We need to talk about Richard...
Anyone who has spent any amount of time watching day-time television will know by sight the be-spectacled Richard Osman, either sitting behind a desk on Pointless or lobbing shopping trolleys over streams on Taskmaster. He’s a man undoubtedly of many talents, but I’m sure not even he predicted what a veritable success his writing career would be. The Thursday Murder Club was a Sunday Times best-seller and the recently published The Man Who Died Twice has become one of the fastest selling books since Nielson BookScan first began tracking such data in the 1990s. But what does Osman’s success signify for the industry as a whole? Does this mean more celebrities will start writing fiction, and thus potentially pushing out more diverse voices? Or is this a good thing – after the doom-mongering that followed the rise of streaming platforms, is this an indicator that the UK is getting re-acquainted with the value of a good book?
To give Osman due credit, claims that his books are popular just because he is will not land on solid ground. True genre fans and Osman fans (Osmanites?) alike have sung the praises of the adventures of a group of retirees in a village in Kent. It’s the type of cosy, rainy-day mystery which puts the young and old alike in mind of classic authors such as Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey. By sheer numbers alone, the success of The Thursday Murder Club surely cannot be put down to Osman’s own popularity. Alfred Hickling of The Guardian describes The Thursday Murder Club as a potential series that is “set to run and run.” And given the commercial and critical success of the latest instalment, it’s likely he will be correct!
That doesn’t alter the supposition that Osman got his foot in the door through his celebrity. As anyone who has ever tried to get a book published knows, it is an extremely difficult and demoralising process that doesn’t always rest on the merits of your actual book. J.K. Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers as a struggling single mother while Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected thirty times before it was accepted – the ten-way publisher auction does not happen for everyone, even if their book is a potential best-seller. And by choosing to publish Osman, who is a white Cambridge graduate, diverse voices in crime fiction are potentially being shut out from publishing houses. Crime fiction is a genre that is especially behind the times when it comes to the diversity of its most popular authors, instead leaving representation to be handled by typically white male authors. Osman is not immune from this either – in the same article Alfred Hickling described the one main non-white character in The Thursday Murder Club as “like a bit of a cipher, included to introduce a hint of diversity.”
Work clearly needs to be done to introduce more diverse voices into the crime fiction genre – the more successful that white male celebrities are at writing crime fiction, the less likely publishers are to take a risk on a new author who doesn’t tick these boxes. This is a mind-set which urgently needs to be changed, and not only in the crime fiction space. But this shouldn’t diminish Osman’s personal achievement in writing a record-breaking duo of novels of undeniable quality. And the indication that this has resurged the reading habits of the UK is only good news for the publishing industry – so maybe now they can step up and help bring increased diversity to where it is so sorely needed.
Image: Edinburgh Television Festival via Flickr