Hildegarde

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Archive for January, 2011

Doing the Diversity Rag

with 4 comments

It’s been an odd few days out here where I am.  We’ve been listening almost nonstop to weather reports threatening Armageddon, which means the grocery stores have been full of people fighting over the last bag of potato chips and loading up on things like sour cream and onion dip. 

If World War III ever happens, or the Second Coming ever arrives on earth, trust me, the people of New England will be hoarding potato chips and chocolate.

That being said, I’ve been trying really hard over the last few days not to comment on the shootings in Arizona, or on the issues arising out of it. 

Part of that has been simply that I feel as if I’ve declared my position on things like this a hundred times before.

Part of it is that I just don’t feel like getting yelled at.

But the time comes for everything, and the time has come for this.

Before I start, though, I’d like to point out that we have been having trouble with people wanting to COMMENT ON THE BLOG, who then get error messages and can’t actually post.

This is a systems problem having to do with new anti-spam software, and we’re trying to work out the kinks.

If you have this kind of problem, e-mail us and we’ll put you in manually.

And write your comments in an e-mail to yourself so that you can cut and post them later when we get you straightened out.  I’d like to see the blowback on this one.

So, let’s get to the two main questions.

First, did “toxic discourse” on talk radio and at Tea Party rallies cause this guy to shoot up Congresswoman Giffords and her associates?

No.

The man was obviously deeply mentally ill.  You could just as well say that he was motivated by his worship of Satan or his hatred of religion as he was by a hatred of government.

The man’s motivations were entirely biochemical, and if all the discourse in American politics had been unfailingly polite and moderate, he’d still have found a surface excuse to set him off.

The only possibility we have of protecting ourselves proactively from incidents like these is to strengthen the power of mental hospitals and mental health professionals to involuntarily commit people they think are dangerous.

And no, that is not something I would be willing to support.

Psychological is only a borderline science to begin with.  Clinical pyschology is not a science at all.  Giving “mental health professionals” more power to involuntarily commit people amounts to saying that we have the right to lock you up because some “expert” thinks you might commit a crime in the future–and, what’s more, to lock you up for an indeterminate time.

We went through all this in the Fifties, and found ourselves countenancing things like husbands getting their wives committed because the wives wanted divorces.  The courts quite rightly had enough by the mid-Sixties, and now the grounds on which we can involuntarily commit are very strictly construed.

I think we ought to keep them that was.  The DSM-whichever one it is now lists literally hundreds of “disorders,” many of which are only vaguely defined.   Handing over power to incarcerate on the basis of the “professional judgment” of people who think that people who get depressed when the weather is bad have some kind of “psychological disorder” is not something I want to risk.

So we get to second:  do we need to clamp down on “incendiary speech” and enforce “civil discourse” in our politics?

No.

Let me say this one more time, and get the usual howls of protest one more time:

Free speech is free speech.  It is not “responsible” speech  It is not “civil” speech.  It is not “accepting” speech.

Free speech is free.  It is saying what you want, whatever that is.  It is using whatever language you want.  It is taking any position you want, on whatever subject you want, using whatever language you want.

Before we go on with this, though, let me bring in one thing that always comes up in discussions about free speech.

Well, people say, speech isn’t completely free.  You aren’t allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater!

Actually, yes you are.  That comment–that you are not allowed to yell fire in a crowded theater–was made by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case called Schenk vs. United States in 1919. 

It’s always misquoted–Holmes actually said that you were not allowed to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater–and it was made to uphold a law which made it a criminal offense to distribute fliers opposing the military draft.

Think about that one for a moment.

What’s more, Schenk was overturned by the court in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, for reasons that ought to be obvious. 

Whether some speech is a “clear and present danger” is often in the eye of the beholder, as is whether some speech is “false.”

Certainly the endless screaming about George W. Bush as a “fascist” out to pull a coup to take over the country and void the Constitution was false–but we didn’t stop it, any more than we called for an end to nightly news talk about political “targetting” of Democrats by Republicans. 

Fox got one ofmy few nods of approval in its direction by spending nearly an hour the day after the shooting running clips of network news anchors and liberal pundits using pretty much the same terminology about aiming for Republicans as the Tea Party people have been using about aiming for Democrats.

If we went back a hundred years, we’d find a lot more.

Let’s try, for once, to get this straight:  we have “toxic discourse” in politics for two interlocking reasons.

The first is that we actually have real diversity in this country.

Real diversity.  Not the happy-crappy, we’re all going to appreciate each other’s differences kind.

Real diversity is not a bunch of different colored people sitting around enthusing at how interesting everybody else’s culture is.

Those people are not diverse, no matter what the color of their skins.  Those people are monocultural.  They all believe that their differences are secondary to their similarities.

In true diversity, however, people who believe that their cultures are absolutely right and that other peoples’ are absolutely wrong learn to live together, at least in part by learning how to leave each other alone on issues on which they are not neutral.

Real diversity is not happy, or pretty, or nice.

Real diversity is an angry and often hostile thing, and can’t help but be both.

And it has its dangers.

