Very Much a Fox

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  This saying is credited to Archiliochus, a Greek who was born sometime around 714 B.C.  The one “big thing” a hedgehog knows is, of course, how to roll into a ball, prickly side out, and thereby keep itself from getting eaten.  This is certainly a very big thing indeed.

Wild Horse!

I, however, am definitely a fox.  That’s why today’s WW is illustrated with a photo of one of my recent craft projects – one that, superficially, has nothing to do with my life as a writer.

Not all writers are foxes.  Some are very happy being hedgehogs.   Particular themes or settings or character types call to them, begging to be re-examined.

I remember one novelist I first encountered through her fictional re-telling of a certain fairy tale.  I was devoted to this book.  Later, she got a lot of buzz for a new novel.  As I read it, I came up short.  The setting was different.  So were the characters.  But it was that same fairy tale all over again.  When, later still, I was given a copy of her then newest novel.  I discovered that, for all the change in setting and time period, for all ostensible difference in plot, it was the same fairy tale all over again.  I found myself wondering what called to her so strongly about that particular story.

As a reader – especially in my younger years – I often became attached to one particular novel or series by a particular author.  When I was very young, I wouldn’t even try something else by that writer.  A good example of this is Kipling.  I first became aware of him through the Mowgli stories.  When I later learned these were part of the larger tapestry of the “Jungle Books,” I read those tales with suspicion.  They couldn’t possibly be as good as Mowgli.  I didn’t read Kim, a novel I now love dearly, for years and years because of some vestigial loyalty to my first love.

I think the tendency to choose one thing over all others comes out of our society’s constant desire to rank and rate things.  I’ve been part of heated discussions where I’ve been asked to defend my preference for Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan stories rather than his John Carter of Mars.   It’s as if a reader’s preferences are a sort of psychology test.  These days, this is constantly reinforced by seller sites that tell you, “If you liked THIS, then you’ll like THAT.”

I’m a dark chocolate person, a coffee drinker, a reader of SF/F.  Does this mean I never eat milk chocolate, drink tea, read biographies?  Hardly!

Happily, I got over a desire to make an author be one thing and one thing only.  It happened gradually, helped by the fact that I often read according to recommendations given by friends, rather than author name.  Nonetheless, I remember a seminal moment.  I was in the library, looking for something that I hadn’t read by Patricia McKillip.  I’d “met” her work through the Riddlemaster of Hed and its sequels.  I’d gone on to enjoy her standalone fantasy novels.  But when I pulled a McKillip novel called Fool’s Run off the shelf and I saw it was SF, I started to put it back.  McKillip and SF?  Then I thought.  But it’s McKillip.  And I read it, and it is now among my favorite of her works.

I think readers are often shaped to view who and what a writer is by the first piece we read by that writer.  For example, the first book I read by Maggie Stiefvater was The Scorpio Races.  I followed this with her different but similar “Raven Cycle.”  When I realized that her new novel, All the Crooked Saints, was going off in a completely different direction, I hesitated.  Then I gave it a try.  It turned out to be worth the read.

But for all that I had tunnel vision as a young reader, as a writer, I’ve never wanted to write the same thing or even the same way.  Indeed, a desire to write different ways, about different sorts of people, using different styles, was one of the bonds between me and the late Roger Zelazny.  In an essay about the impact of the works of Henry Kuttner on him as a boy, Roger said: “Even then, I wanted to write, and I decided that it would be something of a virtue to possess that sort of versatility.”

Here, Roger was talking about style, but the same applied to his content.  He wrote far future SF, near future SF, high Fantasy, swashbuckling sword and sorcery, stories that could make you weep, stories that could make you laugh aloud.  Definitely a fox.

And thank goodness that fox never got shut in a box.  Late in life, Roger wrote a novel called A Night in the Lonesome October.  If he’d been restricted to Amber or to the short stories that garnered him most of his awards, we would have missed a novel that every year – over twenty years after his death – I still get notes from people who need to tell me that that it’s October and they’re reading it again.

Making a fox be a hedgehog only makes for a very bad hedgehog.

And I am definitely a fox.  I write fantasy about wolves but I write other things, too.  Even far future SF.  Even questing Fantasy.  Even contemporary tales of gods among us.  And sometimes I stop and paint myself a horse, then adorn it with shining gemstones.

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4 Responses to “Very Much a Fox”

  1. Peter Says:

    As a reader, I appreciate both – a new hedgehog book has the appeal of familiarity and comfort, which is nice sometimes. But a new fox book is like an unopened present from somebody who knows you well – there’s the mystery of what’s going to be inside, coupled with the knowledge that whatever it is, it’s something you’re going to enjoy.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I used to be more of a hedgehog reader, but I’ve come to discover that letting an author evolve is more interesting for me as a reader. A good example is Rick Riordan, who has kept w/i the premise introduced with Percy Jackson and the Olympians, but really done some interesting things by leaving Percy to go to college and doing other things.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    It’s amazing how many _readers_ are hedgehogs – I would say “appalling”, except I’m not sure I should. I’m sure you hear about the grief David Weber gets from people who insist that he should write nothing but Honor – and then go on go complain that he has no right to write anything but the Honor of 25 years ago, when both he and she are decades older than when On Basilisk Station appeared.What I’m not sure about is how many authors are really hedgehogs and how many are shoehorned into hedgehog suits by publishers who figure that profits are bigger if you cater to them. [and pull the plug when they find it isn’t working]

    • janelindskold Says:

      Weber doesn’t complain because he honestly LOVES Honor and the Honorverse. However, I’ve known him pre-Honor and when he chattered then it was about the epic fantasy he wanted to write. He never planned to write space opera only, much less only one space opera series. He’s a varied and creative person.

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