Squabbles in the Mystery Family

Pari Noskin Taichert

Every few months in the mystery world there’s a tizzy about this or that nomination list. Blogs buzz about bias. Listservs flare with perceived insults. Accusations fly. In a perverse, gossipy, way this intermittent brouhaha is kind of fun.

The latest flurry of fussing centers on the International Thriller Writers (ITW) list o’ nominees. It turns out there were no women on it. Through the end of last week, fingers pointed, nasty words lobbed to and fro, and calmer voices tried to reason.

Watching the drama play out on this blog and others, I realized our crime-fiction community has the potential for hundreds of these rifts. Frankly, I’m astounded that we’re not at each other’s throats all the time.

I wonder why?

What is this mystery community in which we read, write, market, schmooze, fight, discuss, earn money and live? I haven’t seen it defined in a publication yet. It’s taken for granted . . . like air.

Me? I include:

1. Active mystery readers – – – – People who organize/attend conventions; discuss crime fiction online or in book groups; or identify themselves as avid mystery readers
2. Mystery writers – – – – Traditionally published, self-published, unpublished but trying/dreaming of the day when their work is in the hands of readers
3. Mystery booksellers – – – – Those with physical storefronts or online presences
4. Mystery reviewers – – – – Those that specialize and understand the many hues in this broad genre; print and online
5. Mystery opinion makers – – – – People who print/produce mystery news (magazines, tabloids), popular mystery bloggers, trend spotters/setters
6. Mystery industry – – – – Editors, agents, specific publishers (big and small), marketers/pr folks

How big is this community? Thousands of people? Tens of thousands? I doubt any of us could accurately quantify it.

However, this isn’t a haphazard group; an active sense of purpose binds us together. We care about storytelling, about words and how they’re used. We care about reading and literacy. And, I think, all of us also care about justice — whether we believe it exists in the world or simply yearn for it.

The mystery community reminds me of an extended family consisting of several nuclear families: The Whodunits, the Thrillers, the Gumshoes, the Noirs . . . . Over here, is the cabal of tall, gorgeous blond cousins (you know who you are) whom everyone envies and adores. There, are the guys who always dress in black–the Bad Boys.

Every extended family has its attention-getters — the people who define the larger group for the outer world. Uncle Max is known for his loud, colorful pronouncements that boil everyone’s blood. Cousin Lila writes for one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers. Grandpa Joe is the nicest man anyone could ever meet — beloved by admirers in every country. Aunt Sophie has dedicated her life to ridding the world of social injustice.

Members in families fight, too. It’d be pathological if everyone got along ALL the time.

When I trained as a therapist in grad school, I was particularly intrigued by group behavior and dynamics. The mystery community  — by anyone’s definition — is a big group. When faced with dozens of choices, people naturally look for smaller affinity groups for their daily comfort and communication.  It’s natural.

Affinity is one thing. Trashing family members because they don’t agree with you is another. No one likes the blowhard — no matter how clever — who has to put people down in order to feel good about himself.

In the three years I’ve been an active member of the larger mystery community, I’ve noticed an increasing tendency towards an US vs. THEM mentality within our own ranks. It’s an acid-coated worm etching a poisonous trail of destruction through every layer of our cohesion.

I’m worried.

Like members of an extended family, we come together for reunions — conventions — and have a blast. We keep in touch. My happiest moments at these events — and during the sallow months between them — are when we celebrate our diversity. I love it when we communicate across genres and push our narrow views and definitions of ourselves into wider perspectives.

I hope this recent urge to divide — to condemn THEM in order to feel good about US amid the smaller groups of our mystery community — is only an adolescent aberration.

It’ll break my heart if it becomes the norm.

HAPPY ENDING:
I felt a bit down after writing that last sentence — and needed cheering up. You might, too. Meet Jake Shimabukuro, an outstanding ukulele player from Hawaii. I’ve provided a link to one of his short music videos.

Cheers.

21 thoughts on “Squabbles in the Mystery Family

  1. Naomi

    Pari–

    Always the voice of reason.