In a country in which issues are decided (at least more or less) democratically and in which government is allowed to make laws regulating the private lives of individuals and groups, the chances are very good that whatever group has the most children–and most clearly brings them to vote–will be the ones who set the rules for everybody else.

You may be in favor of gay marriage, but the voting public may not be.  You may be in favor of antidiscrimination law, but the voting public may not be.

There is absolutely no reason to assume that just because a country is democratic, it will also be socially liberal.

In fact, there are good reasons to think it won’t be. 

And that brings us to our second problem:  the idea that we have the right, through our laws and regulations, to regulate the private lives of people and communities.

There are actually two aspects to this, but let me clear out something else first.

If you think that you are not in favor of having the government regulate the private lives of individuals and communities, ask yourself these:

Are you in favor of laws against smoking?  How about laws to regulate the fat content in food?  How about a federal law banning traditional fund raising bake sales (cookies, cupcakes) in public schools? 

And I didn’t make the last one up.  It passed as part of a larger bill on child nutrition in the lame duck Congress.

Do you think that, if parents aren’t doing something about the “childhood obesity epidemic,” government has to step in?  

How about “hate speech?”  Or high school Christmas trees?  Or abortion?  Or protestors at abortion clinics?  Or a national curriculum for the public schools?  Or homeschooling?

Never mind.  I could go on for hours. The mark of a country with real diversity is that although we would all protest that we would never be in favor of allowing the government to pass legislation regulating the private lives of individuals and communities, we vigorously support just that when the issue seems to us unassailably right.

We used to have a method of dealing with this diversity–it was called federalism, and it meant that the states were allowed to make up their own minds about how the people within them would govern themselves on a whole list of issues.

During the Civil Rights era, federalism became “state’s rights,” and that got a bad name because the “rights” the states were trying to protect were laws that deliberately discriminated against some people for their race.

What’s more, there is no question that those laws should have been considered unconstitutional from off.  The equal protection clause says that the state and federal goverment must treat their citizens equally.

But what happened was that we transposed this argument to “all calls for federalism are bad and must be resisted,” and then we nationalized the debate on everything.

And it’s not just the Democrats and liberals who did it, either.

It’s the Republicans who gave us the No Child Left Behind Act–as William Bennett said, they might have run on the promise to abolish the Department of Education, but now that they were in power, hell, they were going to keep it and use it.

Of course our discourse is toxic.  Whoever wins this fight gets to force his morals down the throats of all his fellow citizens, no matter where they live or how they feel. 

And whoever that is won’t have to waste a lot of time worrying about the democratic process, either.  We’ve established an interlocking network of departments and bureaucracies, run by unelected and nearly untouchable functionaries, empowered to issue “regulations” having the force of law.

And when even that doesn’t work, we go to court and try to get our way that way.

A hundred years ago, if the people of Michigan and the people of  Mississippi didn’t agree on divorce, or smoking in public places, or whether they should call the big middle school concert in December the Holiday Show or the Christmas Show–well, they each went their own way, thought the other was nuts, and left it at that.

These days, whatever the issue is, everybody has to fight to the death every single time. 

Because we’ve got a choice–real diversity, which means people out there doing things that you thing are absolutely evil and unacceptable whether you like it or not, or monoculture.

And I don’t know how we get to monoculture from here.

It is simply not possible to impose a morality from above and suppress all anger and dissent at its imposition, and that includes American upper middle class morality. 

If you really want the “toxic discourse” to end, then you have to accept diversity as it really is, not as it is fantasized about in textbooks.  You have to accept that some states and communities will pass laws you find abhorent–they’ll refuse to recognize gay marriage or allow women to have abortions or not impose regulations requiring private businesses to be wheelchair accessible or whatever.

And along with accepting diversity you have to accept the obligations of democracy, which start with your need to convince a majority of the changes you want to make. 

If you think it’s more important to you to have the rules you want, well, you can have them–we’ve got them now, more than not–but what you will also have, and cannot avoid, is that unending “toxic discourse.”

Because when one side gets to impose absolute rules on the other, then each side must fight to the death.

I’ve said before on this blog that I’ve always thought that the hardest thing anybody can learn to do is accept the fact–and it is a fact–that other people simply do not agree with him.   They’re not racist.  They’re not stupid.  They’re not Communists.  They just believe different things.

And now, a second reminder–if you’re having trouble posting, send an e-mail to jane@janehaddam.com and we’ll get you in manually.

I’m going to go read a book.

Written by janeh

January 12th, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Vocabulary

with one comment

Okay–a reminder before I start.  If the site won’t let you post comments, e-mail us and we’ll get you in manually.

That’s just in case.

But–back to cases.

I didn’t mean to imply, yesterday, that the problem that has arisen with the lack of an actual label for the kind of thing I do is something that effects only–or even chiefly–me.

Nor do I blame cozy readers for being angry when they pick up a Gregor and don’t get what they’re looking for.  If you bought a cookbook and got it home to find out that what was actually inside was a history of the War of 1812, you’d be upset, too.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is no longer any name by which we consistantly call what used to be the traditional mystery–for what I do, and for what better writers than I do (like P.D. James and Elizabeth George). 

