Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Genre Mix-Ups as a Way to Expand Your Audience

In War Dances, Sherman Alexie won prestige by mixing up poetry and short stories and a whole host of other writerly things. He’s written for teens and adults. He’s written poetry, short stories, novels, and he’s mixed up subject matters in those (an Indian serial killer for one!).

He did follow the advice many agents and editors give and waited before switching it up. He started with poetry and short stories–which is not to difficult a jump, especially since his poetry reads like his fiction: lyrical, brief, and with some really startling comment at the end that makes everything click into place. It was directed toward adults. So, to start, he established his audience and captivated critics. (Most of us will never hit this first step.)

He moved from stories to novels, again not a gigantic leap, except for one of his major novels is Indian Killer. Moving from the sorta-autobiographical fiction of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to John the Indian Killer is not only a brilliant artistic move, it’s also a brilliant commercial move. After all, James Patterson sells plenty of books about serial killers and there’s an audience out there who wouldn’t mind mixing it up a little. Add in the elements of race, self-loathing, and the gorgeous writing that Alexie executes (no pun intended) and there’s no way Indian Killer wouldn’t grab him loads more attention.

Okay, now he’s written for adults, gotten their attention. Next? Teens are the wave of the future. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, now the selection for Pueblo’s (Colorado) All Pueblo Reads, was created. It fills one of those gaps for teens: adolescent boys. The books openly displays all the awkwardness boys go through and adds racial and class elements that kids are aware of but don’t alway have the vocabulary for. Then it went and won the National Book Award and became required reading.

Now Alexie’s audience is not only adult, it’s hit that magical below-twenty crowd and their teachers.

Am I saying that by following this formula of mixing up genres that we’ll all be bestselling authors? Hell no. We’ve got to be good at this writing gig first. Like I said, most of us will be lucky if we manage to reach our initial audience, let alone expand it.

And I don’t think Alexie himself thought coldly at his desk: Now I have X, I’ll go after Y. I think he wrote what he thought would be interesting or necessary to himself first, and the rest just kind of followed.

Do you think that mixing up the genres can expand your audience? Or do you think that if you dance around too much you’ll never have a consistant audience? How much do you mix up genres?

Mentors Sherman Alexie

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

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