In defense of the cozy

Wow, Clea Simon, guestblogger, here on Linda’s website and it feels a bit odd. After all, her hotly anticipated fourth crime novel (Death Was the Other Woman, which will be featured on my blog next month) is a damned sight tougher than my own new Cries and Whiskers. I mean, what’s a cat cozy doing up here with these hard-boiled dames?

I could make a sort of case for fitting in (in addition to friendship and mutual respect, that is). I mean, the website blurb posted by Partners and Crime, called my Cries “cat-friendly tough-girl crime fiction.” And I loved that. It’s true that I always make a point of telling people that my books aren’t cutesy, my cats don’t talk, and they don’t solve the crimes. Punny titles and cute cat covers aside, I’m not one of those people who refers to her pets as her “furbabies.”

But it’s time to give up the pretence and come clean. So let's start over: Hi, I’m Clea Simon, and I write cozies. Classic cozies. My books feature an amateur sleuth (a rock critic, rather than a nosy old lady). They take place in a small self-contained community (the club scene, rather than an English village). The crimes involved tend to come about because of human nature, not psychopathology, and the sex and violence are pretty much out of sight (I rather like the description that “the blood is dry before it hits the page”). And while some of my peers may be using the label “traditional” to distinguish ourselves from the treacly side of the genre, I’m ready to stand up and admit it. Hell, I’m sick of apologizing. I want to reclaim the cozy.

I fully expect Linda’s regular readers to wince and turn away now, but I hope you stay with me a little further. Yes, cozies have fallen out of critical favor. They are now looked down upon as vaguely embarrassing. Nursery lit. Some of it is our own damned fault: a trend in the subgenre toward humor, crafts, and cutesiness has helped bring down our reputation. And even when we aren’t self-destructively winsome, transgressive styles always attract more attention from critics and from those outside the field. This is what’s new, what is edgy. What is, in some form, outrageous

I have nothing against transgressive art. Not that long ago, I found my soul in punk rock. The energy of the music - not just anger, but a pure, visceral cry - gave voice to my own inchoate emotions. I believe it literally saved my sanity, giving me a means of expressing that which had been choking me. I will never deny what this music, what this art form, did for me, and I reject, as well, the idea that this music - or any art - is of a particular stage or age. Don’t give me your adolescent angst; emotion is eternal.

But so is the best writing. That’s why I believe a stylist with the skill of a Linda Richards or a Megan Abbott will continue to be read. Denise Mina, too, and doubtless many others.

Along the same lines, and for the same reasons, so will the best of the traditional mystery authors – the cozy writers. I don't pretend I can claim to be in the upper tiers, not yet, but I want to make a statement of solidarity here anyway. Don't knock us cozy writers. We’re the ones who focus on character development, rather than action or atmosphere, writing about people we know rather than the ones we dream – or have nightmares – about. We’re the ones who go for subtlety over shock value, for the human resolution over the bloody denouement. For a bit of humor, maybe even a bit of romance. You know, the stuff of life. We don’t hit you over the head with our craft, and these days particularly, we don’t get the credit for what we can – and reliably do – provide. It’s a different palette, sure, like working in watercolors in an age of high-gloss graphics, but I think it’s time to quit apologizing for that difference. To reclaim our own genre.

I write traditional mysteries, with characters I want you to believe in, with cats that don’t talk, with settings you’ll recognize and motives you may share. Guess what? I write cozies.

Comments

Brilliant post, Thea. If defense is required, you've nailed it. I am, however, not so sure the cozy is in need of it. I mean Alexandar McCall Smith and M.C. Beeton seem to be doing just fine, thank you. OK: that's just two, but the form is one, I think, that invites a quiet participation. In any case, you bring a sort of rocker chick sensibility to the form.

With cats.

That don't talk.
Anonymous said…
I'm wondering why it is that writers feel the need to apologize for anything they write. From cozy to noir, everyone is apologizing lately. For cats, for the F bomb, for torrid sex, for not being politically correct. My God, imagine the books we wouldn't have if writers only wrote to placate the public.

Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Peyton Place, just to name a few famous examples. The authors of these books didn't apologize for writing their words. And why should they have too?

Why can't a writer just write the best story they can with no apologies? It's fiction, bordering on the truth that exists in the world around us. The reader is either going to like it or not.

And writers? Please, tend to your own stories. Every writer has a different style, a different voice, but we're all in the same place - writing what we know, what we feel. We're all in different situations in life and our words reflect that.

End of rant.

No apologies!

Sandra Seamans
Anonymous said…
Hi Clea,
Great post. I agree no one should feel the need to apologize for their writing but the sad truth is there are people out there with a disdain for the cozy. Ultimately it's their loss because there are some wonderfully written books out there that fall into this category.
MF Makichen
Clea Simon said…
Thanks for commenting, folks.
Why do writers feel a need to apologize? Well, for me it probably began with my third nonfiction book. After two nonfiction books (with major publishers), I wrote a book on women and cats. There was a lot of research involved and I did my best with the writing. But I still had one of those head-snapping moments when I ran into a colleague, a reporter at the newspaper where I then worked. She asked after my project and then told me about her own recent sale of a proposal for, as she said, "a real book."

After a few of those, you start internalizing the criticism and the snubs. I started apologizing, putting down my own work. "Oh, I just write 'cat mysteries.' As if I didn't work my ass off on them.

At any rate, I'm trying not to apologize anymore. But that, I hope, explains why.
Clea Simon said…
Note: I meant to say after two "more serious" nonfiction books. But, hey, maybe the self-criticism is actually becoming dystonic. Would be nice.

From my last comment:
" After two nonfiction books (with major publishers), I wrote a book on women and cats. "
I'm a dope. "Thea." Geez. Sorry.

Dear friend of mine. Thea. Much on my mind of late. It doesn't help that the two names -- Clea and Theda -- make for Thea if you have a brain that works that way, which mine seems to!

Again, my apologies.
And Sandra, while it can be really fun to rant (I know, I can do it with the best of them) your ire is a little misplaced here.

You perhaps read Clea's post as an apology. While I, on the other hand, read her posting as a well-stated defense of an oft-browbeaten portion of the genre. "I want to reclaim the cozy," she writes at one point. "Guess what?" she concludes, "I write cozies."

Far from being an apology, she sounds pretty defiant here. She doesn't say she's writing books to "placate the public." (And Huckleberry Finn as gateway to greatness? Phfffff. Puh-leeze!)

When I think of it, far from apologizing, it sounds to me as though what Clea has said here is she's writing the books dictated by her heart.
Clea Simon said…
oh mos def, thanks, Linda!
Anonymous said…
Um, Clea, my cat does talk. Not often, mind you. And he's not nice.

Actually, the whole debate about the validity of cozies as a true and excellent form of fiction sometimes rankles.

I get irritated that people will close off whole areas of interesting literature because of labels.

I'm not a fan of certain kinds of "cutesy" cozies. But I'm also not a fan of blood and gore w/o reason.

I AM a fan of good writing, of good storytelling.

That's what I wish people would focus on. That, I believe, is what your excellent post is about.

thank you.

Pari
Clea Simon said…
Thank you, Pari. You got it.

I feel like SinC has done an excellent job of making people aware of how many more books by male authors are reviewed than books by female authors. Now I just would like people to become aware that just because a book has more blood and guts or unpleasant people it is not necessarily more seriously written and thus deserving of serious consideration. Which I guess I should have said in the original post, but that's about it.

Good writing is everywhere, folks. Don't dismiss us because you think we're too nice.
Yay Clea. I've got your book--and it ready for you to sign! Very extied about it--and congratulations on your wonderful reviews! (I'm seeing htem everywhere--the latest rave is on Reviewing the Evidence.) If cozy wasn't such a "cute" name, maybe people wouldnt lump them all in the same "cute" pile.