Sometimes publishers like to call these “literary” mysteries, but that’s a two edged sword.  What the publishers mean is “real books, well written, not mind candy fluff.”  What too many readers hear is “dull, boring, nothing happens and the characters are all upper middle class and annoying.”

But it’s difficult to understand what anybody is supposed to do with the situation as it presently exists. And I do think some excellent writers have gone down in flames because there’s no way to label the books properly, so that people who are looking for that kind of thing can find it and people who are not can leave it alone.

I’m fairly sure that is why neither of Margaret Kielstrop’s series found an audience–she did one series as M.K. Lorens and the other (historical mysteries set around the time of the American revolutionary war) as Margaret Lawrence.  (CAVEAT:  there is also a Canadian writer named Margaret Lawrence, who is not the same person.)

I also think that’s why Fidelis Morgan’s eighteenth century series didn’t fly as well as it could have.

We make a lot of jokes here and elsewhere that  publishers have no idea how to sell books, but in this case I think it’s literally true. 

Every once in a while I think of that exchange we had hear a while back with Steve’s blog, and the absolute astonishment some of the commenters there had that there had ever existed mysteries that were focused on the suspects and not the detectives–and yet that is Agatha Christie all over.  

It was, in fact, for decades, the most common and most popular form of the mystery.

And there are still plenty of them out there.  You’re just never going to find that out by reading jacket copy, or even reviews.

And I don’t know how to fix this. 

I actually have no idea why mystery readers decide to try new series or new authors.  I’m a bad person to ask, because I don’t read mysteries for the same reason most fans do, and I don’t pay for most of the ones I do read.

In terms of deciding what I want to have a whack at of the little pile that shows up at my doorstep every month or so, I tend to go by a) setting, b) topic, and c) whether or not I can read past the first five pages without wincing.

It’s harder to find books in that last category than you’d think.

In all my life, only one review of a book of fiction has ever made me go out and buy the book, and that was for perverse reasons.  It was in the early Eighties, I was just married and only newly published, and the Times produced a review of this poor guy’s book that was so over-the-top negative that it left me breathless.

I had to buy the book, in protest.

Unfortunately, the reviewer was absolutely right.

That said, I haven’t found reviewers much use in this particular areas. Even the good ones–like Jon Breen, who used to (and maybe still does) review for Ellery Queen–don’t really give this kind of information.

And I’m not even entirely sure how they could.  What, exactly, do you say about things like this?

The result, for me, is that I almost never find new mystery writers I want to read, and at least some very good mystery writers out there are crashing and burning without ever finding their audience.

Because I’m convinced there is an audience–I don’t think I’m the only one out here trying to find this sort of thing.   If I was, James and George would not be on all the best seller lists.

I once had an editor tell me that “at least [your] books deserve to be published.  A lot of the ones out there don’t.” 

I remember thinking to myself at the time that that was the single most bizarre thing anyone had ever said to me.  It also made me very worried.

Publishers are in business to make money, and nobody would get published at all if they didn’t do that.

But I think it’s very odd that some of these people seem to have an easier time selling what they don’t like than selling what they do.  It violates some basic law of salesmanship I’m sure I read about somewhere.

And, I have to admit, in spite of this mess, I haven’t done badly.  Considering what’s happened to a lot of the people whose work I’ve admired, I shouldn’t bitch.

It’s just that I can’t help thinking that there’s something enormously wrong with this picture. 

Readers like me are out here, and we want to buy books.  Where are the books?  And why is it that there has yet to be a web site, a magazine, anything, that will make the kind of distinctions I need?

Robert says he thinks fantasy and science fiction fans go by covers, but covers are no use to me, and jacket copy is even worse.   It’s also often inaccurate, and sometimes full of spoilers.

So, here I am.  I’ve given you a problem with no solution, and we can all go off and be glum together.

But I am not feeling particularly glum today.

I may not be able to find anybody new to read, but I’m still winding my way through Dame Agatha, and teaching doesn’t start until next week.

Maybe I should put on some Bach.

Written by janeh

January 10th, 2011 at 9:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Escape Routes

with 2 comments

Before I get started today, I want to point out that we just had another problem with the program refusing to let people sign on to post comments. 

So, you know, if you have the problem, e-mail me, and we’ll register you manually.

And, back to the blog–

First, the Natalie Maines thing.  

What Maines actually did was to go on stage in England and apologize for the United States.  The fans in the audience didn’t boo her.  In fact, they cheered. 

Where she got into trouble was with country music fans in the US, who are self-consciously and vocally patriotic, much the same way that rock fans are usually not. 

Dixie Chicks records, airplay and concert attendance actually went UP after that incident, since they had a large crossover audience in rock and pop who saw nothing at all wrong (and something right) about what Maines had said.

But the Maines incident is not the kind of thing I’m talking about.  Maines made her statements on her own–they weren’t the subject of her song, for instance.

