Hildegarde

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Readers

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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

4 Responses to 'Readers'

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  1. Oh, my, it’s not just writers who get this.

    Remember the grand Dixie Chicks dustup a few years ago? During a concert shortly before the start of the Iran war, the lead singer Natalie Maines, stood up and made some politically unpopular remarks to her audience. These were her personal feelings on the matter. Free speech, in other words.

    Her fans, and I use that word advisedly, went ape-shit. There was a huge controversy, all sorts of debates over whether one should expect that having paid for tickets to an event, one should then be able to expect that the performer wouldn’t put forth their own political opinions, especially if said opinion differed from the ticket-purchaser’s own. I suspect that agreeable political statements would be okay. The general opinion seemed to be that singers ought to just shut up and sing. They existed to make the fans happy, not to have opinions.

    The group’s ticket sales bottomed out. Their album saies fell precipitously. Airplay of their previously popular songs went away. They got actual death threats.

    So it’s not just writers who are considered the property, the servants, and/or the “employees” of the fans.

    At least you haven’t gotten death threats for incorporating political opinions in your work. Or have you?

    Lymaree

    8 Jan 11 at 1:35 pm

  2. Hedging somewhat. I was using the Dilys Winn, but–I hope!–I said the terms wers so used, and not so defined. (Neither “cozy” nor “hard-boiled” is in the index, and re-reading the book is not on the agenda for today.)
    “Vast bulk of the fans” is hard to measure, as opposed to “loudest” or “most prone to write and complain.” I have never written a novelist to complain about a book, and not because I was always pleased. Certainly there are readers with a very precise set of expectations, like those who don’t think a story is really SF if John Campbell wouldn’t have accepted it for ANALOG. I’d say if you have enough people to be a decent market who read “cozies” but would be disappointed with a new Christie Miss Marple, then we need to refine the vocabulary.

    I was never under the impression that hard-boiled writers were more or less artists than any other kind of fiction writer, but no type will last which confuses trappings with story. If I can expand on my previous comment, I think you’re headed for trouble when a creative person turns out something he or she doesn’t really like, hoping someone else WILL like it. I don’t have any moral qualm with the hypocrisy: I have a practical concern based on experience that you don’t get good work that way. If a particular set of trappings is popular because real artists used it in good stories, you can move a lot of junk for a time–but the bubble bursts spectacularly.

    Sex, politics and other distractions: I have a 90-year old aunt who kicked back a Demarkian as a dirty book. I’m still looking.
    As for politics, we have two different problems. One is fortune and glory. If you give someone enough popularity, you give them a megaphone, and you don’t have to keep doing so. The Chicks went on stage overseas and brought their domestic politics with them. They were indeed constitutionally entitled to do so, but the fans had every right to trash their CDs and buy no more. “Free speech” doesn’t mean “speech should have no consequences.”
    The other problem is more serious, because it affects the art. If a writer is any good at all, the story will reflect what the writer believes to be true about people, and about the society he describes. These things have policy consequences. It is in that sense “poliitcal” for Jane Austen to write six novels in which middle class women cannot work outside the home, may have the family money entailed away from them and so may have to marry a Mr. Collins, or become the mistress of a Mr. Eliot. But Austen has merely described something “unversally acknowledged” to be true, and left the reader to think what–if anything–ought to be done about it. It would be quite another thing to insert passages from the VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN as narration or dialogue in the novel, or to write a political tract with novel trimmings, like CANDIDE, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN or FIVE NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM. No one cares to be hectored by a novelist, and such things are rarely good art.

    Tell a story which feels true and is interesting, and let the politics fall out as they will.

    robert_piepenbrink

    8 Jan 11 at 3:16 pm

  3. Robert, I agree that fans have a right not to patronize artists for any reason, but I think that being told to “shut up and sing”, threats of violence, and death threats are a bit too much in the reaction department.

    I tend to read books, cozy or not, that have good writing, period. Even if I’ve gotten comfortable with a series, I’m perfectly capable of becoming disillusioned, then actively disgusted, and not reading any further works by that author, if they descend into either terminal cutesyness, bone-headed “don’t go there alone you moron” stupidity repeatedly, or massive senseless gore and cruelty.

    Or if they commit writer’s hubris and can their editors, a la Patricia Cornwell. I agree with Robert that including political speech as such, whether put into the mouths of characters or not, tends to destroy that “good writing” criteria I insist on. Once Patsy got rid of her editor, all her foibles were revealed, and no longer removed by wiser blue pencils. She might as well be writing recipe cozies. ;)

    Lymaree

    9 Jan 11 at 1:10 am

  4. I would agree that death threats are beyond the Pale, but Lymaree’s right about “writer’s hubris,” even though I don’t think you can commit hubris.

    It’s not just writers, either. I can think of one favorite actor who tossed the director who wouldn’t let him drink on set and two lead singers in groups who decided they were above the group. Pretty much the end of all three.

    Among authors, Cornwell has company. Think of the later “Spenser” novels–or the later Heinleins, Bradleys and even Pratchetts. Sir Terry still turns out the good stuff sometimes, but I’ve got two Discworlds of the past five I’ll never read all the way through, and one I barely finished, which would have been inconceivable ten years ago.

    Success has killed more artists than the assassins ever reached.

    robert_piepenbrink

    9 Jan 11 at 8:03 am

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