It’s time for the crime-fiction community to move beyond its past.
This column starts with Otto Penzler.
But the problem didn’t. And it won’t end after him.
On May 19th, Otto wrote a public Facebook post (since deleted and revised) notifying everyone that his long-running position as guest editor of the revered Best American Mystery Stories series was ending. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher, was taking the series in a different direction.
In the post’s comments, Otto and his supporters railed against the “PC movement” that he blamed for usurping his control, and a common refrain began to show as the conversation heated: the egregious replacement of “diversity” for “quality.”
I don’t know Otto personally but, as a member of the crime fiction community, I certainly know of him. He’s been a stalwart figure in publishing for decades, and his name has appeared on many of crime fiction’s most prestigious publications.
And, like many of the figures in publishing’s checkered past, his position and history are complicated. There was the toothless threat he made, using his bookstore, against the Mystery Writers of America when they rescinded their award to Linda Fairstein (a threat he also rescinded); the irresponsible and ill-informed remarks he’s made about women writers; and, again, in his deleted Facebook post, rants against “PC culture.”
As one of his supporters wrote in that post, “Give me qualified and knowledgeable over color any day.”
My guess is that Otto doesn’t see himself as bigoted.
But when bigots support your opinions, you should probably ask yourself why that is.
Two weeks ago, the writer Laurie Chandlar publicly resigned from the International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization. She was the Debut Author chair and worked for me in that capacity (I was a vice president and board member of the organization until my own resignation, days before hers).
Laurie explained her departure in three tweets accusing the organization of not supporting her over an incident involving a male member of the organization and serious sexual harassment. ITW responded with a terse pair of tweets which did not go over well with membership or the crime fiction community at large; a follow-up statement that attempted to clarify ITW’s position only worsened the situation.
Memberships in the organization have been canceled. A thoughtful petition demanding answers and action, put forth by the writer Vanessa Lillie, has been circulating and has received hundreds of signatures, and a second petition calling for the resignation of the entire board made the rounds. High-profile writers took action. Blake Crouch, for example, a nominee for the Best Novel of the Year in ITW’s Thriller Awards, has withdrawn his book Recursion from consideration.
And most of the board, as of this past Tuesday, has resigned.
I’m in an outside but unique position here. I worked with ITW for years prior to serving on the board, and I truly believe it’s a valuable resource for writers and readers in the genre. I never had a negative experience with anyone on the board, and all of those board members give a lot to the organization — on a volunteer basis — largely for the sole benefit of providing resources and help to writers.
I don’t think that I’m alone in my high opinion of ITW, and that’s precisely why there are so many people upset. They expect more. And Vanessa Lillie’s original petition raises fair questions. I signed it.
A LOT of people in crime fiction have reached out to me, asking for more information about this matter. I can’t disclose anything, both because of the confidential nature of the board meetings and because of my friendship with Laurie Chandlar. Those are confidences I won’t break.
But a couple of those messengers were worried: wholly sympathetic to Laurie’s complaint, but also worried about the organization — its actions, inaction, and potential survival. As I said, ITW has rightfully garnered goodwill over the years.
As someone who had an inside view to the organization, I do believe it deserves to recover and survive.
Inaction isn’t an option. A fire is burning down the house. And it’s not going to stop with ITW.
One small but fascinating thing to emerge during the recent, nationwide protests against police brutality is the mainstream acceptance of the term “Black Lives Matter.” There are still opponents to it, of course, but it’s been interesting to see so many politicians and corporations now supporting the phrase.
I remember when the expression first came forward years ago, and the immediate resistance to it. That resistance is eroding as corporations (albeit sheepishly, given their tardiness) adopt it. The controversy behind it has been shaken and its acceptance has been normalized.
There’s a potential for change in crime fiction, too.
The disregarded voices of women and marginalized writers have become too pressing to ignore, whether it’s cries of harassment or racism. Every year, it seems, a controversy explodes. And, every year, the frustration is double-edged: anger over the incident, and anger over the response to the incident.
I can’t imagine these incidents will end. Racism and harassment are too formidable an opponent.
So what can be done?
I don’t know the answer, but I know the goal, and it’s a goal embodied in Lillie’s petition. A goal that, when we return to these conferences, the men who harass women will face definite penalties. That steps are taken to ensure marginalized voices are given fair representation. That crime fiction stands apart from other genres in its efforts to ensure the respect and safety of its fans and practitioners.
This can’t be an isolated effort. It can’t be one organization changing elements of its structure, or one conference alone revising its standards. It has to be a shared effort. Otherwise, these failures will haunt us, much the same way that a haunted house is eventually abandoned by people.
It’s a simple goal — the affirmation and steadfast support of human decency — but one that’s surprisingly complicated to achieve. But it’s a goal we must attain. If we fail in this, if we continue to ignore it, then we’ve assured, in every way, as an industry, as leaders, as trusted brothers and sisters and friends, that we’ve accepted the role of cowards.
And cowards do nothing to stop their own demise.
E.A. Aymar’s next novel, They’re Gone, written under his pseudonym, E.A. Barres, will be out this November. You can preorder it here.