And country and rock both are perfectly happy to allow artists to use political, religious or other themes in their work.  Yes, country expects those sentiments to be pro-American and rock expects them to be anti-American, but nobody disputes the right of singers and song writers to write about politics.

What goes on with cozies–and with category romance in the Eighties–is very different.   It’s a demand that writers not write about politics, or religion, or anything else that might be “upsetting.”

Cozy readers these days do think of Agatha Christie as a “cozy” writer, but it’s because her work was written far enough in the past not to seem real.  There is, for the average cozy reader of the type I’m talking about, no difference between Agatha Christie’s villages and the fey imaginary small towns where the local knitting shop owner has to solve all the murders.

The demand is not for politics the readers agree with, it’s for no politics–that causes strife and dissension and pressure.  They read to get away from politics (somebody actually wrote me that).  

With religion, the demand is a little more complicated–there’s no problem with presenting a sort of fuzzy-warn “spiritual” point of view where religion means being nice to everybody.  There is a problem, though, with presenting a family being torn apart by disparate religious views, because that is, again, “upsetting.”

This is, I think, why I get so crazy when people tell me they read to “escape.”  This is the kind of thing I think of–the demand for a fake world with all the kinks ironed out of it.  Nothing really bad ever happens.  Even the murders are kind of cute.  And there are no intractable problems, no pains in life that can’t be somehow smoothed over with platitudes and folksiness.

This is not a world that lacks political statements the readers dislike–it’s a world that lacks the very fact of politics, because politics is “upsetting.”

I agree that this kind of fan is in the minority, but it’s not only a very vocal minority, but a powerful one.  It has its own conventions, its own awards, its own web sites and magazines.   And it’s willing to yell, scream, bitch and throw a fit if it doesn’t get what it wants or (more likely) gets what it doesn’t want.

And so, generally, it does get it–but that also explain why the other kind of fan won’t touch anything labeled “cozy” with a ten foot pole.   They see things labeled “cozy” and they think, “oh, it’s got recipes and the cat solves the mystery.”

I agree with everybody here who said that, in the long run, writers who write not what they believe but what they think fans want to hear will fall off the face of the planet–but that’s the long run.  In the short run, they’ll get invited to present keynote speeches at convention banquets, get written up on a dozen web sites, and have small bookstore owners with a cozy bent stage parties for them.

The total sales will never be what a “serious” mystery writer makes, and the run won’t last that long–but it will be a nice little run while it does last.

And, in the meantime, publishers tie themselves into knots trying to find a word to describe “cozies” (in the Dilys Winn definition) that aren’t “cozies” (in the standard fan definition), because if they don’t come up with a different word, they end up selling the book to people who don’t want it and not selling the book to people who do.

This is, by the way, the reason a lot of you here say you have a hard time finding new authors you’ll like. 

There’s just not a word out there for what you–and I–like.  

I’m not a fan of “police procedurals,” which tend, to me, to be like having to watch a Law and Order marathon.  I would never have picked up a novel by P.D. James–my all time favorite mystery writer–if it had been described to me like that. 

My guess is that there has to be a word out there that would fit, but we haven’t found it yet.  And I’m stuck in the position where, if I’m looking for a traditional mystery and I pick up a cozy, I don’t get a traditional mystery but a piece of exaggerated fluff.

And it’s worse than you think, because I don’t even have zero tolerance for exaggerated fluff.  MacLeod did exaggerated fluff quite often, and I liked a whole lot of it.

I have absolutely no idea what we’re supposed to do about all this, but it’s the reality we’re living with now.

And I’m trying to launch a new series.

Written by janeh

January 9th, 2011 at 8:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Readers

with 4 comments

So, I’ve been thinking.

One of the advantages–or drawbacks–about blogs like this is that they attract not just readers, but certain kinds of readers.

And because that’s the case, and more importantly because it’s the case that things like this do not attract other kinds of readers,  it’s easy for this kind of reader to think he or she is the only kind there is–or the most common kind there is.

Okay, confused yet?

If I was dependent on what I put on this blog to determine whether or not I could write in English, I’d be shuffled into an ESL course faster than you could sneeze.

Let me go back to Robert’s comment that the cozy as I defined it is not the cozy as readers define it, but the cozy as publishers define it.

He’s got that exactly backwards.

The cozy as defined in the 1977 volume of Murder Ink–and I don’t remember if that’s the one Dilys Winn did or the one Carol Brener did–was written by a New Yorker.  In fact, it was written by a Manhattanite with close ties to the publishing industry.

That definition is in fact what the publishers use when they label a mystery a “cozy.”

But that definition is not the one the vast bulk of the fans use.

If you don’t believe me, I’d suggest  you try a little experiment. Go look at what the Mystery Guild offers as cozies, and what Malice Domestic highlights as well.

What you’ll find is not Dilys Winn’s definition, but the one I gave–and that definition tends to be mightily enforced by fans who will not permit very much in the way of definition.

This is true when it comes to sex and bad language, but it is especially true when it comes to things like religion, politics, and anything considered serious or “controversial.”

And I’ve got the “fan” mail to prove it.

