Monday, September 24, 2018

Breaking Wind at the Crime Fiction Community Clubhouse Meeting

Years ago, Allan Guthrie was reviewing something I'd written and called me out for being melodramatic. Now, that isn't my normal style, but it did make me realize something.

I'm a sucker for melodrama. I cry at Canadian Tire Christmas commercials. Pop some video on Facebook about a person adopting a dog or rescuing a cat and I'm bawling like a baby. Why I don't have stock in Kleenex is beyond me. The emotional stuff gets me every time. When the kids were younger and we'd go to a movie they'd start watching me. "Are you crying?" I was asked.

"NO, I'M NOT CRYING AT TOY STORY III, DAMMIT, SHUT UP!" Of course, I couldn't say that. But it was noted that I was the first one to shed a tear at anything the slightest bit mushy or emotional.

I think a lot of people in crime fiction circles might be surprised at that, because of my reading tastes and my tendency to write characters that are tougher. It's probably stemmed from a degree of self-deprecation; I want to make logical decisions instead of emotionally reacting to things. Want to.

And yet, there are times when emotions get the better of me.

This happens to the best of us. Even people who aren't overly emotional or typically swayed by emotional outbursts or displays. Anyone who has ever felt the need to defend themselves has been feeling something.

And there's been a lot of defensiveness going around lately in the crime fiction community.

This is delicate territory, and my intent isn't to offend anyone. (Except for the people who are racist and/or sexist. I couldn't possible care less about what they think of what I'm about to say.) But... it's an emotional topic. So hopefully, everything comes out as intended. And is taken the same way.

Now, before I really get into the dirt here, this isn't all about Pelecanos. It's about much, much more than women in publishing. Bear with me.

First, something happened at Bouchercon. Now, I wasn't at Bouchercon. However, people who were there, and specifically some who were in the room when this "something" happened have referenced it on social media, including this group blog here.

This means that far more than just the people who went to Bouchercon are aware that there was an incident. 

Prior to Bouchercon there was a push for an anti-harassment policy and some authors made public pledges to be available to anyone who felt harassed or threatened or uncomfortable in any way.

Why mention this? Just to underscore that no community is 100% perfect. Anyone telling you it's all love and happiness inside X community is delusional.

So, to get on with it, Jim Thomsen wrote a piece this weekend about George Pelecanos' latest book. Part of me loathes referencing it, only because Pelecanos needs no extra attention. He's getting profile in the New York Times and elsewhere, and I would rather send a shout out to someone who might actually benefit from gaining readers.

However, Jim's piece is about far more than Pelecanos' book and is well worth the read. It should be a must-read for crime fiction authors and publishers. It cuts to the heart of a lot of issues in the United States, and globally, right now. It touches on problems in the crime fiction community that aren't easy to talk about, either. There are things here that need to be said, and need to be examined. Much of it he says so well already, there's nothing for me to add. However, there are a few points I want to expand on.

[Jim referenced] recent controversy involving Pelecanos, who did a “By The Book” Q&A with The New York Times in which he cited only male authors and their novels as inspirations and recommendations, and took a needless swipe at a female author, Harper Lee. That drew a swift rebuke from author Lauren Groff, and a few female crime-fiction authors. Said M.J. Rose, on Groff’s thread: “(So) damn typical. So many men have similar lists and I’m sick of it.” But, by and large, crickets from the some of the loudest voices in the crime-fiction community, which is often paralyzed by the notion that speaking ill of others is tantamount to exile from publishing (I’ve already accepted that). It’s as if most of the members of the crime-fiction tribe stood silently in the same room, looking fleetingly and self-consciously at one another, faces wrinkled in “who farted?” expressions.
I’m taking aim at the male-driven machine that seems bent on making him into an avatar of the Male Resistance to the Female Takeover of Crime Fiction, in somewhat the same way bad male actors are trying to push their way past #MeToo and back into the spotlight they feel they deserve after all-too-short periods of cultural exile.
As The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino put it, sardonically: “Women have had their ‘moment,’ their unprecedented time in the spotlight of cultural favor. The gravitational pull of male power is exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”
Well, I certainly had something to say in the wake of all of this. And I'll be blunt. There are people who are often seen as the spokespeople for the genre. They're the ones writing regular articles, maintaining websites that touch on the regular happenings in the genre. They talk author news. They're the ones who are positioned as reporters covering crime fiction.

There are also the loud voices who have usually spoken out about issues relevant to gender and stereotypes in crime fiction that seemed to stay silent. I was watching Twitter for a couple of days, looking to see who would respond. If anyone of any position of real influence within the genre did, other than M.J. Rose, I missed it. (Now, there was more commentary on Facebook. But Facebook has different privacy settings than Twitter. When you say things on Twitter you speak to the masses. Facebook depends person to person... so I can't necessarily cite those as public statements.) On Twitter, the overwhelming majority of the commentary was driven by writers from outside the genre, and it was as though almost everyone within the genre stood shoulder to shoulder to not let anyone know we were all plugging our noses because someone farted in our clubhouse.

