08/15/2013 10:11 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

The Casual Versatility of Some Hardworking Writers

And literature's MVP (Most Versatile Producer) is...

Actually, I'm not sure. But any author who can write very different types of novels deserves an award.

For instance, I finally read The Casual Vacancy this month, and was struck by how un-Harry Potter-like much of that impressive book is. Sure, J.K. Rowling again skillfully focuses a lot on teens in her first "grown-up" novel, but there are no wizards and few laughs amid the small-town politics, four-letter words, sexual content, domestic violence and so on. Still, some of the scheming adults in The Casual Vacancy have a bit of the Dursleys in them!

Margaret Atwood is another author with more than one arrow in her novelistic quiver. She has written novels set in modern times (such as Cat's Eye) while also producing memorable speculative fiction (such as Oryx and Crake) and historical fiction (Alias Grace).

An earlier author, Edith Wharton, is best known for The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth and other stellar novels featuring wealthy New Yorkers. But the gripping Ethan Frome focuses on a trio of lower-income, rural New Englanders.

Wilkie Collins' top novels are rather long, intricately plotted triumphs such as The Woman in White and Armadale. But his canon also includes shorter, more straightforward fiction such as A Rogue's Life. Not as good his wordier works, but still good.

Jack London is justly famous for his canine classics The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But he also focuses on human protagonists in page-turners such as Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf.

Mark Twain's novels tend be seriocomic, but his absorbing Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is almost totally devoid of humor. And he toggled between 1800s-set fiction and long-ago-set fiction (including The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court).

John Steinbeck authored the heartbreaking masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath yet also wrote humorous fare such as Tortilla Flat (though Steinbeck, no matter what the approach, strongly identified with the underdog). Also, Steinbeck is best known for novels with a California milieu, but The Winter of Our Discontent takes place on Long Island, N.Y., and The Moon Is Down is set in a Nazi-occupied European town.

Of course, there are some authors whose every novel is somewhat similar in structure, theme and so on. Those writers may be quite good, and a number of readers prefer predictability, but the frisson of surprise is not there. (Actually, I'm surprised I used a word like "frisson"!)

Then there are the writers who are versatile when it comes to different genres. For instance, many a household literary name has penned novels and short stories. To name just a few: Ray Bradbury, A.S. Byatt, Willa Cather, Junot Diaz, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, James Joyce, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Matheson and Edgar Allan Poe.

Yes, Poe authored one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And his short stories were wide-ranging -- horror, detective fiction, etc.

And it's interesting to note that Joyce could write in a mostly linear way ("The Dead") and in a more challenging way (Finnegans Wake).

Then there are the novelists with poetry also in their canons: Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, Sir Walter Scott, Alice Walker and others.

Of course, some multiple-genre writers are much better in one format than another. For instance, I've read some of Melville's poetry, and it pales next to his novels and stories.

I haven't forgotten authors such as James Baldwin, Margaret Drabble, Harriet Beecher Stowe and David Foster Wallace who expertly wrote or write both fiction and nonfiction.

Who are your favorite versatile authors, past and present?


In his part-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering cartoonists, columnists and others such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. Contact Dave at to buy an inscribed copy of the book, which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington and Gary Larson ("The Far Side").