I’ve had mail from “fans” telling me that politics has no place in a novel–any novel, mind you, not just a mystery–and they’re never going to read anything else I ever write if that’s the kind of thing I write about.

Cozy readers are as close as I’ve seen to the category romance writers of the Eighties.  There’s a general tendency to assume that the readers own the writer–that the writer is sort of like the hired help whose only value is to make the readers happy, and the readers have the right to demand that the writer do whatever they want no matter what the writer herself may think is good or valuable in writing.

Before somebody goes completely off the deep end and starts railing about how that’s the point, the writer needs to write things the readers find interesting–that’s not what I’m talking about.

Certainly writers must write what at least some readers will find interesting and valuable.  But the usual thing is for the writer to write what she herself finds interesting and valuable and then to put it out there hoping to find like-minded people to read.

Sometimes the writer puts out something completely new, or something that’s going to end up being a minority taste, and doesn’t find many readers, at least at first.  Sometimes the writer puts out something that hooks into a vast collective subconscious and turns into Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code.

If the writer is smart, she tries to be as intelligible as the subject matter and the circumstances permit.  If the writer is good, she doesn’t spend page after page lecturing readers on the evils of gay sex or the glories of Communism. 

But for all of that, the writer does what the old advice says she ought to do–she writes what she wants to read. 

What was wanted in category romance in the 1980s, and what I see wanted by cozy fans today is something much different.  It is a demand that the writer abandon what she wants to read to write what readers what to read, even if the writer herself as no use for it.

More, it is the demand that nothing matter to the writer but the opinions of her readers–not her own sense of what makes writing good, or what would make a novel interesting. If she develops an interest in something the readers don’t want, she is not to write about it at all, ever.  If she develops a point of view–on politics, on religion, you name it–that is similarly disliked, she must never mention it.

And yes, there are plenty of writers who will put up with this kind of dictatorial attitude, and within the ghetto of category-whatever,  they will be very successful.  Someone who attempts to write within the category who does not acquiesce to this sort of thing does far worse–and since the category itself has a bad name among more general readers, she tends to do worse, period.

Let me try to clarify this a little.

My problem is not that some readers want particular things and won’t read what doesn’t give them those things.

My problem is with an attitude towards writers and writing that says a writer is not a person with values of her own, or a value of her own, but a five-and-dime machine whose only values lies in regurgitating whatever the fan base wants.  The fan base made the writer and it can take her down–and will, if she doesn’t toe the line.

Somebody brought up the idea that “cozy” is a term that matches “hard boiled” on the other side of the continuum of possible mystery stories.

And it sort of does, but it doesn’t.

Hard-boiled had one great advantage over the cozy in the development of the genre–the attitude on the part of its fans that its writers were Artists, and therefore had to be free to take their work in any direction they wanted.

This is not a small thing.  Contrary to the fashionable ideas now current in creative writing schools, not only because they have to pay the rent, but because writing is, and always will be, first and foremost a method of communication.  And communication isn’t communication unless it goes at least two ways.

For whatever it’s worth, hard boiled is not a subgenre that does very well these days.  A lot of it was too stylized and formulaic.  Hard boiled is, after all, the ultimate example of books that sell because readers like to identify with the protagonist, and that particular style of protagonist doesn’t seem to be what younger readers want these days.

Even so, much of what is published now as “crime fiction” has its roots in hard-boiled.   The violence, the grittiness, the illicit sex, the sense that the world is corrupt to the core–all that came out of hard boiled. 

What has come out of the “cozy” is nothing–or at least nothing that will acknowledge it has come out of the cozy.

The readers who made Christie a best seller aren’t reading cozies, these days.   They’re reading P.D. James and Elizabeth George and anything else that can be labeled something else so that they can be sure it doesn’t have that sickly-sweet, meretricious cutsieness that drives them totally crazy.

Publishers, in the meantime, see a solid core of “cozy” fans–not enough to turn anybody into a blockbuster, or even a best seller for very long, but a solid core–and jump to label as “cozy” anything that doesn’t have a serial killer or a private eye in it. 

Except that they’ll happily label even private eye novels as “cozies” if they’re in any way funny.

I don’t know.  I suppose it’s possible that there isn’t any market any more for the kind of thing I like–not a market big enough to justify a real publishing run–but I do know I’m not going to consult polls to decide what the McGuffin the next mystery ought to be.

And I’m really not going to bore myself with serial killers.

But as annoying and obtuse as the suits at publishing companies can be, they aren’t responsible for what has happened to the term “cozy.”

The fans are.

Written by janeh

January 8th, 2011 at 11:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What We Don’t Remember

with one comment

Okay. I’m going to try this for the second time today. With any luck it will work, instead of doing one of the seventeen million other things it’s been doing to me so far this morning.

And I know that I’ve been a little spotty lately, and not exactly fixated on one subject for very long, but it’s been a big start to the New Year.

And, given the way things are going, it’s probably about to get bigger. I have a child who may or may not be sick, or have a medical problem, or whatever–he won’t tell me, or won’t say the same thing twice, so I’ve just called the doctor for an appointment and figure it can get sorted out there.

