When Will Mystery Writers Get Some Guts?

I write hard-boiled mysteries and I write cozies. I read hard-boiled mysteries and I read cozies. There’s a lot to like and dislike in both genres. That said, the more I think about Otto’s latest tirade, the angrier I get. Not so much at him, but at my fellow mystery writers, who are so afraid of speaking out against Otto Penzler that he feels empowered to keep embarrassing mystery writers everywhere with his ignorance.  Here are just some of the incredibly stupid things Otto Penzler has said about cozies and those who write them:

"They may be fun, they may have their charm, but they are not
serious literature and don’t deserve an Edgar." 

"[Malice Domestic] honors books written in the mode of Agatha Christie,
loosely defined as those that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore,
or gratuitous violence. Unstated, but clearly of equal importance, is
that they must contain not a scintilla of style, originality, or depth.
They must have the texture and nuance of an infomercial, lacking only
its philosophical power."

"Cozies are not serious
literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more
seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature. "

"I think noir writers are writing the very best books they know how to write.  I don’t
think [cozy writers] are writers who are stretching. I don’t think they’re
trying to write anything of enduring quality. I think they’re writing
to sell books, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you don’t have
to take it seriously as literature, and I don’t."

This guy is the mystery equivalent of a drunken Mel Gibson, spewing his hateful and ignorant shit, and yet, inexplicably, he’s still treated like some kind of royalty in our field.  Nobody but cozy writers have dared to criticize him.  Why? Cowardice.

It’s time mystery writers stopped bowing and cowering in front of him simply because he established the Mysterious Bookshop and the Mysterious Press.  Face facts, people. He’s a sexist, narrowminded neanderthal…who embarrasses himself and, even worse, our profession every time he spews his offensive, sexist crap. With our silence, we imply that we and the Mystery Writers of America endorse his sexism and hatred.   

How far does this guy have to go before mystery writers finally get the guts to say, loudly and publicly, that Otto Penzler doesn’t speak for mystery writers, the MWA, or the mainstream of our profession. We do not share his sexism or his absurdly narrow view of what constitutes mystery writing.

42 thoughts on “When Will Mystery Writers Get Some Guts?”

  1. I don’t like cozies. My wife enjoys them, and I’ve tried reading several of her favorite authors in the subgenre, but I just can’t get into them. Having said that, I have nothing against them and I see no reason why well-written cozies should not be recognized when it’s time to hand out awards.
    Penzler’s bit about male writers being more serious than women is a load of horseshit. There are plenty of female authors out there who blow me away.

  2. As long as there are well-funded soap boxes and receptive audiences for bigots, there will be nut cases like Penzler on the loose.
    Maybe Dusty was right (in your previous post’s comments) about him needing more fiber in his diet. But then again, that would only make being trapped in the same room with Otto an even more gaseous proposition.

  3. I agree that it’s very much based in a seixst attitude…. in a dismissal of things that are important to women and women’s literature.
    Similar criticism was levelled at Jane Austen’s work.

  4. I’m not a mystery writer, but I appreciate and admire your comments, Lee. I also read a little bit of everything in the mystery genre, and Otto Penzler is not only insulting writers, he is insulting those of us who choose to read something that he personally doesn’t like.
    As a librarian, I call that censorship.

  5. I only met him once, introduced by a friend of mine at a publisher’s party. She made the mistake of mentioning, among other things, that I was shopping a book. (Bless her.) He looked me up and down and said, “I’m not publishing any books these days, so you’re wasting your breath.”
    Now I know why he felt he could be rude to me–a person who had not said Word One to him. A woman writer, I couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to offer, since we all know that women write only cozies or romances.
    A great noir is a great noir—it transcends “noir”. A great cozy is a great cozy—it transcends “cozy”.
    I’m with you, Lee. Just because there is perceived power in a person, doesn’t make him right. Or that his rudeness should be tolerated.

    • He used to be. In addition to the several bookstores around the country, he founded Mysterious Press. I don’t know if MP is around any more or who they got swallowed by. At one time they were huge and I think they got bought by McMillan or Warner, but like most of the contraction in the publishing industry I can’t keep track.

  6. I just linked over here from The Lipstick Chronicles – is this a joke? It’s hard to believe that someone is actually saying this shit out loud and getting away with it – I don’t care who (or what) Otto Penzler is.
    I read a ton of books – mostly mysteries – of all kinds. It’s tough enough for a midlist author to make it in the current climate without some numbnuts like Penzler getting in the way. This guy sounds like a complete asshole.

