On Civility and Cowardice

By now, many within the mystery community have heard about Max Allan Collins’ turn as a presenter at last weekend's Shamus Awards, during which he complained that this year’s nominees would be difficult to pronounce, on account of all the “foreigners” on the list.

Maybe he was joking. Maybe not. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know the guy, so I couldn’t say. Truth is, it doesn’t matter. His words served to alienate, demean, and diminish the very writers breathing new life into a subgenre that—as recently as a few years ago—seemed destined for ossification, and he deserves to be called out for that.

Collins’ transgressions, however, aren’t the ones at the fore of my mind; I’ve been too busy pondering my own.

Although I didn’t attend the Shamus Awards, I was in Dallas this weekend too, for Bouchercon. It was, by and large, a blast. I ate my weight in tacos and brisket. Cheered my wife on as she moderated one of the most kickass panels I’ve ever seen. Stayed up way too late, and laughed way too hard, with friends both old and new.

And twice, by happenstance, I found myself chatting with Otto Penzler.

Oddly, we’d never met before, although our paths have crossed a time or two. He and Harlan Coben selected my short story “The Hitter” (on which THE KILLING KIND was based) to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011. A few years later, I reached out to him to snag my wife an ARC of an author published by his imprint in advance of a panel she was moderating. And, of course, his Mysterious Bookshop stocks signed copies of my work.

Our conversations last weekend were cordial. Pleasant, even. One occurred when I was talking with a mutual acquaintance in the conference bar and he ambled over. Another, at an offsite gathering to which we were both invited. I mentioned our previous points of contact. He politely claimed to recall my name, if not my work. And we chatted some about our mutual affection for Lou Berney’s NOVEMBER ROAD, which quite rightly took home three awards by convention's end.

What I didn’t say, but wish I had, was that the book I think most deserves to be in that position next year is Steph Cha’s YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY. What I didn’t say, but wish I had, was that Steph happens to be a friend of mine, but even if she weren’t, I’d still be disgusted by his characterization of her in the unhinged letter he sent to the MWA in the wake of the Linda Fairstein scandal. What I didn’t say, but wish I had, was that I stood with Steph and Attica Locke when they called upon the MWA to reconsider naming Fairstein a Grand Master of the genre I hold dear.

So… why didn’t I?

One potential answer is the professional downside to picking a fight with an established tastemaker of the genre. Thing is, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, because I'm too dumb to worry about that kind of stuff, and regularly speak out on issues that matter to me, my sales numbers be damned.

No, I think the truth is simpler than that, and more insidious. I didn’t say anything because we were in polite company. Because I didn’t want to offend our mutual acquaintance in the first encounter, and our host in the second. Because, simply put, it was easier not to.

Presented with an opportunity to speak my mind, I chickened out.

Our interactions have haunted me ever since, for several reasons. One is the knowledge that neither Steph nor Attica would have been afforded the privilege of expediency if they found themselves in a similar situation. Another is the strong suspicion that they wouldn’t have availed themselves of such expediency either way. But most of all, I’m painfully aware of the optics of our interactions, and the chilling message they might send.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career. My books have sold well, garnered acclaim, and won awards. I’m not exactly a household name, but I recall the way I looked at authors of my stature when I first made inroads into the community—and I’m forced to wonder what it would feel like to be a young writer of color watching from across the room while I made small talk with a gatekeeper who’s been clear that they're unwelcome in his realm.

So, sure, I suppose I could pile on Collins for his xenophobic remarks—and, for the record, I think he should apologize—but it’d be performative unless I called myself out on my bullshit too. Civility has long been a tool of the oppressor, because it serves to police tone and maintain status quo. It’s a common gripe that people in positions of power glide through life without fear of repercussions; in the future, I’d prefer not to be the guy greasing the wheels.