And now this program won’t double space between paragraphs unless I make it. Which I suppose is better than what it was doing before, which was refusing to actually exhibit any of the letters I typed. The cursor would move, but no type would appear on the screen.

This, I can at least function with.

After all that–once I finished reading Rich, Radiant Slaughter, I went on to rereading Martha Grimes’s The Man With A Load of Mischief.  That’s another book I haven’t read again since 1988 or so. 

I don’t know what my mania is these days with rereading things from around the time I first started working on the first Gregor, but here I am.  And I’m doing a lot of it.

A few things about what I did and did not remember about The Man With The Load of Mischief.

The first thing is that I distinctly remember reading this book, and being sure, at the time, that the chief character was Melrose Plant.  There was also Richard Jury, who was a CID inspector, but I thought of him as the necessary professional-to-provide-cover-for-the-amateur that a lot of detective novels with amateur detectives use to make things seem more plausible.

I also remember, as the years went on, thinking that it was too bad that Grimes had given up on Plant in order to focus more on Richard Jury.   I liked Plant more than I liked Jury. 

Now that I’m almost finished with rereading it, though, it’s obvious that Jury was the main detective all the time.   Plant was one of the suspects–albeit the one who is declared almost at the beginning to have nearly a perfect alibi–but under no circumstances the focus of the majority of the book.

Then there’s the matter of the dead bodies–halfway through the book, we’ve got at least three of them.  A little farther on (and I do mean very little) we have five.

I take a lot of flak, even now, when my books have three dead bodies in them, never mind five, and never mind having the five in totally bizarre circumstances.

In fact, multiplying bodies and supplying them with bizarre circumstances are two of the big no-nos in writing detective fiction these days.   You can get away with it, sort of, if you’ve got a serial killer who is supposed to be butt-wild crazy.  In that case you blame the dressing up of bodies in purple superhero costumes or the draping of bodies over highway overpasses on abnormal psychology, and it doesn’t matter if any of it makes any sense.

To do this kind of thing in a traditional detective novel these days, and especially one set in villages with cutely-named pubs, it to brand your book a cozy.   And to brand your book a cozy is the kiss of death for any kind of serious attention from anybody, anyway.  You’ll certainly never win an Edgar.

I know we’ve been over this before, but I’ll go over it again, just in case:  a cozy is not just a book set in a village with an amateur detective.  It’s a lightweight, cutesy, giggle-funny (meaning, not really funny) silly little piece of fluff, in which there is never any gore, never any swearing, and never any religion, politics or other topic that might be considered “controversial” or “upsetting.”

Agatha Christie did not write cozies, even though every cozy writer on the planet claims she (and it’s almost always she) is trying to write just like Dame Agatha.   Christie was a lot of things, but cutesy-pie was never one of them.  She took a light hand to the world around her, but what she wrote about was the world around her, and not some made-up fantasy land where everybody talked like they were on a sitcom.

Which brings me, of course, back to a topic I’ve go over before, but that I can never shake out of my head.

What usually happens when you have somebody who writes good books but the books have the characteristics–set in a village or small town, for instance, not a lot of sex and gore–of what would otherwise be labeled “cozy” whether it was or not, is that it gets labeled something else.

The books of P.D. James, for instance, are usually called “police procedurals,” even though you couldn’t learn much about police procedure from them and the detection largely maintains the structure of a Poirot.

With Grimes, however, what has happened is nearly unprecedented–everybody seems to just pretend not to notice.

There is, in this book, much of what makes a cozy a cozy.  There’s the village thing.  There are the cutely named pubs.  There are the exaggerated characters.

And those characteristics carried over into a good number of the books that followed in the series.

As far as I can tell, people just decided to pretend it wasn’t all there. 

And, I think, they were right.  Not only the sheer excellence of the prose and the construction, but also the sensibility, which is not cutesy and not fake, means that these are not cozies as I have defined them here.

But what I want to know is this–what did it take to get the media, the reviewers, and all the rest, not to treat them as cozies, and therefore not sink them into the ghetto that is cozy-dom?

Because I could list a good dozen mystery writers whose books have been condemned to cozy-dom and whose careers have never really gone anywhere because they were labeled “cozies” when they were not. 

Which means that cozy readers bought a volume and hated it and never went back, and the kind of readers who would have liked the books never touched them because those readers can’t stand cozies.

I just wish I understood what made the difference–what made so many people, first reviewing these, not slap the label on Grimes, and instead not only take her seriously, but allow others to take her seriously?

Bleh.

It’s a good book.  If you’ve never read it, you should.  I haven’t given anything away.

I’m going to go see what’s going on with the chickens.

Written by janeh

January 7th, 2011 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

MeMeMeMeMeMeMeMeMe

with 4 comments

Well, not exactly.

But sort of.

I finished the Steiner book I was reading a couple of days ago, and that left me in one of those places where I had nothing to read.

Well, I had things to read, but I didn’t have anything I knew I wanted to read, and I didn’t know what I was up for, so…you get it.

Okay, some of you don’t.  Some of you never have problems finding something you want to read, and can’t imagine being that picky.  And I’m usually the same, but there are other times.