This is bigger than just how women in crime fiction are treated. Look, I've read Pelecanos. I've watched episodes of The Wire that he wrote. He's a male-oriented writer. That is neither good nor bad. It just is. I guess I'd say he's a man of his time, and for me, for my personal entertainment, that doesn't really fit my interests currently. I love me some male protagonists (Rebus) but I'm far less interested in men of a certain era who view women a certain way. I'm really interested in the men of the next generation, who have a far more inclusive view of the world and are secure in their masculinity so they aren't threatened by strong women, gay men or anyone else. So bring on those authors and those protagonists. PLEASE.

The thing is, we aren't saying enough about diversity in the genre. Jim said about the crime fiction community that it's

Kellye is quoted as saying, "We need to stop treating diverse writers as a trend and start treating them as the status quo.”

All of this brings me around to the most important question. What can I do to promote inclusion?

This year I have run reviews of books by diverse writers, such as Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, and I've profiled writers such as Chanel Hardy and Willie Davis.

In my own reading, I've been emphasizing works by women and diverse writers. This has included reading works by Willie Davis, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel and Rebecca Roanhorse.

There is still a very long way to go.

The thing is, each and every one of us who is serious about inclusion must make a conscious effort to read diverse writers and to talk about diverse writers. Unfortunately, that puts a certain burden on diverse writers. I have emailed several about doing author features for Toe Six. I only get responses from a fraction of the people I reach out to, across the board, regardless of race or gender. (Women are the hardest group, actually.) Within crime fiction I have a bit less than a 1 in 5 return rate. I expanded to horror and the horror community has a 3 out of 5 return rate. I haven't looked at things in terms of race or gender; however, I am aware that this presents me with a specific challenge. I have to work harder to try to ensure that I am being inclusive... and the trouble is, I only have so much time to devote to this. 

And all y'all who don't have email addresses or ways to contact you? Pffft. I can't even try. So, sometimes I'm hunting down a website or the person on Twitter and they don't allow messages and don't have a public email. And it's not right to call people out on blog comments or Twitter feeds. I don't want to do that, so guess what? I can't even invite you for an interview.

Someone I wanted to email today... isn't getting that email. I wish I could feature them, but I can't. I have an even worse return rate for reaching out through publicists for interviews. It sucks. But I also hate it when people give out my email address without permission. Sometimes it works out fine, but I have an email address on my website that people can use. It isn't my main account but stuff will get to me. Nobody needs to give out my main email address if they have it. I keep things in different places for specific reasons, and my sanity is one of those reasons.

I'm not asking anyone for an author's email address. Even if it's a person who blogs here at DSD. 

Authors, if you don't have a contact form or email system in place, you don't know what you're missing out on. Even if you do have a publicist. I guarantee you. 

I would call on reviewers to focus more on novels that:
  • are written by diverse writers
  • are written by women
  • feature non-white protagonists
  • include LGBTQ characters 
Now, this does put a certain burden on diverse writers, because we can only interview them if they are available. (And like I established, some aren't. Not via email. Not unless you know somebody.) 

However, all of us can make a choice to read more diverse authors and talk about their books.

This isn't about who's at the top of the publishing heap. This isn't about maintaining the status quo. This isn't about accepting the way things are and playing the politics.

This is about the world we want to leave our kids. Do we want to leave them with gender bias and racial stereotypes and exclusion? Or do we want to help usher in a new era of inclusion?

If you are an author or a book-related reporter or editor/publisher and you aren't pushing yourself to read more diverse authors and female authors and books about non-white characters and stories about LGBTQ characters, you are facilitating the current problem in publishing. 

Do we all have the right to read what we like and want to read? Sure. But when this is your business, when you earn bucks from writing or editing or publishing, you are an influencer. You are a person who can shape the industry and the future. Maybe all you do is make someone feel like they belong, or that they have a chance to be published. Maybe all you do is inspire a writer who is black or Indigenous or Hispanic to pick up a pen. It's still something. 

And I'm sorry to break that news to you, but it's a reality. Man, when I started Spinetingler 13+ years ago I just thought about promoting what I loved and sharing what I was passionate about. Eventually, it became clear that there was much more to it. I think one of the first things that really made me aware was an uproar back then about focusing on female writers. And I don't think I took it seriously at all. We did have us some blog spats, back in the day. I recall counting our short story publication numbers by gender and writing about that to someone, or somewhere... I see now I should have treated the issue more seriously than I did.

We will not fix our problems if we don't admit they exist. 

A few months ago, there was an article about how shocked the publishing world was that there were people who didn't live in New York City. There was talk of the scramble to get something published that would interest these peculiar people who'd previously been invisible.

The thing is, as of 2017, 50.8% of the people living in the United States are women. Almost 40% of those people are mixed race or Indigenous, black or Hispanic. 

That means that more than half the country is female and almost half the country identifies as a minority. There is absolutely no way that the overwhelming majority of books in any genre should be primarily written by white men or should be mainly about white men. 

What else can I do?

Obviously, I'm white. I cannot express to you how much I love Middle Eastern and Native American music. There's something in it that calls to my soul, although I have no reason to think that I have any ancestry that is anything but the typical Irish, Scottish, English, French, German mixed bag. I can't change that.

