The Aardvark Blog
Why Richard Osman is Our Greatest Living Writer
Why Richard Osman is Our Greatest Living Writer
There is a truth universally unacknowledged, that all genre writers know: however good you are as a writer, if you write in a genre you may well attract readers and fortune, but you will never gain the recognition you deserve.
Once this was true in other disciplines also. At one time in art only biblical or classical scenes were considered worthy of receiving an encomium, and still lives, portraits and landscapes were considered to be lesser forms or art practised by journeymen. But we have learnt to understand that the Velazquez portrait of Juan de Pareja, or Cezanne’s pictures of apples are actually amongst the greatest masterpieces of our art; that the film music of, say, Walton or Schnittke (or for that matter, Miles Davies or the MJQ), is music of unparalleled depth and feeling. We know that the domestic architecture of Lloyd Wright or Mackintosh is every bit as brilliant and revealing as their larger shinier commissions; who would take the Guggenheim over Fallingwater, or the Glasgow School of Art over Hill House or Windy Hill?
I could go on and extend the analogy into cookery, textiles, ceramics or even fashion. Everywhere you look, people are coming to appreciate that real worth in artistic endeavour can be found in the humblest of locations.
And yet, in literature there has been no such moment of revelation. Detective fiction, or science fiction, or for that matter fantasy, are just not thought to be worthy of serious consideration.
But here is the thing. I just don’t believe that any literary fiction being written at the moment is addressing life’s hardest questions as well or as unsentimentally as the ‘cosy crime’ fiction of Richard Osman. I have just finished the third of the ‘Thursday Murder Club’ novels, and all the authorial tics that bothered me in the earlier books are still present. The books are arch and knowing, and far too willing to lower the fourth wall and let the audience know that the author is aware of the absurdity, of the endless ‘deus ex machina' solutions, of the cleverness in which locations are described like film sets. The story, the characters, the milieu, all of these elements that are usually so crucial to a book’s success or failure are here no more than window-dressing. The big scene towards which the book has been working is thrown away, and the evil sinister Mr Big is reduced to lying drugged on the floor having his face licked by a dog. And at no time does the reader care, because the real mysteries with which the book deals have nothing to do with the detective story.
These mysteries - how do you live with dementia in one you love, how as a mature adult can you put aside all your life experience to fall in love, why as we get older does friendship get so much more important, how can we learn to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and failures, and above all what is it that life, with its brevity, cruelty and mystery is actually for. And if it is not for anything other than its existence - don’t look quite so happy Jean-Paul - how do we, who are so essentially creatures of story, live in a world in which there is only randomness and entropy. These questions are actually the ones that Richard Osman wants to engage with, and while he doesn’t offer solutions he does provide pointers.
And not just Osman. I would make a case for Josephine Tey, for Nicholas Freeling, for Simenon, Chandler and Ross MacDonald. And does any literary fiction address as many big questions as can be found in the writing of Philip K Dick or at his best, Isaac Asimov? We are only a few years away from Minority Report and the coming of independent and creative AI. The questions we need answering the most can’t be found in the pages of Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan, but can be found in the works of Richard Osman and a host of other despised genre writers.
So perhaps it is no accident that Richard Osman sells millions of copies of his books, whilst the latest Booker shortlisted books languish on dusty shelves. Perhaps there is wisdom in crowds, and perhaps we forget too quickly that much of the art from the past we most value - Shakespeare, Mozart, Chopin, the Parthenon - were incredibly popular in their day. Obscurity is no proof of greatness, and popularity no evidence for worthlessness. Art like life is complicated, and whoever came up with the idea of plastering everything with trigger warnings is either an idiot or an ironist of genius. And as Osman’s Joyce would say in one of her diary entries, sometimes it is hard to tell one from t'other.
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