Monday, May 22, 2006

Opening Arguments

To quote the immortal Mark Twain, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Yes, there have been a number of loyal January Magazine readers who surmised, given the unexplained absence of “The Rap Sheet” since November, that yours truly must either be terminally depressed, or just plain terminal. In fact, neither was the case. I simply found myself overwhelmed by the success that January’s crime-fiction newsletter was enjoying.

When I began producing “The Rap Sheet” back in the spring of 1999 (wow, can it really have been that long ago?), it was of a manageable size. The first edition ran to only 2,684 words long. However, in the ensuing years, what with the addition of mini-reviews written by others, our crime-fiction report expanded to more than 16,000 words and turned into a daunting project for all concerned. It also started to seem ... well, rather old-fashioned. As the Web filled up with new and more timely sources of useful information about this genre, our schedule--posting a magazine-like journal once a month, with no chance to update the thing in between--appeared out of step. It was a resource made available via the most modern technology, but one that simultaneously ignored some of the great opportunities presented by that same technology.

So by last year, I was feeling frustrated with the venture. But, just when I was ready to throw in the towel, to tell readers that I couldn’t keep going at the pace I’d been maintaining, January Magazine's Crime Fiction department won the Gumshoe Award for Web sites, making it only the second site (after Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind in 2004) to be so commended for its coverage of this literary field. It would’ve looked strange to fold up “The Rap Sheet” at that moment, right after having earned such acclaim, partly on the popularity of the “Sheet”; so instead I persevered, hoping to ride the invigoration brought on by the Gumshoe win for at least a year or two more. No such luck. A few months later, I was right back where I’d started--exhausted and needing a change. Therefore, as January closed out 2005, I placed the newsletter on an unannounced hiatus, unsure of its future.

In the meantime, last summer I launched a blog called Limbo. It started out as a lark, a limitless venue for my writings about politics, culture, television, and other subjects, but soon turned into something of which I was rather proud. Readers and other bloggers both started to notice my efforts and compliment me on them; another blog, The Reaction, even began adding some of my Limbo posts to its own contents. And I found that, far from being the technological throwback I imagined was my shameful lot in life, I was in fact somewhat adept at designing blogs and working out their code-writing quirks. It all started me thinking: Could “The Rap Sheet” be transformed from a once-a-month periodical into a freer-flowing, ever-expanding blog, instead?

What you’re looking at now is the result of those musings. My intentions with this revamped Rap Sheet are similar to those I expressed when I initially launched the newsletter in January. I want to spread the word about new and noteworthy crime novels. I want to keep readers apprised of developments in the genre and alert them to stories found elsewhere, in print or on the Web, that might increase their interest in crime novelists. And I want to celebrate the mystery story--past and present--for its intentions and potential (not always realized, sadly). But this new Rap Sheet can do other things, besides. I hope it will become a place for timely info about awards presentations and clues to the best available new reading matter, as well as home to what we used to call in the newspaper game “brites”: short posts intended to be humorous, whether their subject is some oddball statement made by a “name” author or a contributor’s rant about an annoying trend in the genre. The Rap Sheet should be flexible enough, too, to address crime fiction’s role in the larger world of book publishing. (Two posts--here and here--about The New York Times’ choice of a “single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years” already demonstrate that flexibility.)

To keep you in touch with, or introduce you to the astounding breadth of writing about crime fiction, we’ve discontinued January’s separate Crime Fiction Links page in favor of including those links--upwards of 200 so far--in this blog, where they can be updated more easily. We’ll limit our tendency to review books here, and concentrate such criticism in the well-trafficked main pages of January Magazine. However, we’ll be taking advantage of this new format to occasionally expand our field of view from books to television and film, since crime fiction isn’t confined to a single modern medium. We’ll also try to keep you apprised of any close encounters we have with members of the crime-writing fraternity, especially if those meetings are (1) educational, (2) humorous in some regard, or (3) lubricated with copious amounts of drinking. Or all of the aforementioned.

Fortunately, several other January veterans have volunteered (and I do mean that literally) to help out. In the future, you’re likely to spot the occasional post by Anthony Rainone, Stephen Miller, Ali Karim, January editor Linda L. Richards (whose third Madeline Carter novel, Calculated Loss, is due out in September), and maybe even the wonderfully controversial Kevin Burton Smith. I’ll see what I can do, too, about coercing a few published crime writers to join us in this handsome new sandbox of ours.

Let us know what you think, as the reincarnated Rap Sheet tests its newfound freedom.


Anonymous said...

Great to see you back on the crime fiction scene. I usually share your literary and political opinions, and found many good reads thanks to the Rap Sheet. Can't wait to see what you recommend next.

One tiny critic: I don"t really understand the fuss about the NYT survey. Seen from this side of the Atlantic, *Beloved* seems quite noir (although to me, Morrison's masterpiece is *Jazz*, by far). And one could argue that most of Carver's fiction *is* deconstructed noir fiction. To me, noir is probably the most interesting part of crime fiction, so... (BTW, you didn't quote Ellroy in your list of writers-that-could-or-should-have-been-there, even though he is mentioned earlier in reference to De Lillo. *His* absence shocked me more than any of the other names you quote, even though they are indisputably great crime fiction novelists.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff and the gang -

Really pleased to see The Rap Sheet back as a blog!

I recall reading interviews at Jan Mag as well as looking forward to each each Rap Sheet avidly, and then I emailed Jeff and asked if he'd like me to contribute.

Fast forward a few years and I ended up meeting my idol Robert Littell who only agreed to speak to January Magazine after [1] He read my questions which I had to email in advance and [2] Bob Littell thought January Magazine was an excellent resource.

Thanks to Jan Mag I found my name next to one of my favourite writers, spending a wonderful day with Bob Littell and Peter Mayer :-

So I hope to be able to contribute every so often to this excellent blog, featuring information about the Crime / Mystery and Thriller world from the European side of the Atlantic.

Long live The Rap Sheet


Anonymous said...

Great news!
Long live the Rap Sheet (blog)!