“I DON’T READ WOMEN WRITERS”

Recently, author Gay Talese caused a firestorm when he answered a question during a Q & A at a literary event about what women writers had inspired him. Talese was clearly a little nonplussed by the question: “Uh, I’d say Mary McCarthy was one. I would, um, [pause] think [pause] of my generation [pause] um, none.”

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By the time he’d gotten home, the 84 year old Talese, who’d penned such classics of literary journalism as “Honor Thy Father”, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” and “The Kingdom and The Power,” was being told by the Red Caps at the Amtrak station that he’d “gotten himself in trouble” up in Boston (according to the account in the New York Times). His wife told him “Welcome home. You’re all over Twitter.” And so he was. The online service had exploded with tweets calling him “sexist” and “out of touch.” They reacted with disbelief to his further remarks that, in his day, women weren’t tending to do “exploratory” journalism like he was doing, “Because…women, educated women, writerly women, don’t want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers, or people that I’m attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable.” They pointed out female non-fiction writers like Joan Didion, Gloria Steinem, Mary McGrory, Ellen Willis, Edna Buchanan—the list goes on and on.

Now, Talese claims he misunderstood the question, and maybe that’s true. And this was Twitter, after all, which is famous for demonizing and ruining people before its hive-mind has had a chance to think.

But I myself have heard people dismiss female writers, especially in my own area of crime and thriller fiction. I’m thinking in particular about a fellow who asked me at one signing who I was reading at the moment. I mentioned how much I was enjoying one of Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels. The man (who really did seem like an otherwise nice fellow) pursed his lips in distaste. “I don’t read woman writers,” he said. I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t answer for a moment. Finally, I just said “well, you’re missing out on a lot,” which was certainly a lot nicer than what I wanted to say. Since then, other writers have told me they’ve heard the same thing, and I’ve seen similar comments online. “I don’t read female writers.”

To which I can only reply:  WTF?

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I can kindasorta understand the people who tell me “I only read non-fiction.”  I certainly don’t feel that way, but I can see how some people might.

But if I’d said “I don’t read women writers,” I’d have missed out on the above-mentioned Laura Lippman’s amazing work. I’d have missed Val McDermid and Karin Slaughter and Megan Abbott and Barbara Seranella (RIP). I’d have missed the work and thus most likely the friendship of some of my favorite people, like Tasha Alexander and Toni McGee Causey and Margaret Maron and Alexandra Sokoloff. I’d have missed the work and the friendship of the extremely talented ladies on these blog: Sarah and Kate and Lise and Taffy and Sparkle.

In fact, if I’d turned my back on female authors, I probably wouldn’t be writing crime fiction today, at least not in the way I do now, because it was our very own Katy Munger who gave me my earliest encouragement and whose Casey Jones PI novels taught me by example that my native North Carolina could be a pretty cool place to write about (Thanks, Katy).

So, Thalians and friends of the blog: have you ever had someone tell you “I don’t read women writers?” And what would you suggest for them, other than a long walk off a short pier?

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Hugos And Edgars and Puppies, Oh My!

So Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” has won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Those bastards. I NEVER win.

I’m joking, of course. I have as much chance of winning a Pulitzer for either my fiction or my newspaper columns as I have of being tapped to command the International Space Station, and you know what? I’m cool with that.

But it does seem an opportune time to talk about awards.

Recently, the Science Fiction writing and fan communities have been roiled by a kerfuffle over the genre’s prestigious Hugo Award. If you’re not familiar with either the award or the kerfuffle, allow me, a once and future SF junkie, to give you a quick synopsis.

The Hugos are a fan-based award, voted on by the attendees and “supporting members” (paid but not attending) of the World Science Fiction convention, or Worldcon. Worldcon is to the SF community what Bouchercon is to the mystery/thriller community, and thus, the Hugo is a Very Big Deal.

There’ve been a number of writers honored who were not male Caucasians. To a group of white, male, politically conservative writers who have dubbed themselves the “Sad Puppies,” that means they could not have possibly won on the merits but must be the result of “Social Justice Warriors” (SJW’s for short) “gaming” the voting. Never mind that there’s no real evidence of this. Rule One of Conspiracies is that lack of evidence merely proves the cover-up.

