Sunday, April 29, 2007

Culture, Contemporary Nomad and The Reason I Can’t Stomach Cozies

Kevin Wignall has opened the discussion on how culture influences book sales, in a manner of speaking. This has prompted me to post today, and I’m going to speak candidly about crime fiction and my personal view about cozies.

I won’t steal Kevin’s thunder – please do read his blog post for yourself. I am simply acknowledging that he set this in motion. Discussions of whether Americans will read works set outside the US aren’t new. This is a topic that’s come up on DorothyL, and there are quite a number of vocal readers who dislike the ‘Americanizing’ of British books. As I mentioned in the comments there, I referred to my current read, Steve Mosby’s The 50/50 Killer on DorothyL and immediately received emails from people asking if it was available in the US. Unfortunately, not at this time, as Steve hasn’t been picked up by a US publisher yet. It’s a damn shame – I read quite a bit yesterday and am loving it. No overdone cultural references that confuse either. No reason at all this book can’t do well outside the UK. Fortunately, there’s been great buzz in Italy and Germany around the book, so the international deals have been forthcoming.

But I digress. It’s just one example of why I’m sometimes glad to be Canadian. As a reader we usually get the best of both worlds. Steve is with one of my favourite publishers in the UK, ORION, so his books are available in Canada. Of course, they also publish God, so I get the books on a UK release schedule and unamericanized, which is how I like them. I love ORION.

We also get most American authors through their US publishers, so again, we get them on their initial release schedules. In Canada we seldom wait for anything.

Except recognition of our own, that is. The standard advice to Canadian authors is that if you want to get published, set your work south of the border. This is exceptionally frustrating. At a time when people praise authors who use the setting as a character why should we automatically be forced to move our work? For some authors this isn’t an issue. I maintain I have no problem setting my work in the US, if I choose. And that’s the key. I just don’t want to be forced to move it. Sorry to say, but if I’m going to move it I’d be more inclined to move it overseas. I have lived in Europe. I have never lived in the US, and I did make a mistake about Connecticut in SC, despite having the manuscript vetted by three Americans in the business and having an American editor – it took a Connecticut reader to catch it. However, it undermines my confidence, because I had done some research and found references that prompted me to make the change. Something I thought I was correcting turned out to be a mistake. It’s a minor point, but nevertheless, that’s the risk of setting work outside your country.

The Canadian publishing industry is such that agents aren’t as keen about selling works to publishers here. They want the US/UK sales, and who can blame them? They want to make money and that will prompt certain choices. Canadian author Rick Mofina sets work in the US, while Peter Robinson sets his work in the UK (and some debate whether he’s really ‘Canadian’ but that’s a whole other topic).

However, the tide may be turning. Giles Blunt fictionalizes North Bay, Ontario. I won’t digress with North Bay jokes, but I could. This is, in Canadian terms, but a stone’s throw from where I grew up and I’m familiar with the area. We have John McFetridge writing about an engagingly seedy, sleazy Toronto and he’s actually prompted affection on my part for the city. (And as someone raised in Muskoka, I’m not too fond of Toronto, but I will follow John to the city readily - I’ve already read book 2, which won’t be out until next year.)

And who can discount the popularity of Louise Penny? Now, I will be getting back to Louise Penny, so we’ll hold that thought.

I do not particularly care if a book is set in London or Las Vegas, Manchester or Montreal. I admit to being a bit bored with the same old, same old of using NYC and LA as settings, but I am not boycotting books from any location. I just admit that if two books sound great and I was trying to decide between them, if all else was equal in terms of interest and one was set in LA and the other was set in Minneapolis, it is the latter that would come home with me. If the author does their job I will have no difficulty with the book because of setting. Perhaps this is all unfair of me, because as Canadians we accept that almost everything put our way will be set outside our borders. I do know writers here who, after multiple rejections because their work was set in Canada, stopped reading American authors. I do not think that is a solution to the problem. I actually think there are a lot of open-minded readers everywhere in the world, just as there are a lot of narrow-minded readers everywhere in the world. Giles and John prove to me that Canada can sell…

And then there’s Louise Penny.