And this was one of those other times.

So what I ended up doing was finding a book I couldn’t walk past, which is normally a good thing.

It’s just that this time, the book I couldn’t walk past was called Rich, Radiant Slaughter.

And that, of course, is a book by me.

I’ve got to put in an explanation here.  Some writers read their own books as soon as they come out.  Some writers read their own books on and off over time.

I do neither.  I have, over the years, read bits and pieces of particular books, because I’m fond of them or because the writing of them stays with me. 

This includes the scene where Liz Toliver finally blows off Maris Coleman in Somebody Else’s Music and the scene where Mark finally wakes up from his caffeine-induced coma in The Headmaster’s Wife. 

I think, although I’m not entirely sure, that this has to do with passages that I found difficult to write and then thought I did well, and specific scenes where I think I may have hinted at things I didn’t go on with that I now think I can use.

I don’t really know what determines what I read after I write it.  I do know that I can’t read books right after they’re published, because I’ve just spent far too much time over far too long a period and the very idea of them makes me a little bit nauseated.

Rich, Radiant Slaughter is the fourth book in the short series I wrote before I became Jane Haddam for good, a not-very-briskly-selling collection of five books about a former romance writer named Patience Campbell McKenna and the murders she gets herself involved in.

The first one was called Sweet, Savage Death and it got my first–and last–decent review in the New York Times. Of course, that was in the days of the old Newgate Callendar mystery reviews. 

But that’s another story for another time, and an absolutely perfect example of why I am never going to be a blockbuster anything.

Maybe I’ll write my memoirs one day and have at it.

But let’s get back to Rich, Radiant Slaughter for a bit. 

First, a couple of general background notes.

I’ve never before read any of the books in this series at all–since the books first came out in the eighties, in both hardcover and paperback, I have never sat down and read through them.  Not even once.

I’ve never even done the dip and recheck thing, except on the first of them, and then I only did it to make sure my jokes had managed to get through the copyeditor.

I had an absolutely terrifying copyeditor on Sweet, Savage Death.  Here I was, with my first book, meant to be a humorous sort of quasi-cozy thing, like Charlotte MacLeod’s. 

Charlotte MacLeod was my big influence in those days, the writer I most wanted to be writing like.  If you like like and humorous mysteries, you might try her Rest Ye Merry and The Family Vault. 

I think it’s indicative of something that, coming out of seven straight years of graduate school, the books that seemed like a revelation to me, that I wanted to try to write something just like, were these. 

I think it must be some kind of proof positive that too much immersion in Serious Literature gives rise to something like diabetic sweets cravings.

Whatever.  They’re good books, among the best of the subgenre.  Have at it.

There’s something else, though, too. 

Even before I started reading Rich, Radiant Slaughter a couple of days ago, and even though I’d never reread either it or any other of the novels in the series before, I knew it wasn’t the best one in the list.

The best of those first five is definitely the last, Once and Always Murder.  Don’t ask me how I know.  I do know.

But as to Rich, Radiant Slaughter:

1) My writing, as writing, was a lot better back then than I remember it being.   I mean, a lot better.

I had the distinct impression of my work at that period as being choppy and thin.  I thought I tended to throw everything out there just sort f bald, with very little background or psychological understanding. 

That wasn’t the case, but a few other things were wrong, and they were biggies.

2) One of them was that I responded to working in first person–the books were all told from the point of view of Patience McKenna herself–by overcompensating for the natural difficulties of the form.

I told much too much about everybody’s background as far as Pay knew it, filled in details ad infinitum when they would have been better left to be teased out rationally here and there, trusted the reader to know absolutely nothing about anything and to be able to put together absolutely nothing from hints.

This included descriptions, which is a teeth-biting mistake to make.  I described both people and places in far too much detail, and so belaboredly individualistically that I pretty much cut off any reader’s need to imagine anything.

This means that the early chapters of the book are long for reasons they shouldn’t be, and contain huge blocks of type that are difficult to read when you don’t know what’s in them.

And that’s coming from somebody who is used to reading huge blocks of type.

It’s also very hard to hold onto all the details, or even to enough of them to distinguish each of the characters you need to remember to get anywhere with the story.

And that’s made worse by the fact that

3) I seem to have managed to get Series Disease by only the fourth book in a series.

I don’t even know how that’s possible.

In case you’re wondering, Series Disease is the tendency of series books to pick up stray continuing characters with really long, complicated backstories and convoluted relationships to the series main stars the longer a series goes on.

When you get a series as long as the Gregor Demarkian one, you know you’re going to have a lot of that.  Twenty five books will do that to you.

With Rich, Radiant Slaughter, however, the lives of my series characters were already so complicated it took up ten or more pages just to state the facts of them. 

Huge hunks of the book consist of nothing but explaining these relationships–not moving the peripheral stories along, but just sort of listing them.  And that caused another problem.

4) The book feels to me, reading it at this late date, as if it has no shape at all.