So SF writer Larry Correia decided that the reason he’d never won a Hugo was that he was a victim of the aforementioned “SJW” conspiracy. He and similarly disgruntled writers John C. Wright and Brad R. Torgerson decided they were going to rally conservatives to vote for “their” kind of Science Fiction, concocting a “Sad Puppies” slate of writers whose work and politics they approved of. Writer/editor/publisher Theodore Beale, for his part, went further and backed his own slate of “Rabid Puppies” which included–surprise!–himself.

It bears mentioning that Beale (who also calls himself “Vox Day”) is a particularly vile little man who claims to be a defender of “Christian values” but who was kicked out of the Science Fiction Writers of America for calling a female African American writer an “educated but ignorant half savage.” Most recently, he suggested online that the reason Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed an airliner into the French Alps with 150 people on board was that he was a sexually frustrated “Omega male” with low “socio-sexual status” and opined that, and I quote, “it is somewhat haunting to think about how many lives might be saved each year if the sluts of the world were just a little less picky and a little more equitable in their distribution of blowjobs.” He’s a real charmer, ain’t he?

Anyway, by stirring up their blog readers and others into thinking that voting for the SP slates would be “sticking a finger in the eye” of liberals and what they call “Social Justice warriors” or “SJWs,” the Puppies, both Sad and Rabid,  managed to get their nominees on the Worldcon ballot.

Consternation ensued. There’s been much hand-wringing across the Internet about whether the Hugos are irreparably tarnished. Many vowed to write in NO AWARD in every category. Some nominees, such as military SF author Marko Kloos, short story author Annie Bellet, and the online fantasy website Black Gate, withdrew their names from nomination rather than be associated with such blatant manipulation.

So much has been written about the whole mess that anything I’d says specifically would be redundant. But it does point out just how seriously people take awards.

You know, I somehow managed to not go on a freakin’ crusade against mystery fandom when I didn’t win the Shamus I was nominated for. And I didn’t blame some “vast right wing/left wing/Scientology conspiracy” when the blog I used to write for got passed over for the Anthony in Baltimore. But I do know that for years, within hours of the announcement of an Edgar, an Anthony, a Macavity, or a Thriller getting handed out, people take to the Internet to voice their displeasure.

“Where’s [insert name of favored book here]!?”

“Why doesn’t [insert name of favored author here] ever get nominated!?”

“Why does [insert name of disfavored author here] always get nominated!?”

“Why aren’t there more women writers on the list!?”

“The fix is in! The fix is in!”

Sigh.

Look, I can only answer as to the Edgars, and then only for the two years I was a judge (one year for the YA category and one for Best Novel). I can attest to the fact that the people who let themselves get suckered into who graciously volunteer when asked try very hard to do a good job and to be fair to everyone. I haven’t detected any political agendas, and since several of the judges I’ve worked with have been women, no gender bias. They do tend to make the decision by consensus and committee, with the inherent weaknesses of that way of doing things. But I can’t think of a better way to handle it, especially at the end of an exhausting year of reading book after book that you really didn’t intend to read, but you had to catch up on the endless tide of incoming novels.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not griping. I had a blast, read some good books and a few great ones, and I’m happy with the choices we made.

As for awards awarded by popular vote, I can’t really speak to those. Perhaps the readership can weigh in as to whether anyone’s “gaming” those and if so, how.

I do promise you one thing, though:  if my book DEVILS AND DUST is not nominated for an Anthony for 2015, I will not pitch a self-pitying hissy fit like those mooks trying to game the Hugo awards.

I will not stamp my little feet and claim that I am the victim of discrimination and PC oppression because I am a straight white cisgendered male.

I will not put together a slate of similarly disappointed writers and call it “Mournful Mongrels” or “Despondent Doggies” or any such silliness as that.

‘Cause Dusty don’t roll like that.

But, you know, a nomination would be pretty cool.

Just think it over. No pressure.

New Beginnings, No Ending

Well, here I am, back in the world of “traditional” publishing. Sort of. After several years as my own publisher, my latest book, DEVILS AND DUST, is being released by an actual (if new) publishing house, Polis Books. It’s out now in hardcover and for all the well-known e-book platforms: Amazon, B & N, iBooks, and Kobo. Audiobook editions of this and the first three Jack Keller books are in the works right now with Audible.com.

Devils and Dust

 So, what does this mean? Am I abandoning my self-pubbing career and admitting failure? Is this a sign that the whole e-book direct-publishing thing was just a fad?

