In my chats with mystery writers this weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a few "hot button" topics came up…mainly because I was tackling them on my blog and they wanted to thank me for bringing them into the open. I asked them why, if they share my views, they don’t say so publicly. The answer across the board was the same: fear. They’re afraid of getting lots of angry emails, losing sales, and awkward encounters with fans at signings and conventions.
Anyway, here are some of the hot-button topics that emerged in our conversations:
1) Self-Published Authors: There seems to be a strong consensus among published mystery writers that the MWA has gone astray and that serious efforts should be made to restrict membership to published authors only. "We’re Turning into the ‘Mystery People of America,’" lamented one novelist. Another said "Being a member of the MWA used to mean something…now it doesn’t." Still another feared the MWA was becoming a clone of Sisters in Crime, which she said "should be called ‘PublishAmerica in Crime.’" Many of the authors were hesitant about publicly expressing their view that MWA should become a strictly professional organization because , as one said, "I don’t want to deal with all of the controversy it’s going to create. I don’t want people hating me." But that same person would gladly, and quickly, vote yes for such reforms.
I agree with the view that the MWA should restrict its membership to published authors and produced screenwriters only. That said, I think the view of Sisters in Crime that one author expressed is unfair and way, way too harsh. I think SiC is a fine organization that does a great job, offering tremendous support to aspiring writers and hosting interesting seminars and conferences (as well as producing an informative newsletter that, in many ways, is better than the MWA’s). The success of SiC, in my mind, is evidence that there’s really no need for no need for MWA to expand to include self-published and aspiring authors among their ranks.
2) The LA Times Book Review: Most agreed it’s a snooze that doesn’t do a very good job covering crime fiction in a city that’s so associated culturally with the genre in both literature and film. When I brought up Eugen Weber, the most frequent response was "who is that?" Which tells you all you need to know about how relevant his views are in the field.
3) Fanfiction: It creeps out most of the authors I spoke to (a few, it should be noted, have no problem with it and knew of several novelists who got their start writing fanfiction). They’re all struck by the double standard — it’s okay for fanfic writers to steal your work, but if they see something similar to one of their stories in your book they’ll threaten to sue (or write very nasty letters). They said if the fans truly respected the author and his work, they should ask for permission before disseminating fanfiction (it’s not the writing that bothered them, it was the "publishing" of it on the Internet). The authors I spoke to said they don’t complain about fanfic or publicly forbid it because they are terrified of the blacklash, of getting deluged with hate mail. Instead, they close their eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist.
4) The Increasing Influence of Blogs: The authors I spoke to
believe that attention from the crime-fiction-oriented blogs has become
a more significant factor in sales and buzz than mainstream reviews.
They say that publications like Mystery Scene, Publishers Weekly and Ellery Queen, or a review from Marilyn
Stasio, don’t seem to carry the same impact as the heat and attention a half-dozen
popular blogs can generate (almost all the authors I talked to read Sarah Weinman’s blog on a daily basis). They also say that the bloggers tend to be "more
well read, and more hip, than some of the entrenched critics whose
attitudes about the genre seemed fixed in 1972 and can’t embrace the
evolution of the form." The authors I spoke to shared the opinion that
bloggers are steeped in the genre, read more small-press and paperback
originals than the mainstream critics, review books within days of
their release, and are faster to spot and new trends.
5) Related to #4, the Cultification of Authors: Call this the
flipside of crime fiction blogging. Many of the folks I talked to told
me they were stunned by the negative backlash when I mentioned that, as
much as I like and admire Ken Bruen, I wasn’t as wowed by THE GUARDS as
some folks were. So many authors I spoke to said the downside of crime
fiction blogging, and the growing influence of those bloggers, is that
once they discover an author, they deify him or her. Loyalty to the
author and his work becomes a litmus test of crime fiction hipness
among the bloggers and their readers. And because most of the bloggers
are fans, hanging out with the chosen authors at conventions and
signings is also a status-thing. Authors and fans are afraid to even
lightly criticize a novel by a writer who has been "discovered" or
championed by the bloggers for fear of being ostracized from the
in-group. What stunned me was that these views about the downside of
blogging were expressed by several authors who are on among the current
darlings of the blogging community. The fact that these authors are so
well-aware (and self-aware) of the downside surprised me. I figured
they’d be so absorbed in all the adulation they wouldn’t see any