Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Under the Big Umbrella

by Kathleen Ernst

Last week Deborah Sharp posted about writers at conferences who don’t play well with others. Most of the comments revolved around people who take over panels.

I have my own particular pet peeve when I attend conferences: writers who bash other writers.

My introduction to the mystery community came long before my Chloe Ellefson series launched last fall. I published my first middle grade mystery in 2000. I soon learned that while some writers and conference organizers welcomed children’s writers, others did not. The first Bouchercon I attended did not include even a token panel about J/YA writers, even though there were a handful of us there. I was told that one of the organizers had made it clear from the beginning that Bouchercon was for and about those writing for adults.

Many conference planners have, of course, not only welcomed J/YA writers, but put great energy into fostering literacy efforts and engaging local kids. If nothing else, most people realize that authors who write children’s mysteries are hooking future adult-book buyers on the genre.

But the bias is still out there. At one event I did after Old World Murder was published last fall, the author who introduced me said something about me now being a “real writer.” Ouch.

The so-called cozy writers also seem to take it on the proverbial chin. At Bouchercon Chicago, I attended a panel titled something like “Things That Bug Me.” An author I greatly admired was on the panel, along with three authors I didn’t know. I thought they’d be discussing poor characterization or unfair reviews or some such. Instead, it turned into an hour of cozy-bashing. The panelists were very funny—in a mocking and condescending kind of way. One writer was singled out for special ridicule.

If I hadn’t been in the absolute middle of a packed room, I would have walked out. (And was I ever disappointed in the Writer I Used To Admire.)

Although that was the worst example I’ve seen of sub-genre bashing, it pops up from time to time at other cons as well. Interestingly, I’ve never heard cozy or traditional writers criticize those who write other types of books.

My advice? If you don’t like a particular sub-genre of mysteries, don’t read them.

Another example of writer-bashing happens when published authors get their shorts in a wrinkle by aspiring writers. I taught writing for years, andumbrella Shutterstock I’m one of those people who uses the phrase “pre-published” instead of “unpublished.” The mere term drives some writers to outbursts of peeve.

I don’t assume that everyone who wants to write a mystery will find a home for their manuscript. But I know how much courage it sometimes takes a novice to walk into their first MWA chapter meeting, or to participate in their first serious writing class. If I can encourage newcomers by referring to them as pre-published, I will.

The mystery umbrella is pretty big. I think there’s room for us all.


graphic: Shutterstock


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

There's definitely a little ugliness out there...not just in the mystery genre, but between genres, too--romance against mystery, fic lit against anything commercial, etc. You've made a nice call for writers to take the high road.

Lois Winston said...

I've never understood the us vs. them mentality, but it's pervasive in this country, and it starts way before most kids can even read. Why do people have to build themselves up at the expense of others when the win/win scenario is best for everyone?

This came to such a boiling point in one writing organization I belonged to that a couple of years ago some of us left and started a new organization -- one that welcomes writers of ALL genres and sub-genres. We were hoping to have 50 members by the end of the first year. We had more than 50 by our inaugural meeting. A little more than 2 years later, we have over 200 members, have one conference behind us and another scheduled for a week and a half from now.

Meanwhile, that other organization? More than half the members wound up leaving and joining us. Draw your own conclusion.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Excellent post, Kathleen. I've also had slurs thrown my way because I write humorous mysteries (seems many "real" writers don't consider them "real" mysteries). I've even called a couple of friends on the carpet for throwing mud at cozies. I told one pompous soul: I'll stack my sales against yours any day. He shut up.

The same goes for the "pre-published" moniker. We were all "pre-published" at some point. Something many authors like to forget.

Another prejudice concerns who publishes you. A lot of writer and even bookstores look down on you if you are not published by one of the BIG houses. It's another level of second and even third-class citizenry.

G.M. Malliet said...

It's changing. It's changing slowly, but Bouchercon (my impression) is trying to be more inclusive. It's not all hard-boiled detectives, and that is a very very good thing for all.

That said, I went to Bouchercon before I was published and I went to Bouchercon after I was published, and I can tell you published is way better.

Keith Raffel said...

Is it the same crime fiction writers who complain about being disregarded by reviewers of literary fiction who disparage cozy writers?

Beth Groundwater said...

Those of us who are published were all pre-published at some point, or "aspiring authors" as I like to call the group. I still remember those long, painful years of wondering if I'd ever get published, so aspiring authors have a special place in my heart, and I try to offer advice or a helping hand whenever I can. Published authors did so for me when I was struggling, so it's payback time. And persistence is key! I'm testimony to that, with today being the release date for Deadly Currents, my third published book and the first in my second series.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Elizabeth, you're right - it exists between genres as well.

Lois, I do see that "us vs. them" mentality in lots of things that extend way beyond the writing arena. I wish that weren't the case... Good for you for starting a new and inclusive group!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sue Ann - ha! Good for you. I once had a writer-friend admit publicly that he thought of writing for kids as a lesser thing - until he realized what sales could be. My kids' mysteries have done well sales-wise, but I do wish it went beyond numbers. Some fantastic stuff is being published in the J/YA world--just as it is in the humorous mystery world!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Gin - I agree. I've been really heartened by recent efforts to not just permit J/YA writers to participate, but to encourage them.

Keith - Excellent question!

Beth - congrats on book #3! And as you said, we all started at the same place, once. Lots of people have helped me along the way as well, and I try to pass that along when I can.

Mark said...

I've read best selling books for adults that I would put up against books written for kids. The kids books would win hands down for writing style/depth as well as character and plot.

And cozies? That's mostly what I read.

We all have prejudices. As much as I like to think I don't, it's true of me, too. The secret is to recognize them and try to cover come them.

Although I think we should all be able to take some good natured ribbing. As much as I love cozies, I also love some of the spoofs/send ups I've seen.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for your comments, Mark. I agree that we all do have our prejudices. I probably need to think more about my own, and make sure I'm not letting them sneak out in ways I might not even be aware of!

jlourey said...

I'm sorry you've had negative experiences, Kathleen. I'm actually aspiring to be a YA author...someday! Actually, my goal is to have my first YA book written in this next year. I think YA is where some of the most impressive and exciting writing is to be found.

As to the mystery community, I've been incredibly lucky. I've encountered (with a handful of notable exceptions) only kind, incredibly generous readers and writers who go out of their way to support mystery writers across sub-genres and age. I think it's mostly good people out there, though those few bad ones can definitely sour the experience.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Jess, with your unique voice, you'll do great in the YA arena! Go for it!

Vickie said...

As a reader of mysteries of all type, I get a lot of flack for not reading 'real' books....ah well, I'm reading what I enjoy. I read to escape. I don't flip anyone hooey what they read just because it's not what I enjoy.
Those that thumb their noses make us who don't thumb, look better. It's better to take the high road.