Sunday, July 19, 2020

Penzler Strikes Back

New York City bookseller, editor, and publisher Otto Penzler seems to be in the midst of a rough couple of years, the fault for that not exclusively attributable to others.

In 2018, for instance, after the Mystery Writers of America withdrew its nomination of Linda Fairstein for a lifetime achievement award (due to her involvement, as an assistant district attorney, in Manhattan’s notorious 1989 Central Park Five rape prosecutions), Penzler penned a poisonous response to the MWA’s decision. In it, he denounced the organization’s board members as “cowardly” and damned the crime writers (among them Steph Cha and Attica Locke) who’d complained of Fairstein’s part in that legal case as a “small coterie of frightened sheep caving to political correctness.”

Only months later, news that Penzler and Pegasus Books were planning to launch Scarlet, “a joint publishing venture specializing in psychological suspense aimed at female readers,” drew additional disapproval. As short-story writer and blogger David Nemeth opined in Do Some Damage, “what a dumb idea it is to have a man to team up with a publisher with the intent of ‘specializing in psychological suspense aimed at female readers’ in the throes of #MeToo and female empowerment. Does Pegasus Books know how to read a room?” Further criticism flowed Penzler’s way, recalls writer Nick Kolakowski, following word of Scarlet’s decision “to have male authors write or co-write its initial slate of books with ‘complex women,’ and then fade those authors behind either a woman’s pseudonym or a woman co-author.” (The first Scarlet title due for release, in September, will be An Inconvenient Woman, by Stéphanie Buelens.)

And then just two months ago, it was announced that Penzler had been replaced as series editor of the annual anthology Best American Mystery Stories, which he founded back in 1997. It seems Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (which publishes BAMS under its Mariner Books imprint) had taken on a new adult trade publisher, Deb Brody. She, in turn, had decided to let Penzler go and to rebrand his series—beginning in 2021—as The Best American Mystery and Suspense. These changes didn’t sit at all well with Penzler, who responded in a cantankerous Facebook post (which has since been deleted):
According to an announcement from the editor-in-chief of HMH on Monday, the series "is going in an exciting new direction in response to the changing market and evolving readership and with an increased focus on traditionally marginalized voices." This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author. Forgive my bitterness. First off, I published lots of black writers and probably more than I knew since I never required a photo ID. I also published some writers who I know are gay but, again, doubtless others whose sexual preferences were unknown to me--as they should be. No one was marginalized when my first reader Michele Slung, and I, and the guest editors, sought the best stories. I'm now glad that I was not asked to stay on as I never would have agreed to edit a book on these terms.
Intriguingly, his post concluded, “It’s not over. I’ll make an announcement soon.” Only now do we know that remark’s import.

Yesterday brought this notice:

Given Penzler’s penchant for rubbing many people the wrong way, it wasn’t surprising to see this latest news met with doubts, but also with some ringside curiosity. “This has the potential to get … interesting,” Jim Thomsen, a Washington manuscript editor and member of the Mystery Writers of America—Northwest Chapter, observed on Facebook. “Will the author rosters for [Best American Mystery and Suspense and the rival Mysterious Bookshop anthology] break down along tribal lines? What if the competing anthologies want the same story? How old and white and male—Penzler’s core constituency—will the new anthology be? What will the selection criteria and process he for each? Which will sell better, if you had to guess?”

We have another year to wait before such questions can be answered. Meanwhile, the 2020 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, guest-edited by C.J. Box, and featuring Otto Penzler in his final turn as series editor, will be released on Election Day, November 3.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read any of Linda Fairstein's books but shouldn't they be judged on their merits, and not because of the author's life? Also, I'm 69 and white and male and have always enjoyed mysteries. My takeaway from this article is that I should be dismissed because I'm "old and white and male."

J Palmer said...

Please listen to/read the following.

Cancel culture is the new McCarthyism. Journalist Matt Taibbi, like Otto Penzler, is very courageous to stand up to this latest censorship and speak out much more eloquently than I ever could. Your use of words like "cantankerous" "Poisonous" shows your bias, which of course you have every right to express in your blog but imho it is sad that this 'culture' has reached my favorite genre.
Jean Palmer Massachusetts

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Actually, Jean, you don't know my "bias" at all. I've met Otto Penzler a few times, and like him very much. I also have great respect for him as an editor, publisher, and authority on this genre. And I make a point of visiting The Mysterious Bookshop whenever I am in New York City. It's one of the United States' great crime-fiction bookstores.