I always thought "cozy" really meant an amateur sleuth who solves crimes by her wits and intelligence, no gory or over the top violence, no graphic sex, not many deaths per book.

My editor once called them "reality-fantasy"--that is, they are stories that COULD happen. Maybe to the reader, if he/she just happened to be in the right situation at the right time.

As for apologies. I shared a reading stage recently with Michael Lowenthal,who wrote the amazingly written, highly acclaimed literary novel Charity Girl. I winced with every step as I took to the stage after his reading (in a cozy, I might mention my high heels here, but I won't.)

I was reading from my newest mystery (which has been called a not-quite-cozy), and believe me, though I truly love it, it ain't no Charity Girl.

Afterwards, I could not help by say something to him about the difference in our writing. And he was completely charming (of course)--and stopped me cold. He said--hey. There's a place for every kind of good book.

Just tell a good story, as Pari says.
Roberta Isleib said…
Great post Clea! I'm right in there with you women in the not-quite-cozy genre. What's discouraging about the label is that it often translates into paperback, smaller runs, dismissal as possible award nominees. So it's not just an internal problem...

Still all we can do is write the best we possibly can and support each other.

Roberta, who is not wearing high heels:)
PREACHING TO THE CORPSE
Mark said…
You never need to defend cozies to me. I enjoy them. And while I avoid some of the crafty ones (and read the others), I love the ones with humor. Given a choice, I'd go for those every day of the week.

I have read some wonderful cozies that kept me up too late to read just a little bit more. And I've read some duds that were boring and needed some more work before publication. But you'd find that in any genre or sub-genre.
Clea Simon said…
Thanks, folks. And yeah - I'm not saying that any genre is flawless. I just feel like we're looked down upon.

It's especially great to hear from you, Mark, because I usually get a whiff of sexism about the whole "oh it's just a cozy" thing - you know, cozies are "women's books." It reminds me of all my years of newspaper work, when arts coverage was considered secondary to news reporting although it was done, on average, with much more skill and finesse than the average GA write-up. Or, to jump formats, backwards and in high heels.
Evil E said…
I'm late to the party, but CHEERS to you, Clea!

As I've often said on various panels - 'what the hell is COZY about murder?'
Lonnie Cruse said…
Maybe it's just me, because I write "cozy" as well, but there seems to be a lot of one-upsmanship going on in the suspense/thriller category. Meaning, an attitude of "I can toss more gore, more bodies, more sleep-with-the-lights-on stuff that you." I think readers will tire of it and want to read books with more than just a higher roller coaster rides. Books with interesting characters and plot lines. Great blob post, Clea.
Clea Simon said…
It is a little macho, isn't it? Makes me think of jobs I've had where folks would brag about how little sleep they had, how much coffee, etc.

Thanks, Lonnie!
It's pretty obvious that Clea struck a nerve with this one, huh? For me it all comes back to sort of the same place: it matters less what you call it, story counts. (Thank Gawd!)

And, Lonnie: I think you're right. The thriller thing is currently out of control. (And I can't even tell you how tired of serial killer novels I am. 100 pages in, you kinda go, "Have I read this before?")

The good news, I think, is that cycles like this are finite. After everyone outdoes each other, these writers are likely to look out over the carnage and say, "Well, that happened." And move on to something else.
Clea Simon said…
From your mouth to the great goddess Bast's little pointy ears, Linda. Here's to more appreciation for the well-turned story in 2008 and beyond.
Clea Simon said…
Hi folks (if anyone is still reading this!),
I have posted an expanded version of this rant on my own blog at http://cleasimon.blogspot.com - incorporating some of your comments and my responses. Linda's also going to be guestblogging over there on Tuesday, so if you're reading this and you want to continue the discussion, please come on by!
Clea
http://cleasimon.blogspot.com
cats & crime & rock & roll

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