    I’m glad that you attempted to define the mystery community, but as you acknowledged, it’s hard to quantify. As a result, there’s no code of behavior or ethics that binds us together. When disagreements arise, how can they be mediated?

    In this recent conflict, I truly believe that the many of the most outspoken individuals are motivated by their principles. When principles get mixed up with personal attacks, it gets ugly, making it difficult for anything good to emerge.

    Like you, I also hate cliques and polarization. I don’t know enough of group dynamics to offer a solution. Like you had mentioned in an e-mail message, this will, like all things, pass, but I really hope that certain personal relationships will not be irreparably broken. This may be just the optimist in me speaking.

    Reply
  2. JT Ellison

    A great post, Pari. Though a non-writer I was talking to over the weekend dismissed the whole thing out of hand. “You’ve just got too much time on your hands,” was the exact quote. People outside the industry haven’t got a clue about what happens in this world. We work for ourselves, motivate ourselves, use our own drive to create. Feelings get hurt, lines get drawn, yet we all manage to put out great books, year after year. I hope this blows over soon and we can go back to the real work of this industry — writing! Viva la keyboard!

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  3. Pari

    Naomi,Absolutely.I believe most of the people who felt passionately about the issue also felt compelled to right a perceived wrong — whether it was the single-gender nom list or the accusations flung at the judges.

    Like you, I hope that friendships will continue after the initial sting of the disagreements calms down.

    J.T.,I understand what your friend means. Compared to the outside world, our community is rather small. However, because of its size and general cohesiveness, I believe that a ruined reputation here has the potential for big reverberations beyond our own doors.

    The rancor that I saw on some of the blogs worried me. We’re writers, so, we write better than most — and I can only assume the nastiness was crafted and edited rather than merely an off-the-cuff remark. That’s disturbing as well . . .

    So, I hope this blows over. It’ll take some fence mending on all sides and some very strong/secure egos to start the process.

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  4. Toni L.P. Kelner

    Pari,

    I’m pretty freaked by the nastiness, too. It’s not how I expect adult professionals to act. But in thinking it over, I think there are two major contributing factors:

    1) Internet culture. For whatever reason, flame wars and trolls are part of the internet. Whether it’s because these things are posted at a safe distance from the target, or because they’re posted in the heat of the moment, people post things online they’d never say in person.

    2) The growth of the mystery community. The SF community, which has been an organized entity for much longer, has had these schisms and fights even longer. There are books about fan wars. I’m guessing that the larger a group becomes, the more opportunities there are for “us vs. them.”

    I hope it is nothing more serious than that, and I hope it blows over very soon indeed.

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  5. Lorraine T.

    As a life-long avid reader of mysteries and a wanta-be author, these sort of brohaha’s affect me not at all. I don’t search out the blogs, etc. with the rants, whatever. I form no opinion on who’s right or who’s wrong — simply ignore the whole thing.I understand that authors might be pleased about nominations and/or winning awards, but they don’t impact me either. I do not read a book or a writer because of awards — most of the time don’t even know about it unless the book’s cover has it spashed across it. So, maybe it would be good to just let it go, forget about it.Lorraine

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  6. Pari

    Toni,Re: Posting online . . . I wrote an essay about how emails are contributing to a new incivility. Part of the problem stem from — as you note — the distance and rapidity of the medium — and, to me, part of it is because one can’t deduce emotion/intent without vocal clues.

    Lorraine,Thanks for your perspective. There are so many players in this particular flare-up that the likelihood that all of them will let it go is rather small.

    For me, there are people in this current fight about whom I care a great deal. They’re hurting on both “sides.”

    I believe that sometimes — not always — it’s important to work through a difficulty rather than merely ignore or let it quietly fester.

    This is one of those times, IMHO.

    An effort towards reconciliation needs to happen rather than letting this particular wound swell further.

    Even if everyone agrees to disagree, that would be a step in the right direction.

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  7. Carstairs38

    Yes, the internet has definitely decreased civility. I often wonder if it has crept into real life, however. I find people less civil in real life then they used to be.

    I try really hard to think through things I’m saying before I post, but I know I often fail. The most important thing is to quickly admit it when you are wrong instead of fanning the flames and making things worse.

