Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road…
A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.
On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.
Beyond that, there’s another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough — and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto — to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King’s work so popular among readers who never read horror except King’s work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying “I’ll pass on this one — he’s just writing end-of-the-world shit?”
Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they’re doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters’ emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.
This seems a simple matter — all writers know they’re supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level — yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It’s about putting the “people stuff” ahead of the “trans-warp tachyon drive” or “vampire/zombie plague” or “Venusian cloud colony” bullshit. Most genre writers think they’re doing this, but they’re not. That’s because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it’s not what drives them.
I haven’t read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I’d say he’s strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I’m so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it’s telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It’s incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.
Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they’re not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.
Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don’t care about high school football. Normally I don’t like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.