Barb here, sitting on her front porch in Maine and writing on an flawless summer day
Back in February, I started a series of posts about how I came to terms with being a cozy writer. The first one talked about why this designation was an issue for me in the first place. The second, in March, was about how I came to be comfortable as a person with an identity as a cozy author.
Then life intervened. In April-May-June I was hit successively with Crime Bake website deadline-knee crisis-book deadline. But, though as a person I have many, many flaws, I am, at the end of the day (and usually literally at the end of the day), a completer. So herewith is Part III.
So when we left our intrepid heroine, she was happy to be writing a cozy series and comfortable adopting the image of a cozy author. Only one small issue remained.
Yes, I am going to say it.
Cozy mysteries often get no respect.
(She said it!)
There are a few reasons for this.
One is, there’s a bit of a hierarchy in fiction writing, and it looks something like this.
- The literary fiction writers look down on the mystery writers
- The mystery writers look down on the romance writers
- The romance writers look down on the poets
- The poets look down on the literary fiction writers
- (cycle starts again)
Of course this is a weird, crazy exaggeration, but you know it’s there, right? And if I were more clever, I could probably fit lots more genres–horror, fantasy, YA, westerns, etc.–into the hierarchy. I remember vividly being at the Key West Literary Seminar and hearing just about every top name in the crime fiction world asked some version of the question, “So did you ever want to write a real book?” (My imperfect memory is that only Benjamin Black–who as John Banville is a renowned literary writer–and Joyce Carol Oates escaped this question.)
So there’s that.
There’s also a weird hierarchy within the crime fiction realm. It’s not as clear, but for sure “literary” crime fiction is at the top, followed by thrillers, traditional mysteries, noir, procedurals and suspense (in some order or another), with romantic suspense and finally cozies at the bottom.
So the question for me was not, can a mystery be good literature? [As pondered by so many, like Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, January 20, 1945), Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) or even Dorothy L. Sayers in her Introduction to the 1928-1929 Omnibus of Crime.] That’s another discussion for another day.
The question was, can a cozy be good crime fiction?
Was it a reasonable question? I think it was. After all, a cozy has never won an Edgar® Award for Best Novel and most cozy writers believe one never will. So why would I want to work this hard at something a whole lot of people–to be clear, people whom I like and respect as writers–think can never be “good?”
Let’s take this apart. To do so, first we have to agree on what a cozy is. The most common definition I’ve seen is that a cozy is a mystery, usually, but not always, featuring an amateur sleuth. The cozy will offer a crime, usually a murder, and a solution, usually the identification of the guilty party and bringing of that guilty party to justice. The reader will meet the guilty party and all the suspects in the course of the book. The mystery will be anchored in a community, and the sleuth, suspects and guilty party will be a part of the community in some way -ie not just there to murder or to uncover a murderer.
Aside from the amateur sleuth bias, and perhaps a bit more emphasis on setting, I’ve just defined a traditional mystery. And no one would argue that a traditional mystery can’t be “good” or even “literary.” (Okay, a lot of people would argue that, including the aforementioned Wilson, Chandler and Sayres, but again, this is not about that. The point is, there’s no reason within our genre, cozy mysteries can’t be good.)
To that definition, many people append, “In a cozy mystery, cursing is kept to a minimum and most sex and gore are kept ‘off the page.'”
I personally chafe at this definition. But not because I have the slightest interest in writing something very gory or explicitly sexual. I don’t wander to my desk in the morning thinking, “Drat! Another day of not torturing children. I feel so restricted.” Because, believe me, I don’t. I just hate it that my subgenre is defined by so many people by what’s NOT in it. If what were important is what’s not in it, I could hand 350 blank pages in to my publisher and be done with it.
Is that final restriction why cozy mysteries can’t be “good?”
After all, if cozy authors deal with murder at such a remove that we can’t describe the horror or the sorrow, and can’t evince those emotions in our audience, then can we really be writing something “good?” I would argue we can, because I have seen many cozy authors very skillfully evoke the horror of unexpected, violent death by focusing on the reactions and emotions of the characters, rather than the blood and the guts. If anything, I think that’s harder and requires more skill.
So that’s not a reason a cozy mystery can’t be “good.”
Is it that cozies can’t be good because there is too much formula required? I don’t think so. Most crime fiction has to contend on some level with audience expectations as to form. As does most prose fiction. As did Shakespeare in his comedies, histories, tragedies and sonnets.
Nope, audience expectations don’t mean cozies can’t be good.
Is it that cozies usually deal with the small and domestic? Can a book that ignores the vast sweep of history or the maelstrom of current events or the conundrum of the human condition be “good?”
Well, first of all, most cozies don’t ignore those things. Almost all take place in a certain place at a certain time. While they might look at human issues from the inside out, or from specific to the general, instead of the other way around, that doesn’t mean they ignore them.
But also, lots of people have written lots of great, great literary fiction about the domestic realm. In fact, making big events real by showing the way they affect specific people is one of the hallmarks of great fiction writing.
So that’s not the reason cozies can’t be good.
So now let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Both of the subgenres at the bottom of the “respect” heap in crime fiction-romantic suspense and cozies– are primarily written by women for women. Is that why cozies can’t be good?
That is, of course, ridiculous. Or I wish it were.
For me, the best books transport me. They take me to a place outside of myself. When that happens, my problems, petty and serious, recede for a time, and the lives of others, the lives of characters, become primary. I learn about professions, human communities and places I can’t learn about from my friends. And I care what happens to the characters.
This is what I think of as the four Es of reading fiction–escape, entertainment, education and empathy.
You don’t need all four in every book, but you probably need three for a book to be satisfying. Or I do. I also need a level of complexity of prose, structure, plot and character to engage me. I can’t be transported if any of those elements are so simply rendered that I can still mentally balance my check book while reading.
That’s my definition of a good book. Is there anything in my personal definition of a good book that says cozies can’t be good? Nope, not seeing it.
So that’s how I got comfortable with spending my time, blood, sweat, and tears writing cozies. And that’s why I say it loud and proud whenever people ask me what I write. Because there is no reason on earth someone can’t write a cozy that is also a good book.
John T. Irwin described literary mysteries as ones you can re-read and get something new out of each time, even though you know the solution. Do you think that could ever happen with a cozy?
I know I haven’t achieved it, but the fact that it is “out there” means there is something to aspire to.
Readers, have at it. Do you think cozies can be “good” books? Why can’t they get any respect? Does it matter? Does it matter to you?