    Mark

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  8. Pari

    Oh, Mark, don’t get me started on the decrease of civility in our society. It’s blatant and manifest in everything from how people drive to folks talking on their cell phones in restaurants. Argh.

    I’m a member of an anachronistic women’s literary club here in Albuquerque — and adore it. The first time I went to one of the meetings, I was agog at how the womenexemplified politeness. They listened to each other attentively. They didn’t interrupt. And, they asked intelligent questions relevant to the subject at hand. They disagreed with class and calm.I thought I’d been transported to another century.

    This literary club gives me a glimpse into how good manners can enrich our lives.

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  9. Elaine

    Pari:

    Thank you for your very eloquent post. I too had hoped that some sense of sanity would prevail – but it appears that’s not the case.

    And it also appears that lines have been drawn in the sand-and that too is a great loss- and not just for those of us who have friends on ‘the other side’-but for the community itself.

    And how about the nominated authors? What must they be feeling? How awful to think their nomination was being labeled as the result of gender bias and not because their work was deemed to be worthy?

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  10. Linda L. Richards

    It’s time to move on. This whole thing has gotten toxic and reflects things on the community which, on the whole, are not accurate.

    Pari, you write: “Every few months in the mystery world there’s a tizzy about this or that nomination list.” I really don’t think that’s true. In fact, considering the large number of awards programs out there, the mystery community chokes up a fairly small number of tizzies worth thinking about.

    With notable exceptions (this current matter being one of them) I’ve found the community of mystery writers to be generous and warm. There are differences on occasion, of course. But there must be: we’re individuals and differences are necessary in order to express that. But, when all is said and done, it seems to me that we care a great deal about each other. I see that so often… certainly much more often than the reverse. On matters of committee, we certainly sometimes get up in arms. (The camel was designed by committee, as I’m so fond of pointing out.) But on an individual level, there is little beyond generosity and caring. Does anything else matter? In the larger picture, I don’t think so.

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  11. Pari

    Elaine,I hope those “lines” are drawn on the beach and that a tide or two will wash them away.

    Linda,Thank you for your post. I stand corrected. I should have put “years” rather than “months.”

    Your perspective is certainly longer and more accurate.

    Still, I don’t remember anything being quite as acrimonious as this current debate.

    Please correct me again, if I’m mistaken.

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  12. Elaine

    I couldn’t agree more with Linda -it’s time to move on, but still – Pari’s post today was important considering the events of the past few days.

    The mystery community IS generous and welcoming-more so than I’ve heard about other genres. Each year there are brouhahas over nominations and winners, and no doubt this will continue. However, the complaints have generally been discussed privately. Now, we have umpteem blogs to air our thoughts. Sadly, there are some who use this venue to level charges, humiliate fellow writers and mystery community members – without thought of the indignities their questionable claims produce.

    Maybe we can hope this debacle will clearly show how futile discussions such as we’ve witnessed really are. And – perhaps give pause to those whose ‘righteous’ agendas – only create divisions and insult and hurt so many innocent people.

    I firmly believe in free speech – but responsible and with dignity for others and for yourself.

    This time, however,

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  13. Linda L. Richards

    Pari: my note wasn’t meant to be critical. I hope you didn’t take it that way. It was just that, as I read your carefully considered posting, it struck me that continued thought on the matter gives the negatives around it power. I’m sounding so new agey today. I don’t mean to.

    And dear, optimistic Elaine wrote:

    “Maybe we can hope this debacle will clearly show how futile discussions such as we’ve witnessed really are. And – perhaps give pause to those whose ‘righteous’ agendas – only create divisions and insult and hurt so many innocent people.”

    It won’t, you know. People with righteous agendas are happy to spread all that stuff. It’s part of the whole righteous agenda package.

    And, sure: free speech is good, right? Of course it is. We need it. But sometimes when that which is free is also toxic, we need to make like ducks and let it roll off our backs.

    Hmmm… I’m sounding entirely like a cynic on sabbatical at an ashram. Sorry. I think I’ll go light some incense, drink some chai tea and meditate on this whole matter.

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  14. Pari

    Elaine,Thank you for the kind words.Time will tell whether lessons have been learned.