Not at all. In fact, I am as sick of articles declaring the “death of e-publishing” because of minor downticks in the sale of e-books as I am of the articles predicting the “death of the print book” whenever e-book sales go up. I am REALLY sick of people I like and respect tearing at one another and making nasty remarks because they’re on opposite sides of some imaginary e-book/print book or “legacy publishing”/”indie publishing” divide. The traditionally published authors claim all indie published work is cheap unedited crap that will keep everyone from making a living and the indies accuse the traditionalists of wanting to keep all the cookies for themselves.

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Stop it, ya’ll. Just stop it.

The fact is, I’ve self-published work I love and care about, reached new readers, and made quite a bit of money, more money than I ever did with my former house. But then, I met up with a smart, innovative, and energetic small press owner who immediately responded to the casual e-mail query “you interested in re-issuing the first three Jack Keller books?” with “you interested in writing a fourth one?” That was on a Saturday morning. By Monday, we had a deal. That’s how things ought to work, but never do in big-house publishing, where everything takes forever and, even if an editor likes the book, the decision has to go through the marketing department while you, the author, wait and fret.

It certainly helps that Jason Pinter, who founded and runs Polis, is not only experienced in publishing and marketing, but he’s a writer as well. Far too often, and for far too long, our livelihoods as creative people have been at the mercy of people who are not themselves creative. This is how we get the all-too-common rejection that says “we love this book, but marketing says they don’t know how to sell it.”

I will almost certainly have projects in the future that I believe in, but that don’t fit in to what others need. Experience has taught me, however, that those projects can find readers and make money if I put them on the market myself. The best thing about this brave new world is the number of options it gives us. I’d even consider an offer from one of the big houses again–but I’d be secure in the knowledge I could walk away from it if I don’t like the deal.

Back in 2011, when I announced my first serious foray into self-publishing, I wrote a blog article that quoted SF writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Those words are as instructive today as they were back then:

“I personally want readers and I want as many readers as possible.  More readers equal more money—of course—but more readers also equal a long-term career.  If my book is in print from a Big Publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers.  If my book is in print from my self-publishing arm or an indie publisher, then theoretically the book is attracting readers. And that, my friends, is really what matters.”

‘Nuff said.

Extraordinary Lives

This being the week of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I’m thinking of my friend Herman. (Actually, I think of Herman quite often, since he’s one of a small group of attorneys I eat lunch with several times a week). Herman’s 84 now, and still practicing part-time. And man, has this guy seen some history. In 1963, he was a schoolteacher, teaching in an all-black school in St. Louis. After his daughter discovered she couldn’t enter the segregated amusement park in town, Herman joined up with CORE, The Congress For Racial Equality. When St. Louis’ Jefferson bank fired all its black tellers, CORE picketed the place. Herman was one of the 19 protesters arrested. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and did about two weeks of it before a team of volunteer lawyers, both black and white, got the sentence overturned. After that, he became interested in the law, but he hesitated to leave his safe job. When he met Dr. King at a CORE conference in Miami, though, the great man put things in perspective. “Young man,” he told Herman, “I get death threats and threats against my family nearly every day. You don’t know what fear IS.” That settled it. Herman finished law school and has been going strong ever since. Recently, he attended the 50 year anniversary of the Jefferson Bank March, which was one of the turning points in overcoming segregation in St. Louis.

A few nights ago, my wife and I had dinner with my mom at the retirement community where she lives. We were joined by a fascinating gentleman named Mohsin and his wife. Born to a well-to-do family in Northern India, he served in the RAF in Asia in World War II, after which he became the diplomatic reporter for Reuters for 30 years, covering the Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian peace negotiations, nuclear non-proliferation and test ban talks, and a host of other historic events. When he retired from Reuters, the Queen made him an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Mohsin’s wife is equally extraordinary; she was a scientist with the EPA when female scientists were rare. While at dinner, Mohsin loaned me a copy of E.M. Forster’s  classic novel A PASSAGE TO INDIA–which is dedicated to Mohsin’s uncle. The copy Mohsin loaned me has a picture of him with Forster, who was his guardian when he came to England.

So what’s the point of this? Just that wherever you are, there are people all around you with fascinating stories to tell, people who have seen and done amazing things. As storytellers and lovers of great stories, we owe it to them and to ourselves to find them and let those stories be told.

So who are some of the extraordinary people YOU know? Tell us their stories.

What I Read On My Summer Vacation

So I’m back from my  long-awaited and sorely needed vacation, in which  the missus and I spent a week on lovely Oak Island, NC. There’s just something about the ocean that makes it impossible to hold onto stress for long. A few days next to that immensity and that steady, eternal rhythm constantly in your ears is better than a truckload of Valium, IMHO.

