Are Bryant & May ‘Cosies’?
I’m at Bristol Crimefest on Friday 16th May, where I’m on a panel about ‘cosies’. ‘Cosies’ are a form of crime-writing that remind readers of Agatha Christie’s safe, ‘nice’ stories, and it’s a tag I vehemently resist (so it should be a feisty panel). The Bryant & May books are most decidedly not cosies, but I can understand why they get pigeon-holed as such. The characters are comedic and eccentric, and the unit is clearly not meant to represent the Metropolitan police. I use the characters as vessels in which to pour ideas, and would argue that many so-called gritty procedurals are nothing of a kind.
Labelling is a curse that prevents any further development, but readers understandably need to get an idea of what they’ll be reading.
How did Hilary Mantel managed to avoid being pigeon-holed as a historical writer, given that nearly half of her novels are set in the past? The answer is obvious; her extraordinary talent makes it plain that she can turn her hand to any subject and take her readership with her.
But it’s not so straightforward for many writers. I’m fascinated by the question of pigeon-holing. Right now many of my friends are questioning their personal and public place in life, their need to balance comfort and achievement, because what we end up doing is rarely what we set out to do.
Back in the 1940s, Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ set out five development levels for our primal drives:
1. Physical needs – heat, light, warmth, food, mobility etc.
2. Safe & secure needs – health, home, stability, employment.
3. Belonging – love, connection, family, friendship.
4. Self-worth – achievement, respect, confidence, uniqueness.
5. Self-realisation – fulfilment of potential, development of creativity, intellect, conscience, morality, higher purpose.
These states roughly correspond to what we read, with the most popular books hovering around stage 3. What’s interesting to note is that a great many modern teenage books – especially in the US – are set at stage 4. Mantel’s clearly concern themselves with stage 5. At this highly developed level, you are no longer a genre writer or a crime writer, but transcend categories to a separate world of literature.
I’ve long considered myself a jobbing writer, happily working at stage 4. Recently, my agent has been keen for me to tackle the final level, which means stepping away from genres to write general fiction. It’s a challenge, a mountain to climb, and it also means fighting off labels and finding more confidence – something I sorely lack.
Last year I was promoted for a library event as a gay writer, which was odd as I don’t write gay books and am known nowadays for crime and thriller writing. I’m not sure I feel it’s appropriate to tag authors in this day and age unless they specifically write about aspects of a gay sensibility.
Alan Hollinghurst is arguably a ‘gay’ writer because his point of view is selectively concerned with sexual experience. For me and I suspect the majority of writers, it’s not an issue. I don’t see that pegging E M Forster or Terrence Rattigan as gay writers throws any light on their writings whatsoever. While there are those who do promote themselves as gay writers, it seems that with equality comes an end to outsider status and exclusivity.
I am always shocked to see demarcations so heavily outlined in Hollywood films. There are more all-black movies now than ever before, and the new subsection of Christian films. Failure to integrate creates the kinds of difference that the ignorant come to fear, and I feel bad for writers who happen to be black being labelled ‘black writers’, as if they’ll be doomed to write about black experience only.
As you may have suspected by now, I’m using you as a sounding board for a new book that will have a very different tone. The project is in its earliest stages of development, but I’ll keep you in the picture as we go. One thing’s for sure – it will most definitely not be ‘cosy’!