The first fifth of it concentrates far too much on those backstories and the present infinitessimal part of the movement in them.  The murder and the investigation feel like side issues until, all of a sudden, they’re not. 

The murder and its investigation go along tangled up in that peripheral story stuff, and then at the end they’re only partially fairly-clued. 

What’s more, there’s a first rate clue and a first rate murder method that I don’t put to any real use at all, and I don’t even explain the murder method–the necessity for it, why do it that way and not another–at the end of the novel.

5) There are whole swatches of parts of what should be the central plot–not only the murder but what led up to it–that just sort of get stated as existing rather than being played out on the page.

Okay, I sound like I hate the thing, but I didn’t.

It was actually a pleasant little book to read.  I’m not sure I would have noticed all these flaws as flaws if I hadn’t been reading to analyze and dissect in the first place.  The books must have had something to them, since there are still people out there who are devoted to them, and write to ask if I won’t be doing any more sometime soon.

I do think, though, that I will take away with me the idea that it might not be a good idea for me to write in the first person.  I haven’t done it in a long time, and I know a lot more as a writer than I used to, but I don’t seem to handle it well.

I also think that I never do know what I look like–there’s an author picture of me on the flap of this thing taken the year I married Bill, and I had no idea I looked like–well, ahem.

If you’re going to look like that, you should know you do, so you can enjoy it.

I also note that this was the book I wrote when I was pregnant with Matt.

Which may explain a lot, if not everything.

But I’ve started Martha Grimes’s The Man With A Load of Mischief, which I haven’t read since back then either.

And what can I say?

She did that better then than I did, and probably still does.

Written by janeh

January 5th, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Nutshell

with 6 comments

Okay, I don’t know what that means.

It’s January 2nd, which is Matt’s birthday.  And January 1st would have been my wedding anniversary if Bill were still alive.  I still think of it as my wedding anniversary.

Then, a couple of days before the New Year, two good friends of mine who have been married more than most married people for at least the last thirteen years actually got formally married.   Most of us knew they were going to do it and were planning all sorts of nefarious mischief for the actual wedding, but they eloped, so we were stuck.

That was, though, good news–and in fact, most things at the moment are good news, with the exception of my mother’s oddly fluctuating medical condition, which I don’t understand and nobody is really willing to explain to me.

So the question becomes why, at this stage, I’ve become so increasingly annoyed with everything.

I’m not unhappy.  In fact, quite the contrary. 

I once said on this blog that I’d accomplished pretty much everything I’d set out to accomplish when I was young, and that’s true.  And I appreciate it.

It’s just that lately I feel like I’ve been treading water forever.

And that has resulted in some very odd things.

For one:  I’ve got the most incredible letch to watch the first three Star Wars movies in order, all in one day, just put them on in the morning and let them go.

I know, I know.  Star Wars isn’t even real science fiction.  It’s barely decent space opera.  There aren’t any ideas in it that you can trace from A to B. 

Yeah, but.  It fits my mood.  It really fits my mood.

Needless to say, said mood makes the boys absolutely overjoyed, but that’s something else.

Then there’s the situation with reading.  I usually read fairly rapidly, although less so than when I was younger.  Some of that is probably getting old, but some of that is certainly that I’m paying more attention.

So, here I am, still on Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

I’m nearly at the end, but–I’m still on it.

And a lot of the reason I’m still on it is that I’m having trouble making myself read it.

And I’m having trouble making myself read it because there’s a little drumbeat at the back of my head going:  yeah, okay, Dostoyevski on the Christian roots of man’s cosmic destiny and Tolstoy on the locating of the Kingdom of heaven on earth and–for Heaven’s sake, can’t everybody just lighten up a little?

I mean, really, do we have to think about destiny all the time?

Do we have to think about it ever?

I’ve got Toby Keith music running through my head.  I keep surfing through Realtor.com for houses in places I’ve never been, never mind thought of maybe wanting to move to before.  House feels too serious for me.   I joke about wanting to run away from home, but I wonder if it’s all that much of a joke anymore.

But here’s the thing–I don’t have a plan, and I don’t have a goal.  I’ve made several major changes over the course of my life, but I made them all deliberately. 

I always knew where I thought I was going as well as knowing what I was getting away from. 

These days I just grumble to myself to no good purpose.

Which probably means this is a transitory mood of some kind or the other. 

Some of it is simply that plans I’d made in the past didn’t work out, so places I thought I was going to be aren’t the places I’m at.

There’s a sentence for you.  It’s a good thing they don’t have grammar and syntax police.

But even the places I’d intended to be weren’t places I wanted for myself–they were plans about how to arrange my life to suit the boys, and the boys had other plans.

It’s getting serious, though, when I can’t read George Steiner.

Here’s something else–I’m sick to death of the country.

I never liked it much to begin with, but I’ve gotten to the point that it’s not only the wild turkeys I wish I could blow off the lawn. 

And yeah, I know, I’d have to have a gun–but I still don’t like guns, so that hasn’t changed.

So I’m just whiny.

But what I really, really, really want for Christmas–or Solstice, or New Year’s, or whatever–

–is something else.

Written by janeh

January 2nd, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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