All that said, I do understand why Penzler's public statements have rubbed some people the wrong way. And I believe they are right to take offense. They're not demonstrating some knee-jerk "cancel culture" impulse, but simply arguing that the country is changing rapidly, and that greater care should be taken in representing those changes, whether in anthologies of fiction or elsewhere.

It's unfortunate, but in my opinion, Penzler can be his own worst enemy at times. He's made statements that at least on the surface suggest an intolerance for cultural evolution and an arrogant disregard for the opinions of others, and those past remarks have come to flavor--perhaps unfairly--the attitudes many younger writers now have of him. Had he been more diplomatic in his remarks, and clearer in showing that he understands the reasons why some authors might find his approach to crime fiction parochial, I think he would not have become a lightning rod for criticism.

I wish Penzler only the best, and I look forward to seeing his new annual short-story collections. I also hope that he and his critics can find some way to peacefully agree to disagree in the future.


Richard Lange said...

Well said, Jeff.

Rick Robinson said...

Can’t we please just evaluate the writing based on quality, and leave the authors’ person, preferences and history out of it? PLEASE?

E. Ellis said...

This is an interesting area of writing right now and to me, we are at such a cultural crossroads all through the world with so many aspects of society crashing into each other at the same time.

If one thinks deeply about fiction, and even non-fiction, there is so much that has been going on in just the past ten years, but one thing that really troubles me is what I see as a slow erosion of creativity because of the individuality of writers and how that has become a litmus test for what a writer writes about or other creative people produce.

And we are seeing this litmus test in almost all forms of expression - this includes art, acting, music, and writing.

I understand Penzler's point about excellence and maybe to counter this some other sort of anthology needs to be created that focuses on new talent or under the radar writing voices.

Which leads to the topic of material access. I think in the last ten years access to all forms of writing and diverse writers has never been higher or broader than ever before. To me, this access is absolutely fantastic, but at the same time, I think many writers seem to sort of ignore how this wide breadth of availability also dilutes the discovery of the great writing out there and makes finding that great riding so much harder to discover.

One last thing I have noticed, there seems to be a clash between starting out writers and older established writers that have put in the years and years before recognition. I'm not suggesting to silence the critique of these voices of anyone for being what they consider to be marginalized, but at the same time, I think this sort of demand for instant recognition is seen almost all across the board in all walks of society when it comes to young vs old.

Kathy D. said...

Women want much more crime fiction written by women. For decades, nearly all of the crime fiction published was written by men, or so many readers thought.
Years ago, when I began reading mysteries, all I could find at the library was written by men, except for Christie, Sayers and Tey.

But I wanted mysteries written by U.S. women writers about women characters.
There are differences in how male and female authors write women characters.
And it took the establishment of Sisters in Crime to make progress. That women writers had to set up that organization showed the dearth of published women mystery writers.

And still there are male reviewers and readers who won't read books written by women. And they make principles about it.

If that had been my attitude about not reading male writers, I wouldn't have read mysteries until the 1980s when Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton were publishing their books.

For a man to publishing books "geared to women readers" and have male writers write them just smacks of sexism. Women had to read books written by men for so long without women writers that we were thrilled to have actual books about women detectives written by women. Is this so hard to understand?

And women do write about their own gender quite well.

This is hardheaded. It seems like Penzler can't evolve with society and the crying need for books by women and people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ writers, etc. They have always been there, but it is a struggle for these writers to get published. Let's broaden the writership and all of us benefit.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Re: "This is hardheaded. It seems like Penzler can't evolve with society and the crying need for books by women and people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ writers, etc. They have always been there, but it is a struggle for these writers to get published."

That hasn't been true for years. The publishing culture evolved long before the current Cancel Culture which wants to establish a quota for everything. The number of books by minorities in recent years far exceeds their numbers by quota, and if you don't think so, you just haven't been paying attention.

Anonymous said...

I have read both the rebranded Best American Mystery and Suspense and Otto
Penzler's new series from the Mysterious Bookshop. There is no comparison.

Penzler and guest Lee Child have chosen stories that are far superior to anything anthologized by the new editors. If their intention was to appeal to women, they failed miserably. Several stories are filled with profanity and one borders on the pornographic. Also, do younger readers, whom they are obviously trying to appeal too, buy books as often as people over 50? I don't think so. I'm sticking with Penzler. It's like, I'm like, not in that generation.