I confess, I’m pretty boring at the beach. Some people seem to regard the beach as a place for vigorous physical activity. They bring volleyball nets, footballs, Frisbees, etc. Me, I tend to sit by the water and read, pausing only to take a dip when it gets too hot or a walk (and by “a walk” I usually mean a trip back up to the beach house for more beer). It’s great to have that leisure time to really be able to focus. It also helps that I’m usually away from the Internet. This time, my only connection was a weak (and let’s be honest, not totally legal) connection to the unsecured Wi-fi next door. So my web surfing, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. was nearly non-existent, which gave me more time to read and fewer available distractions from it. And when I have that kind of time, I really plow through them.

So, this is what I read while at the beach:

 HOSTILE WITNESS, William Lashner: Dave White was raving about this underappreciated author a while back,  and Dave’s a damn fine writer himself. So I downloaded this one, and let me tell you, it’s great.

Victor Carl is the perfect noir protagonist: grasping, resentful, bitter that his legal career never put him amongst the elite of Philadelphia society. When he’s offered a chance to take over as counsel for what seems to be a minor player in a Federal racketeering and extortion trial, he jumps at the chance to play in the big leagues. Victor initially balks at the fact that the trial is in two weeks, but the blue-blood society lawyer defending the main player, a flamboyant city councilman, assures him that all he has to do is follow the lead of the big boys, show a united front, and keep his mouth shut. Pretty much everyone but Victor can see he and his client are being set up to take the fall. Fall he does, in spectacular fashion, including falling for the councilman’s mistress, a classic femme fatale if ever there was one. But he keeps getting back up….

This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

 NEVER GO BACK, Lee Child: Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet the woman who he’s been trying to get to for the last two books, an Army Major (and commander of his old unit) who he only knows as an interesting voice on the phone. When he gets there, she’s in jail, Jack’s charged with the murder of someone he barely remembers, AND he gets hit with a paternity claim from a woman he doesn’t remember at all. Clearly somebody’s trying to make Reacher run away and abandon the damsel in distress, and we all know that’s not going to happen. Asses are kicked, names are taken, Jack does what Jack does. It’s the same old thing, but it’s the same old great thing. Recommended.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, Don Winslow:  Disgraced former cop Jack Wade, currently an arson investigator for the titular insurance company, is convinced that the fire that  destroyed the house of real estate mogul Nicky Vale and incinerated Vale’s beautiful estranged wife Pamela was not, as his former colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department ruled, an accident. No, he thinks it was arson and very possibly murder. As he digs into the evidence, both literally and figuratively, he discovers a web of deceit, betrayal, and counter-betrayal that may just lead to his own immolation.

All I can say about this book is: Wow. Only a writer as skilled as Don Winslow could make a plaintiff’s lawyer like me love a book with a claims adjuster as its protagonist. A surfing claims adjuster, of course, because this is, after all, Don Winslow. But he keeps you guessing, twist upon twist, until the final surprise and an absolutely perfect twist at the end. Highly recommended.

THREE GRAVES FULL, Jamie Mason: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard,” this book begins, and there’s even less for hapless nebbish Jason Getty when the landscaping crew he’s hired turns up two other bodies, neither of which are the man he killed a year ago and buried to cover up the crime. When a pair of engaging small town detectives (and a dog who always follows her nose) pursue the investigation into the two bodies in the front yard, they turn up evidence of another crime they can’t identify…and then things get a little crazy.

One of the cover blurbs compared this to a Coen brothers movie, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the Fargo-esque setup of good hearted small town cops vs. a Casper Milquetoast scrambling to cover up the crime he committed when pushed too far. But Jamie Mason’s worldview isn’t quite as bleak as the Coen’s. The book’s a lot of fun, and I have to admire the skill of a writer who can use a dog as a viewpoint character and not make me roll my eyes. Recommended.

THE SECRET SOLDIER, Alex Berenson: Pretty standard stuff for an international thriller. Troubled ex-CIA agent John Wells is your usual two-fisted thriller hero in the Bolt Studly mold, who gets called in to set things right in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by no less than King Abdullah himself. There’s some interesting stuff about the House of Saud and how they came to power, and the villain is suitably scary and believable. There’s a long stretch in the beginning where Wells and his sidekick are chasing a renegade CIA agent turned drug dealer which I kept waiting to connect with the rest of the book, but which never really does.  Still, it was entertaining, and good for a beach read.

