Sunday, May 09, 2004

Otto Penzler vs. cozies 

Normally, if a link is a week old or more when I first come across it, I don't put it up here. But because this story caused so much controversy in the mystery world when it first ran--probably in part because hardly anyone reads the New York Sun anyway--I thought it a good idea to share.

Otto Penzler, proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop, former publisher, editor of numerous anthologies (and Maxim Jakubowski's Good Twin) has a weekly column in the NY Sun where he talks shop and sundry. Most of the time his opinings are of a benign nature, but in the April 21 column, things get a little more heated:

The books stacked in front of me are the finalists for the Agatha award, given at the annual Malice Domestic conference. This event honors books written in the mode of Agatha Christie, loosely defined as those that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence. Unstated, but clearly of equal importance, is that they must contain not a scintilla of style, originality, or depth. They must have the texture and nuance of an infomercial, lacking only its philosophical power.

My fiancée (
ed. now his wife, though I've yet to track down any announcement in the NY Times as I'd expected to), as kind and generous as she is beautiful, defended them briefly by comparing them to television sitcoms, to be read as pure escapism. “They’re throw-away books,” she says. I agree. We just disagree about timing, as I think they should be thrown away before they are read.

And then he names names. No wonder people got pissed off:

Margaret Maron: “Last Lessons of Summer.” One of the first things an editor tells a writer, and maybe the most important thing a writer will ever hear, is to get the attention of the reader right away. But here, after a prologue about spiders hatching (I’m not making this up), there are numerous chapters about various members of a family squabbling over an inheritance and long-past insults that continue to resonate. I wouldn’t find this remotely interesting if it were my own family,much less this bunch.

Yikes. Although it must be said that Penzler's rant loses some credibility when the title of Jerrilyn Farmer is misspelled, and when (although I'm not totally sure and cannot check this at the moment) Maron's book was a top pick for one of Mysterious's collecting clubs upon its release last year. Never mind that it just reeks of sour grapes--what's the point of it, especially when Penzler goes on to admit in another piece that despite his dislike of cozies, he's still selling them in his shop?

Still, despite his distaste for the genre, Penzler often places culinary mysteries at ''point of purchase'' locations in his store. ''The market for these books is extremely strong,'' he says.

And who does this market consist of? ''I think the books are aimed at a very specific audience -- women, essentially,'' he says. ``. . . They're looking for slight entertainment the way someone else might watch TV or video. There's not anything wrong with that, it's just not my taste.'

Hell, I hardly read cozies myself, so I can't argue with his ultimate point, that it's not to his taste. But I wouldn't exactly use column space to trash folks--by name--in what essentially constitutes an ad hominem attack on an entire subgenre.

(thanks to Michael for pointing me to the NY Sun article.)

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