Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sir Otto Strikes Again

Otto Penzler, master bookseller and world-leading expert in the genre, is no stranger to controversy. I get a huge kick out of Otto and enjoy spending time with him. He's unafraid to speak his mind and he's got a sharp, cutting wit that makes sitting through awards banquets (when you're at his table), an entirely different kind of experience.

Since I've been misquoted and "edited" enough by journalists in the past, I know not to take the below quotations (reported in The Book Standard) at face value. I know firsthand that Otto has enormous respect for various female authors, and I'm sure that his comments were presented in the most controversial fashion possible. That said, Otto ain't afraid to state his case and he - like many readers of hard-boiled crime fiction - ain't no fan of the cozie.

The comments below raise some interesting issues. Do you have a strong preference for hard-boiled fiction over cozies? Do you think there's a gender bias for who writes what? For my part, I've read my share of brilliant crime fiction by women and seen a few awful cat mysteries by men, but I know I'll take a Boston Teran over a 200-pager where a cupcake attacks a calico.
Genteel? Or bloody? That distinction between two sub-genres of mystery books—“cozies” and “hard-boiled”—may determine who wins the Edgar Award for Best Novel tonight. And the outcome could go to the heart of a debate within the industry: Are female mystery-writers—most often the authors of the more non-threatening, proper cozies—even worthy of the award? Otto Penzler, dean of mystery-writing in America, says no.

“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a recipe, or take care of cats,” he says. “Cozies are not serious literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature. There are wonderful exceptions, of course—P.D. James, Ruth Rendell.”

Margaret Maron, president of Mystery Writers of America, which doles out the Edgars, and winner of one herself (for Bootlegger’s Daughter in 1993), sniffs at this bias, as she considers it, saying that good writers have been overlooked by the MWA as a result of unfair favoring of male authors and their bloodier plots. “Wit, humor, and domesticity haven’t been considered as significant as blood and violence. Charlotte MacLeod was never nominated,” Maron says, recalling the late author of a series of cozies. “She wrote some very funny mysteries, but they were considered ‘soft.’ She didn’t use the ‘F’ word. She wasn’t walking those mean streets.’ ”

That McLeod and the majority of authors who write cozies are women raises a thorny question. Are the Edgars—and, by extension, the mystery industry as a whole—simply sexist?


David J. Montgomery said...

I think Otto says these things deliberately to stir up controversy and get attention. I picture him sitting back and chuckling at the brouhaha he provokes.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

I've never met the man, but I can tell you that the L.A. store reflected Otto's taste even after he left. He might respect some women authors, but he's serious about believing that it's men who write the "real" literature, and that makes me want to spit nails. One of the best novels I read last year was Laura Lippman's BY A SPIDER'S THREAD, and I don't think anyone died in that book at all.

The cupcake and cat books serve a purpose very similar to Clive Cussler's novels, for different groups of readers. I'd give equal weight to the novels of Stuart Woods and, say, Nora Roberts. They're both writing to entertain, not to enlighten. Nothing wrong with that. said...

Ms. Clair-
Agreed. It all comes down to preference and mood when choosing books. Sometimes you want Faulkner, sometimes you want your version of a cupcake. said...

An Edgar can get one attention from booksellers, which can translate to more sales, but it's no guarantee. Some winners have gone on to greater success; many have not.