 THE LIVES OF TAO, Wesley Chu: Human history has been influenced since the dawn of mankind by a group of non-corporeal aliens who crashed here millennia ago and have been possessing human hosts ever since, using them to try and nudge human progress to the point where humanity has the ability to get the aliens home. A while back, they split into two factions, one more ruthless and violent than the other. When one of the more peaceful aliens suffers the unexpected and violent loss of his host, he winds up in the body of overweight and aimless computer geek Roen Tan and is forced to make the best use of his raw material. The “Zero to Hero, with hot ass-kicking chicks in leather along the way” trope is pretty obviously aimed at what the publishers assume is SF’s core demographic. The book takes a while to get going, but eventually ends up being a fun action romp. Still, I don’t think I’ll be getting the sequel.

FIDDLEHEAD, Cherie Priest: The final chapter in Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series (or so she says) ends up being the best one I’ve read so far. It’s got all the wild inventiveness of BONESHAKER (how can you resist an alternate Civil War history steampunk zombie story, with airships?) and the breakneck action of DREADNOUGHT (same thing with steam powered mecha and armored trains), without the clumsy characterization and stilted dialogue of those two. I liked it a lot.

So, what are you folks reading?

 

 

Joe Cool

by J.D. Rhoades

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I’m not as cool as I used to be.

I was reminded of this the other night as I was watching one of my favorite shows these days. It’s called “Live From Daryl’s House.” Each half hour episode is hosted by Daryl Hall. Yeah, that Daryl Hall, formerly of Hall and Oates. Hall invites a different artist every week to his actual house in rural New York for dinner and music with his band of excellent sidemen. The guests range from veterans like Smokey Robinson and Booker T. Jones to up and coming acts like Plain White T’s (the duo who brought you “Hey There Delilah”) and Sharon Jones (of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings). The show started as a webcast, and you can still catch it online, but it’s also now on the music network Palladia. Everyone seems to be having a good time just kicking back and playing some good music, and I really enjoy it.

But you know, there was a time when I would have turned up my nose at the idea of watching anything hosted by someone as “Top 40” as Daryl Hall. In the 70’s, Hall and Oates weren’t cool enough for me. They didn’t rock nearly hard enough for a kid who was into Zeppelin, AC/DC and Aerosmith. By the 80’s, I was wearing my ripped jeans and my Clash T-shirts and cranking up the Elvis Costello and Lou Reed. I confess, I even looked down my nose at some of the bands I’d previously loved, who I now regarded as dinosaurs (at least in public–I’d still put on the great big black Koss headphones with the foam earpieces and drop the needle on my worn copy of “Physical Graffiti” from time to time, but only when I didn’t think anyone else was around).

In short, like a lot of young men in their late teens and early twenties, I was too cool for some kinds of music. Which is to say, I was an insufferable snob, a hipster before that was the word for it. I’m not saying I actually coined the catchphrase, “oh, yeah, they’re my favorite band. They’re kind of obscure though, you probably never heard of them.” But I did say stuff like that. I’m not saying I’m proud of it.

But in the past few years, I guess I’ve mellowed. Okay, I still think “Rich Girl” is annoying, but I can listen to a song like “Sara Smile” or “She’s Gone” and recognize them for the wonderfully emotive bits of blue-eyed soul that they are. And I play my AC/DC records right out in the open again (to the accompaniment of much eye-rolling from the wife and kids. They’re still cool, you know).

Sad to say, once I started writing mysteries, I slowly drifted back into the same old trap. I was a noir and hardboiled guy, pure and simple. I loved Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Duane Swierczynski, Allan Guthrie. The closest I ever got to mainstream was Elmore Leonard. When I read “the classics” it was likely to be something like Jim Thompson or James M. Cain. Bestsellers? Traditional mysteries? Or even cozies? Child, please. I was way too cool for that.

Thank God, it took me less time to get over myself this go-round, and I have the knockout writing of writers like William Kent Krueger (who, as I wrote back in 2007, “saved me from noir snobbery”), Margaret Maron, and Laura Lippman, to name just a few, to thank for it. I can read a Christa Faust, then turn around and read a Dorothy L. Sayers and love ’em both.

No, I’m not as cool as I used to be. Thank God.

So ‘fess up. Were you ever too cool to enjoy something you find yourself digging now?