Last week, as I was reading the new George Pelecanos novel, THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN, I came across a passage in which one of the story’s main characters, a prison librarian named Anna Kaplan, recommends to a male inmate a series of novels by a male author about a female thief with the words: “He gets women right.”
And I was struck a male author using a female character to promote a male author writing a female character to a male character, citing the authenticity of the female voice. On Twitter, I called it “Peak Mind Pretzel.”
It was only later that I was struck by the fact that a male writer (me) was pointing this out, possibly through not consciously on behalf of women, which would make a mansplainer. Which would seem to be Even More Peak Mind Pretzel.
And all this on top of some recent controversy involving Pelecanos, who did a “By The Book” Q&A with The New York Times in which he cited only male authors and their novels as inspirations and recommendations, and took a needless swipe at a female author, Harper Lee. That drew a swift rebuke from author Lauren Groff, and a few female crime-fiction authors. Said M.J. Rose, on Groff’s thread: “(So) damn typical. So many men have similar lists and I’m sick of it.” But, by and large, crickets from the some of the loudest voices in the crime-fiction community, which is often paralyzed by the notion that speaking ill of others is tantamount to exile from publishing (I’ve already accepted that). It’s as if most of the members of the crime-fiction tribe stood silently in the same room, looking fleetingly and self-consciously at one another, faces wrinkled in “who farted?” expressions.
And the “By The Book” brouhaha came on top of a recent Men’s Journal feature on Pelecanos so drenched in retrograde manly-man tropes that it reads for all the world like a 1960s Esquire-tinged tongue-bath of Norman Mailer. It opened with the recounting of an incident in which a teenage Pelecanos shot his friend in the face, and the writer makes it seems like the coolest thing ever, a badass launching point into bad-boy crime writing. (And here I thought it was shoulder wounds that made a man.) And it gets more cringe-inducing from there: “Stefanos, in his free time, spars with a friend at a junior-high gym and, after a night of drinking, jumps rope while blaring the Replacements to sweat out the alcohol—details taken almost straight from Pelecanos’ life.”
I should make clear that I’m not criticizing Pelecanos, who by most accounts is an honest, hardworking great guy, as much I’m taking aim at the male-driven machine that seems bent on making him into an avatar of the Male Resistance to the Female Takeover of Crime Fiction, in somewhat the same way bad male actors are trying to push their way past #MeToo and back into the spotlight they feel they deserve after all-too-short periods of cultural exile.
As The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino put it, sardonically: “Women have had their ‘moment,’ their unprecedented time in the spotlight of cultural favor. The gravitational pull of male power is exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”
I’m reminded too of a powerful piece in Slate by Lili Loufbourow on the conservative pushback against Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. These words struck me, in my abject dudeitude, as painfully true:
“It’s as if men and women have different pain scales emotionally as well as physically. Of course men believe they suffer more, and many women—having spent their lives accustomed to men’s feelings mattering more than everyone else’s—will agree with them. Most of us have been socialized to sympathize with men, the troubled geniuses, the heroes and antiheroes. They’re the protagonists. And this meritocratic American dream stuff (which, let’s face it, is 100 percent pitched as male) has a poetry that encourages pity. If men on that journey experience a setback, their plight scans as injustice (the American dream does not reverse!). Their suffering must, therefore, be more acute.”
In a recent exchange on Goodreads with Alice Bolin — the author of DEAD GIRLS: SURVIVING AN AMERICAN OBSESSION, a well-received collection of essays that pushes back, hard, on the crime-fiction trope that pushes women off the page to make room for male brooding about them — Lippman made what I thought was the clearest statement on the current uneasy state of affairs between men and women in crime fiction:
“It’s long been my observation that a lot of crime writing, even very good crime writing, can be summed up this way: a beautiful girl dies, and a man feels bad about it. Maybe he’s a mourning husband/father/brother/lover. Maybe he’s falsely accused. Maybe he did it, but he has, you know, REASONS. And now we’re seeing more and more female writers asserting for their ownership of crime fiction, and it’s very exciting.
“But, dammit, women ARE the readers. Why shouldn’t we own this genre? I mean, I know the NFL makes pink T-shirts and is happy to have female fans, but I don’t see them worrying that football isn’t female-friendly enough. Well, it’s great that lots of men read crime fiction, but I don’t think we need to cater to them. And the next step is making crime fiction a lot less white/heterosexual.”
THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN is, on its own merits, a terrific novel. It’s rich in setting, sharp with character, and chockablock with convincing twists. It’s also an excruciatingly masculine novel. One of its main POV characters is Anna Kaplan, the prison librarian, but she’s the kind of character who couldn’t pass a Bechdel Test if her life depended on it. Her existence is defined entirely by men — the man she’s married to, the jail inmates she guides toward redemptive literature, and the released inmate she becomes at least a little infatuated with.
And then there’s the books Anna recommends, a list heavy with the works of male authors. True, she also recommends works by Sara Gran, Gillian Flynn, Nora Roberts and Lisa Lutz, but the time spent on each amounts to the time that Anna and a male inmate spend shitting on Carson McCullers’ THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. Contrast that to the lingering, loving attention given to novels by Elmore Leonard, Willy Vlautin, Don Carpenter and others. One gets the sense that’s where Anna’s heart is because it’s where Pelecanos’ heart is. And one wonders how those men might have benefited from an introduction to Kinsey Millhone or Lou Norton.
Is any of this really a problem, you might ask, in world in which possibly our next Supreme Court justice might be an attempted rapist? In which the president who nominated him bragged about the power he derives from grabbing women between their legs?
That might not be for me to answer, apart from saying that the question ought to be asked more publicly within the crime-fiction community. It’s a community which often goes to great lengths to paint itself as one big happy tribe of authors who genuinely want to see everyone within it succeed.
But that’s an image that occasionally springs a leak.
At the most recent Bouchercon, author Kellye Garrett — winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel — made clear in her acceptance speech that the community has a long way to go in making comfortable places for writers of color. Her sentiments were greeted with nothing but applause within the tribe, as if the problem was strictly with people who work in and with the publishing houses—you know, those pencil-pushing others.
But publishing choices are a merely a mirror of what people write and read — publishers are just as much taste reflectors as taste makers, if not more so — and some of the you-go-girl types are authors who write white characters for white audiences and will keep on doing so because it benefits the bottom line of everyone in their personal and professional ecosystem to do so. Nobody wants to rock the boat too hard for fear of falling off the rail from the SS Next Contract, or so it seems.
And, just two weeks after Bouchercon, that conversation about diversity in publishing crime fiction already feels like it’s receded into the background. At least on Twitter, which seems like ground zero for such conversations.
And all I’m saying is that maybe these conversations ought to continue a lot longer. And a lot more uncomfortably (aka, honestly and loudly). And in a lot more female-led way. I strongly identify with guys in novels and guys who write novels (though even I’m sick to death of knight-errant tales), but right now, I feel that women have more to teach me, on and off the page. (And I’m truly sorry that it took me getting to Brett Kavanaugh’s current age to fully find my way to that.)
And with that, I’ll shut up now. And listen.
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.
Thanks for stopping by and reading Unlawful Acts.