A Thousand Splendid Novels about Afghanistan

…this is what it seems we can expect from Khaled Hosseini. I just finished the man’s second work, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and will review it here soon. But the book got me thinking about the relationship between branding and creativity, and I just had to share.

Hosseini of course is famous for his super-selling first novel, The Kite Runner, a story about a boy growing up in Afghanistan who later comes to the United States, eventually returning to his native country to fight (one member of) the Taliban and make amends for childhood crimes. Then came A Thousand Splendid Suns in 2007. I can’t count how many people have told me that this was the sequel to The Kite Runner.

But I just read it. And it’s not a sequel. It’s a book that happens to be set in Afghanistan, a book whose cover has the same color scheme and typesetting as Hosseini’s first—but a book with completely different characters.

It may be a simple mistake, yes. But I wonder how much the “branding” of literary authors affects what they write and how readers perceive what they write. It used to be that only genre authors were expected to produce the same kind of book over and over, but more and more I see literary authors being “tracked” in the same way. Oh, Khaled Hosseini writes about Afghanistan. Oh, Mitch Albom writes sappy stuff. So-and-so writes about lonely coal miners. Every book might as well be a sequel because the major characteristics don’t change.

I think it says a lot about our shifting reasons for reading literary fiction. The repetitive nature of genre fiction makes some sense: readers are often looking for a certain kind of repeated experience when they pick up a thriller, mystery, or romance novel. But the reasons for reading literary fiction used to be, I think, quite different: readers wanted a unique experience each time. They didn’t want the same book. They didn’t want the same themes. They didn’t want the book to conjure the same emotions. They didn’t want to look at a novel’s cover and instantly associate it with the author’s fourteen previous offerings.

Maybe it’s just me. I have always admired authors with broad talent, those who tackle varied subjects, characters, and approaches. That’s not to say writers don’t have their favorite themes and trademark styles; that’s always been the case. But today’s authors—at least the bestselling ones—seem to write in a much narrower range than writers of yore. And I wonder if the current obsession with branding is increasingly going to prevent talented authors from branching out, pressure them to remain within one tiny niche for the duration of their careers.

I truly hope not. One of the best things about reading literary fiction—about reading anything, in my view—is the element of surprise. And I don’t mean which bad guy will die first or how. I mean what the book will really be about, the questions and themes it will raise in my mind. For reading to be intellectually valuable, I think it has to be at least somewhat diverse.

So if Khaled Hosseini writes another novel about Afghanistan, I probably won’t read it. Not because I don’t like his writing. But because I don’t want a brand—I want a book.

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