As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.
There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.
Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth. When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).
As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered. Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.
But back to Follett.
His case is different from mine. I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond. Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.
Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom. When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.
Did the historical books succeed despite of this? Or because of this?
It’s a good question. My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved. Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels. Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.
More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers. Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels… and I can kinda tell.
His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy. They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.
Hornet Flight? Not so much. The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat. Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.
Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills? If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all. Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.
I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future. Stay tuned!
Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege. Everyone loves Siege.