As I have stated before and elsewhere, the reason I read crime fiction is primarily because it matters. Every life is touched by crime, whether people acknowledge it or not. We pay taxes that are used to provide police and emergency services. We pay higher insurance premiums because of theft/arson/fraud. There are those who willingly turn a blind eye to this, but a crime is like a boulder dropped in a pond. The ripples from that might capsize a boat that’s close by, or only rock a distant canoe, but they touch everyone in the water. And we are part of our society together. There is no such thing as a closed system. Those who would shut themselves off find themselves dealing with the government at least, on some levels. I realize that friends I respect and appreciate hold different views, but this was what I loved about the movie Crash. The cause-and-effect, how the actions of one spread out and interconnected and affected others. We may never see those our lives touch, but our lives do touch others, for better or worse. And, in terms of crime, it’s usually for worse.

In the April 2006 issue of Crime Files there is a write-up titled Croissants, Christie and Café Au Lai. Louise Penny talks about what she wanted to accomplish with her debut, STILL LIFE.

“As an adult, when the world did something wrong, I’d retreat to my bedroom and crawl back into those well-loved and well-read cosies. Where murder and crumpets co-habit. Where people ‘toddle’ and eyes ‘twinkle’. It was a kindly world. STILL LIFE was born from a desire to create a modern cosy-crime novel, a marriage of the world that exists now and that idyllic village where people discuss murder over a nice café au lait and croissant at Olivier’s Bistro.”

Where murder and crumpets co-habit? I mean no disrespect to Louise Penny in what I’m about to say. She is entitled to her view, cozy readers are entitled to their reading choices.

But Louise did make me cry. I read that and felt so… dismissed.

I have talked candidly about being assaulted as a teenager and the havoc it wrought in my life. I have danced around the sexual assault and never really disclosed details on it, and don’t plan to. I’m open about the reality of it, but who needs to know more?

There are things I can tell you about my personal experience with crime, though. In the aftermath I didn’t have tea and talk about my feelings. I went to my room and screamed into my pillow and cried. I was afraid to go outside for months, always afraid something else would happen (and as there were ongoing problems this was a reasonable fear). I retreated from the world on multiple levels. The summer after I was attacked I had a job and the owner was a real jerk. I mean, a serious jerk. He physically dragged me across the kitchen by my wrists. I walked out and never went back to work there. (Well, that did happen on my last day...) I wasn’t murdered but I know what it is to feel as though a darkness from inside is opening up and threatening to swallow you whole, because you aren’t sure you have the courage to live, never mind enjoy life.

I watched a girl I knew go from a vibrant, beautiful person to a shell after she was raped. You all know what I’m talking about. Once there was a light shining in her eyes and so much joy and enthusiasm… a passion and zest for life others warmed to. And then you’d swear her soul had been ripped out of her. The eyes were hollow, empty, the smile gone.

I’ve worked home removals over sexual assaults and abuse and nobody ever goes and talks about it over tea and crumpets. That’s not the real world. It’s not the world I live in. And as someone who has walked both sides of the line (and I certainly know a lot of people who have endured far worse than I have when it comes to being a victim) I feel as though my pain, and that of every other living victim out there, has been belittled. I understand that it’s fiction, just not anything that appeals to me at all. Others have the right to like it, but I can’t stomach it. It makes crime seem so… trivial and unimportant. Like it happens, oh well, good it wasn’t me and would you like cream and sugar with that?

When I read I want to believe in these characters as real people and feel I can relate to them. Perhaps in connecting with them, I can understand more about myself. As a writer I am pushing myself for this, more and more. Does that mean everything I write will be some profound, introspective journey? No, not at all. But the people need to be real people I can believe would exist in the real world.

The books that speak to me are the ones that usually cut me to the heart. There is something about the people in them that I connect with, and I share their pain. The profound sense of loss in The Touch of Ghosts. The similar feeling from reading To The Power of Three.

This book broke my heart.

There is nothing cozy about the repercussions of crime.

When people are trivial about crime, when they gloss over the very real pain and suffering it brings in the lives of victims, they’ve lost me. And they’ve wounded me personally. I will tell you a little story.

Years ago I worked at a Bible school. The schools are international, and were started by one man and his wife after WWII, which gives you some idea of their age. These are the leaders of the international organization, which I do not wish to identify here, so I will refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. Q. I had the opportunity to have Mrs. Q for lunch once. She’s a lovely, sweet lady, but in the course of our discussion I opened up about some serious things going on in my life. She was polite and listened.

I saw her a few months later. She asked me, “Have you resolved your little faith problem?”

