterlife to be detectives (and not just write them) to solve the murder of another dead person.

        1. Keith West Post author

          I didn’t think of Sturgeon. He wrote an Ellery Queen novel I believe, The Player on the Other Side.

          Thanks for the suggested starting points on Shirley. I’ll try to pick some of them up.

          And since no one else has brought his name up, Ray Bradbury. He wrote mainstream and detective stories, but those are often overlooked compared to his science fiction and fantasy.

  2. Matthew

    Avram Davidson is another one who wrote across genres. He wrote a lot of SF/fantasy/horror but he also wrote mysteries. The Investigations of Avram Davidson is a good collection if you can find it.

    I noticed years ago that Speculative Fiction writers read and write a cross genres. A lot of mainstreams writers don’t. Raymond Carter wrote essentially the same story over and over again.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Davidson is an excellent example. I’ve got The Investigations of Avram Davidson around somewhere, I think.

      You’re right about mainstream writers not crossing genre lines very often. When they do, they usually write a plot that was old when John Campbell began editing Astounding and think it’s something new and original. I’ve noticed this is also true about a lot of readers outside of speculative fiction. We’ll read mysteries on a regular basis, but mystery readers rarely read sf. When Laurie R. King wrote a science fiction novel some years ago, she had to publish it under a pen name because the expectation was that her regular readers wouldn’t buy it, which would hurt preorders of her next book in her mystery series.

      1. Matthew

        Mystery writers are usually more diverse than literary writers, but not as much as SF writers. Lawrence Block actually set out to be a Sf writer, but found he couldn’t writer.

        1. Keith West Post author

          I knew that about Block. The same is true of Donald Westlake. Somewhere I have a collection of his early sf. And since we’re on the topic of mystery writers who wrote sf, there’s the other Bloch, Robert. While he did start out writing fantasy and horror, he was also adept at mystery and crime as well as humorous sf, such as the Lefty Feep stories.

          And let’s not forget John D. MacDonald. He wrote some great short sf that someone really needs to collect in hardcover (paging Stephen Haffner…). There was one paperback collection of his short sf back in the late 70s or early 80s, but it was nowhere near complete. He also wrote three sf novels: Ballroom of the Skies, Wine of the Dreamers, and The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything. The SFBC published them in an omnibus edition that shouldn’t be too hard to find on the secondary market.

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