    Linda,I did feel a bit abashed. Thank you for clarifying your point a tad more.

    As to sounding “new agey,” well, you’d fit right in here in New Mexico.

    May I join you for that chai?

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  15. Elaine

    Linda! LOL!!

    Without optimisim where the hell would we be? But truth be told – I’m not that optimistic-I was just trying to sound profound.

    And I loved your ‘whole righteous agenda’- and yeah, they do love to spread it and keep it ‘fertilized’. Methinks it rules their lives and how sad is that?

    Just wish you and Pari were coming to ThrillerFest! We could have a few drinks and laugh about this. If you two haven’t met-you’d enjoy each other as much as I do the both of you.

    Maybe next year?

    Reply
  16. Iden Ford

    I think the problem is the internet. It’s so easy to misinterpret and take the wrong way, emails that have been posted on chat sites. Then things start to get out of hand. Elaine and I got off to a very rocky start to our friendship because of internet postings and how they were interpreted. We made up, and she started to understand a certain side of my nature in my posts (thanks Elaine). My wife stays in the background on stuff like this because, being the psychotherapist that she has been for the past 35 years, feels that people communicate so differently when they are face to face. She feels emails can be interpreted comepletely different from face to face discussion, and suddenly you are entrenched in a feeling about someone that can be way out to lunch. But in the end, conflict is what interests people in fiction and certainly those who write fiction, so why is it such a big surprise when people fight over their beliefs, even if they are misguided. It’s absurd (no criticism of anyone) to think that we can get along all of the time. It’s conflict that shapes things, and the creative process is fraught with conflict and frustration. But peace and calm are also necessary for creativity. We observe the human condition through our conflicts, and resolution ultimately brings satisfaction. Just like closing the back cover on a crime novel, hopefully the reader feels satisfied with the conclusion and then says to him/herself, “What shall I read next?”.

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  17. Linda L. Richards

    While Iden makes some interesting points, it can be argued that, online communication is different than other forms, not better or worse. For instance, here we meet without the usual trappings of face-to-face contact. I can’t make a judgment about you based on how you look or what you’re wearing or the timbre of your voice. Lacking all that other stuff, we meet intellect to intellect. Somehow I don’t think that can be an entirely bad thing.

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  18. Iden Ford

    Linda, I disagree with you. The problen is people do not meet intellect to intellect because the written word is so different from the spoken word, and do easily misinterpreted.

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  19. Iden Ford

    Linda, I disagree with you. The problen is people do not meet intellect to intellect because the written word is so different from the spoken word, and so easily misinterpreted.

    Reply
  20. Pari

    Hi all,If anyone is interested further in the email discussion, I wrote a piece about it and incivility that I’d be glad to send along in an . . . you guessed it . . . email.

    Thanks so much for the discussion yesterday.

    I learned quite a bit.

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  21. nancy martin

    Pari, I’m finally getting around to reading some of the fall-out from last week, and I so agree with you. Personally, I was stunned by the depths to which the whole discussion sank. Like Iden, I believe we’ve allowed the faceless element of communicating via the internet to give us permission to forgo the common courtesy usually shared among professionals. But as a blogger myself, I know I have used the occasional hyperbole to be amusing, without seeing how such language can get out of hand. (Until recently, I didn’t know the difference between an essay and a polemic.)

    From a blog that I took to be simply a heads-up that a newfound organization hadn’t quite crossed every “t” in the inclusivity clause of the mission statement (and very little to do with a contest) things careened into a very ugly brawl that left me gob-smacked. (Do I identify myself as a cozy writer with that word?) I’ve always felt controversy is good–it makes everyone stronger. But how last week’s discussion spiraled into ugliness was beyond me.

    Me, I wish last week’s discussion could have taken place at ThrillerFest instead. Looking into each other faces–and sharing a few laughs–perhaps everyone might have chosen their words more carefully and expressed their thoughts more clearly. Certainly kept the name-calling to a minimum. As it is, those who attend the convention will have a great deal to talk about (and laugh about, I hope!) during the official events and the “after hours” convocations, too. My best wishes for a terrific conference.

    Reply

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