Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Escape Routes

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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

2 Responses to 'Escape Routes'

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  1. Hmmm. The “no politics, no religion” thing still seems to me more like a demand for concensus. Let’s see if I can do this right. These villages have government. They have laws and police and jails. And if you have government, you have politics. They even have (pretty much) our local government, with officials concerned about popular sentiment and police and courts acting within fairly strict limits. It’s not anarchy. It isn’t even really different politics, but you can get through the book without arguing Supreme Court decisions or the ability of recent Presidents. Same thing with religion–a fairly tight band of behavior between, say, very ecumenical Catholic and mainstream Protestant. No honor killings. No sacrifices to Odin. I used to live in that world, but I agree the novels which endure tend to put more stress on their characters. The best which can be produced within these limits would be a good Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes. The average would be lower.

    Publishers. The times I see publishers tying themselves up in knots, it’s in an effort to demonstrate that this piece of hackwork, produced over a three-day weekend, is just the same as the best-selling masterpiece which resulted from ten years’ work, and should appeal to the same readers. ‘See! It says “In The Tradition Of” or “By The Author Of.” We even used the same cover artist! What more proof could you want?’ For every book publishers mislabel by vocabulary shortage or accident, they’ll do a dozen on purpose. I understand the need for publishers, as I do bankers and insurance companies, but I don’t accord them much prestige until they’ve individually earned it.

    Good luck with the new series.


    9 Jan 11 at 11:13 am

  2. I think I’m vaguely beginning to see what Jane means here. A few concrete examples…the Maggody series by Joan Hess. Definitely cozies. Nobody dies in front of anyone. Bodies are found the next day, if not the next week. Dramatic conclusions tend to come with chases through the woods and falling over a cliff, rather than bullets or uppercuts.

    It’s a small fantasy-type town and yes, there are fantasy small-town politic, mockable small-town religion, and a very funny cast of incestuously related characters. I actually like these books, they’re amusing. But the murders never actually…hurt anyone, if that makes any sense. Even the nearest and dearest don’t seem to suffer very much, somehow they seem to end up better off in the end.

    There’s very little *reality* to anything here. Nothing is felt very deeply, and I suspect that may be getting closer to the true definition of a cozy than anything else. Contrast that with a Karin Slaughter, or Tess Gerritson or even Marcia Muller. Deep human emotions are evoked, whether about murder or psychosis, or religion or politics. People *feel* in these books, feel loss, rage, lust, obsession. Depending on the author, the reader gets closer to it than is sometimes comfortable.

    In a cozy, about the most intense emotion going is righteous indignation, usually aimed at the stupid police who insist on suspecting the wrong person, according to the “detective” du jour. Murder may be motivated by lust or greed or whatever, but you’ll never actually get a gripping description of those, you’ll get a bare sentence…telling, not showing, in other words. You can read about it without experiencing it, where with the authors cited above, you live the emotions. At least, I do.

    I think *that* may be what people read to “escape.” The intensity of emotion that fills real stories. They don’t want to be disturbed by anything resembling the conflict and chaos of real life. I’ve finished Karin Slaughter books and felt like I’m emerging from a ice-cold bath, because of the intensity of the emotion she works up. Of course, killing off major characters can do that. But even without that, she will make you feel things, sometimes very bad things.

    That lack of intense reality may be what cozy readers crave. A fluffy, insulating blanket of fuzz over harshness, everything unpleasant held at a distance. The squawks of protest come when the author neglects to maintain that envelope of protection for the reader and dumps them into the Icy Bath of Reality.

    Some people can read very vital stories about people, but refuse to read about animals in jeopardy. Or children endangered. Others can’t handle anything real. They’re the ones seeking out cozies.

    Perhaps they feel that since Jane doesn’t do hand-to-hand combat and murders are substantially done out of sight, she ought to follow on and do the rest of the cozy cocoon. Well, ptooi on them. That way lies recipes.


    9 Jan 11 at 3:47 pm

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