I started searching. Back in April I started an email journey, to find out if there was a directory for Indigenous authors in Canada. Cleo Big Eagle sent me some information and I've continued the journey from there. Now I'm in touch with the HQ Reference Library. I hope to be able to profile more Indigenous authors regularly with the resources they've directed me to.

My writing. My latest book has a protagonist named Moreau who is part white, part Aboriginal. Dana King recently asked me if I was concerned about accusations of cultural appropriation, but as I said to him, "We don't live in androgynous, monochromatic worlds. In order to truly represent society we need to be able to incorporate people with different backgrounds."

What's key is doing this with sensitivity and respect. Moreau's boss is black. Moreau herself faces discrimination and harassment throughout the story, which is intended to show what people actually experience. Some of the stuff I wrote that was directed at her was awful and it bugged me to write it. But I was also really, really pleased when The Masked Reviewer said Moreau was "admirable." 

I also wrote a story about a post-op trans woman that was published in The Dame Was Trouble. I wrote it because of a family member who is trans. ("Crossing Jordan by Sandra Ruttan doesn’t feature murder or a shoot-out but does get us inside the head of a trans sex worker as she tries to unsuccessfully kill herself. But it’s not just A Man Called Ove done up in high heels.  It is a story of persistence and strength in the face of misunderstanding, rejection, and violence. A story that will stick with me.")

These are, to me, the greatest compliments I have received as a writer. To have people embrace Moreau as an admirable character, to say, "I look forward to reading future novels about the adventures of Kendall Moreau in the RCMP....  I have confidence in Moreau's ability to handle all the situations that might arise in the course of her career, and Ruttan's ability to portray them." 

That means a lot to me. It's such a small thing, but one can only hope that if people want to spend time with characters who are mixed race that they will welcome diverse writers too. That they will look to the heart of the story. That they will help usher in an era where we aren't just seeing books about white people in white communities. 

I would love to be able to hang a shingle up at Toe Six and say it exclusively focuses on small press, indie and diverse authors. I won't... not any time soon. The only reason is because I'm limited by what returns to me, and if I say that's what I'm about then I am not going to touch anything from big presses. Current limitations aside, there are some up-and-coming authors who are with bigger presses who still can benefit from promotion, too, because they're the small guys swimming in big ponds. But I am going to be putting my emphasis on the small press, indie and diverse authors wherever I can. This year I have read far more books by women and am increasing my numbers of diverse authors.

And I'll be paying a lot more attention to reviews that focus a lot less on the conventional bestseller list and seek out those undiscovered gems that deserve our attention. We have to give our print to what we want to see more of. I'm not always going to succeed, but that's what I'm going to try to do.

Now, about that incident at Bouchercon...

I don't know what happened. I don't need to know. However, I am going to put this out there for the people who do know. Clearly, there's been enough of a ripple effect for some people to feel they needed to address it on social media. And everything I have seen has avoided specifics.

Please. If you were involved or witnessed it, personally go and document the events and keep a record of it.


The fact that people are aware something happened will lead to gossip and speculation. Like I said, i wasn't even there and I know something big went down. I know what panel it was at. I know some of the people involved.

And my husband and I have had a whole conversation about it.

It begins and ends there and here for us. However, for each person who may know this little tidbit or that supposed fact, there will be stories swirling. This may be a community, but it's a community of associates, some of whom are friendly and some of whom are friends. Make sure you have you account of the facts in case you need it some day. You never know when it may matter to an agent or a publisher or when you may need to address slander that follows in the wake of some drama. I have the kind of mind that connects dots and it's a curse. I have picked up on crazy stuff from small changes to a person's social media account. Stuff my husband was completely oblivious to, and I was proven right. So you do not even want to know what I started thinking as info started coming my way about what happened at Bouchercon. I can only hope I'm wrong.

It makes me very uncomfortable with the idea of attending a convention again. Without understanding what happened it just leaves you to worry that you'll save your vacation money to go to a convention and be attacked when you're on a panel and have a really bad experience. And there are so many other ways I could spend any vacation money I ever have...

The people who need to be paying attention to this are the convention planning committees. Not hte ones who handled this past B'con. The ones who are planning the next one and the one after that. Measures should be put into place that ensure that whatever happened doesn't happen to anyone else in the future.

That involves dialogue. But not publicly. Not on social media. Not with me. With convention organizers.

Here's hoping they're paying attention.

So no, things aren't perfect over in the crime fiction community. It's a real community, filled with real people, which means there are some real problems. But you know what? There are a lot of really great people who are trying to move things in the right direction and things are starting to change for the better. It may be slow, but it's happening. We can celebrate that. We can also see that we still have some work to do, and each of us can ask ourselves what we can do. 

Hopefully all voices - big and small - will start to pull together instead of putting career interests or kissing ass first. Until then it will be baby steps. 

But at least there are steps. Pledge with me. Read more diverse authors. Read more female authors. Read more LGBTQ authors. And talk about their books. The NY Times has the likes of Pelecanos covered. Spread some love to those who have potential and that you want to see still publishing five years from now. 

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