I’m not sure anyone has ever said anything more condescending to me, but I have the same gut reaction reading about talking about murder over tea and crumpets. How I feel is dismissed.

We have moved far from the original topic of discussion, but that’s how my mind works. One tangent leads to another.

At the end of the day what’s important about a book, for me, is not where it is set. It’s not whether the protagonist is a man or a woman. It’s not even if the protagonist is a cop, a PI or a hitman. I have some preferences, we all do, but I’ve pushed myself to read from a wider pool and found that what really matters is whether or not I actually give a damn about the characters, can I connect to them? Do they tell me anything of what it is to be human?

I do not read for escapism usually. I do not just read to be entertained. Being entertained is part of it.

But more than anything, I read to be engaged. There should be some emotional response – laughter when appropriate and at other times tears.

I think the very worst thing that can be said about a book is not that it was set in Canada or Greenland or on Mars, but that at the end it was entirely forgettable. A great book should linger on the senses. Give me not just work from one country – give me someone I can give a damn about.

(On a side note, Kevin Wignall really must be stopped. His blog posts invariably get me thinking, and it leads to a series of thoughts that ultimately must come out of my head, or they’ll drive me mad. I may have to wean myself from that blog for a few weeks so that I can get work done!)


Evil Kev said...

I have a issue with cozies, but for a different reason. My entire experience with mystery and thrillers was colored by television. All I ever saw was sanitized stories with quaint little houses or quirky detectives or historical mysteries which made felt the genre was pure escapism. I would walk though a bookstore and see hundreds of books by authors I never heard of or series such as "Murder She Wrote" novels and that was it, I was out of there.

It was my lovely wife who introduced me to a new world with authors such as Bruen, who in turn introduced me to authors like Ray Banks and Charlie Huston. Now some people say I should have sought out these authors but I say back: Where would I have looked? The most power book champion in North America, Oprah, stays mostly to feel good light weight faire or classic literature.

If no one I know reads these authors and don't have access to communities like CrimeSpace, I will never heard about them. The barrier to access with network TV is very low. Just turn it on and flip channels. Shows like "The Wire" introduced me to the work of Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos, but they are restricted to pay TV.

The solution is hard to find. The cozy world view keeps so much excellent fiction marginalized which books such as "The five people you meet in heaven" are shoved into your face everywhere you look.

I think if every true mystery fan became an evangelist for the works they love, we would see a lot more of it on TV and movies. And they would be afraid to do it wrong, cause the fans would come after them.

Randy Johnson said...

Enjoyed the post. I've always enjoyed books from other countries. Being from North Carolina, I'm immediately dismissed as a redneck in some circles(especially in the US). As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I spoke with Ian Rankin on a call-in radio program. I like the Rebus novels because they give me a slice of life other than my own. I had a friend years ago that would not read a book or watch a movie that was not set in the US. I never understood that. I buy books every now and then from so that I can learn about other places. I think I'll have to check out Steve Mosby's books. Thanks for the heads up.

Christa M. Miller said...

Sandra, I wholeheartedly agree. I don't think Agatha Christie ever would've agreed with Ms. Penny. On the surface her books were cozy, but all 7 of the deadly sins lurked beneath her plots, and came out in her characters. She just wrote about it in what her readers could stomach at the time, IMO.

And I totally hear you about being dismissed, not being allowed your own feelings. People like Mrs. Q. and Ms. Penny would seem to be uncomfortable with others' feelings... perhaps they relate more to a time when people shared their feelings with only closest family and friends, but they come across as insensitive to those who reach out - to them personally, or through fiction. It is a dangerous place to be in - lose touch with the people who make up society, and you lose the ability to communicate.

And Kevin, we've actually been able to catch "The Wire" on Black Entertainment Television - part of basic cable for us.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, my evil husband, we know me to be an evangelist for what I love, and maybe a bit too passionately so, to the point of turning people off. But I take your point - much of what is out there is sanitized. As we both know, we've yet to find Ray Banks or Al Guthrie stocked in bookstores locally.

Randy, I remember you from that recent Rankin post. It's interesting what you say about the stereotype, even to fellow Americans. We have similar stereotypes in parts of Canada. In fact, I think Alberta is alleged to be 98% redneck and gun-toting. Maybe not far off on gun-toting...

I love your attitude about the books. I think everyone here knows what a fan of the Rebus series I am, and that it was Rankin who converted me to crime fiction. For me, I'll consider anything that catches my interest. In addition to Steve Mosby, I think you might enjoy Stuart MacBride, who sets his work in Aberdeen. He's got a wicked sense of humour, and is published by St. Martin's in the US. Best not get me started on my recommendations - Ken Bruen, Val McDermid, Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham...

There are people who like to stay in their comfort zone. I think some might be surprised at the fact that I took culture/location discussion and moved it to cozies, but it goes to the same point: Don't upset me. Don't confront me with anything that will make me think or pull me out of my safe world. There's a part of me that can understand that, but I wish some people understood how amazing it is to experience the world. Had I remained a frightened kid who was scared of people I wouldn't have gone to Europe and experienced everything I did there. I've been to something like 26 countries over 4 continents. Seen the Berlin Wall come down, watched the sun rise over the Sahara, ridden elephants in the jungle in Indonesia... Books are such a safe way to experience a different world. One of the authors high on my list to read is Olen Steinhauer.

Anyway, you do prove the point - as I've said in the comments over at Contemporary Nomad, I do know a lot of Americans don't like their books 'Americanized' and enjoy books set outside their country. You're the audience the publishers need to hear from more.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh Christa, lucky you re: The Wire. We have satellite, just so we can watch it - we get it on Movie Central.

And I like your points about Agatha Christie as well. I would agree. Louise Penny may feel I misrepresented her meaning but that one page write-up contains only four paragraphs, and I quoted the middle two. The last one reads:

"Chief Inspector Gamache, of the Surete de Quebec, needed to be someone I'd invite into my home; the residents of Three Pines needed to be people I'd choose as friends. STILL LIFE is about fear and emotions, buried and rancid. But more than anything else, STILL LIFE is about goodness."

A murder story that is, more than anything else, about goodness. Maybe the killer finds Jesus and the whole town has a group hug? There's no town in the world where every person there would be my friend. In fact, the more I think about this the more it reminds me of a lot of church people I know who can't watch the news because they don't want to face reality.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"Maybe the killer finds Jesus and the whole town has a group hug?"

Just what are you saying? That's exactly the kind of fiction I write.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And that would be why we call you Reverend Bagley, the man who spreads joy and happiness to all mankind the other 364 days of the year.

angie said...

I don't mind cozies...I just can't read them. Okay, I admit that I read all the Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers books when I was a kid, and I'll still pick up Rex Stout (though Nero Wolf doesn't neatly fit the cozy appellation). I've tried to read modern cozies, but they just don't do it for me. Too many recipes, talking cats, dog breeders, cat fanciers, herbalists, etc., lead to a quirk factor that way overshadows the violent taking of another life. And I can't tolerate that.

I do understand why some people like them, though. It's a chance to "play detective" with the aforementioned quirky characters and look at relationships and everyday(ish) life mixing in with a bit of tension. There are times when I have to take a break from the dark, so I get the escapism thing. When that hits, I'll pick up a Neil Gaiman or re-read a Tom Robbins novel. But yeah, I just can't do cozies.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I've read Agatha Christie, many years ago, and I'm with you Angie. I discount it as being a gentler time. I also understand a bit of escapism every now and again, but I don't read cozies. In fact, the average cozy will have me cured inside of 50 pages. Not everything I read is so very brutal. Carla Banks, for example. Bruen tempers the black with a keen sense of humour. The tendency to have "a quirk factor that way overshadows the violent taking of another life" as you said, sums it up brilliantly for me. Cutesy. And there's nothing cutesy about crime and how it destroys people. But then, I've always considered myself a realist, and fully indulging in escapism isn't my thing. That doesn't mean some amateur sleuth/humourous offerings don't appeal to me. But the sentiments expressed for what inspired the mentioned book are ones I not only can't comprehend, but am hurt by, as I've said.

pattinase (abbott) said...

There are writers who want to critique the world around them and ones who want to create or reinvent a world where this stuff isn't happening.
Both have their place certainly, but I would say the former is what I prefer to read (and write.
Fiction has to be more than escapism.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well said Patti. Very well said.

Trace said...

I agree with you Sandra. I can't read cozies either. The closest I come to cozies is Janet Evanovich. My reasons are the same as your's. Just can't relate.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think we need to take over the Canadian scene Trace! Not many of us thinking this way...