  7. I found myself at the same party as the book reviewer for my city’s newspaper shortly after I’d received word that my book would soon be reviewed–not by him, of course, but by his female assistant whom I’ll call Elaine. When I introduced myself and thanked him for giving some space on his page to my book (a cozy, sort of) I clarified that it was scheduled to be reviewed by Elaine. He looked excruciatingly relieved, avoided shaking my hand and before rushing away he exclaimed, “Thank God for Elaine!” Maybe he’s Otto’s cousin.
    Since then, he’s copied reviews of my books from other newspapers and reprinted them on his page, thereby–I presume–avoiding sullying anyone on his staff.

  8. Twenty years ago, he told a book marketer/seller I know that no one would read a book set in Chicago either. I’m in the crowd that happily reads across genres from XY and XX authors, and find their suckworthiness fairly evenly distributed, moreso since noir has become the new “blackened” entree du jour. As then, I think Otto’s earned his soapbox, and I still think it’s nertz.

  9. The slogan for Malice Domestic is, “Not everyone’s cup of tea.” It’s obviously not Otto’s. But how anybody could make a blanket dismissal of authors as talented & varied as Laura Lippman, Margaret Maron, Rochelle Krich, Rhys Bowen and Jan Burke positively floors me. What an ignoramus! Thanks for speaking out, Lee.

  10. “There’s a lot to like and dislike in both genres.”
    That to me sums up everything perfectly. As much as I love cozies, I am willing to admit their flaws. I don’t like hardboiled, but I do see some of their positives.
    This takes personal taste way too far.

  11. Is this the same Otto Penzler that owns The Mysterious Bookshop? The bookstore that has 555 entries of Sherlock Holmes collectibles? I doubt that Holmes would qualify as noir today, particularly since he was created by a guy who believed in fairies. Not the homosexual type, but the tiny people with wings type.

  12. I write hardboiled, I tend to read hardboiled, and I am a woman. But this divisive crap really makes me mad. In a time when readership is declining, midlists are imperiled, most mystery writers struggle, and readers’ choices are increasingly narrowed by the bestseller mentality, why do we need to hear this? I used to wonder how someone who purports to love and support this genre could be such a blackhole of negativity. But I am beginning to understand that Otto Penzler is finding a new identity in our screaming-voice culture as a mere provocateur. What’s sad is that he seems willing to sacrifice a reputation built on real and considerable achievements to be commonly known as The Mean Old Cozy-Basher. Increasingly, folks who know better are no longer listening. He has become the Ann Coulter of the crime world.

  13. I just wish more men — especially *prominent* male mystery writers — who stand up and say they don’t agree with Otto and that he should be ashamed of himself. He really is the drunken Mel Gibson of our profession.
    Woman can’t write? Their work isn’t worthy of respect? How can he get away with saying inane shit like that? Why do we get near total silence on the subject from the men in the mystery field? I’m telling you, people are afraid of this guy and I, for one, just don’t get it.

  14. Relax,Lee – don’t get in a snit about Penzler. He’s an acerbic old man watching his glory days fade and needs a jolt of controversy twice a year to make sure he’s still alive. Like Kris said – no one really listens to him anymore. That’s why he does this. Capice?

  15. Maybe I’m an idiot, I read a lot of variety of mysteries and I have never heard of this jackass. So at least you know I’m not listening to him , hell I’ve never heard of him.

  16. I don’t defend Penzler’s sexist remarks, but I think it’s easy to forget all the good things he’s done for the mystery community as a bookseller. He’s played a significant role in promoting the careers of Michael Connelly, Thomas Cook, John Harvey, and many other important crime writers. He’s done some audio interviews on the Kacey Kowars show if you’re interesting in learning more about him. In contrast to his NY Sun columns, he sounds like a pretty thoughtful guy in those interviews.
    Penzler’s a very blunt person, and he has every right to criticize books and genres he doesn’t like. Normally, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Most blogs and mystery columns have nothing negative to say about anything, except James Patterson and Dan Brown it seems. It’s a big mutual admiration society in many ways. But Penzler ruins his own criticisms by injecting them with rudeness, thoughtlessness and sexism. It’s a shame really.

  17. Well, the good thing about being pigeonholed in the cozy end of the genre is that you don’t have much to lose by criticizing Otto.
    Then again, I know many folks who refrain from replying to his periodic pronouncements not from cowardice but from unwillingness to call more attention to him. Why not behave as if a distinguished though annoying great-uncle was having an attack of flatulence at the Thanksgiving dinner table? Just ignore it until the air clears.
    But since cousin Lee brought the matter up…
    I’m saddened whenever I see another of Otto’s diatribes, because many of the writers he has has championed are writers I greatly admire. Yet increasingly, when I hear that he’s praised someone new, I have to make a conscious effort to remember that he likes some good stuff. There’s nothing wrong with having Otto like you.
    But there’s also nothing wrong with having him dislike you. And he doesn’t seem to get that. Just because he doesn’t like a book doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with it. It just means he doesn’t like it. At best, his taste; at worst, his limitation. But his issue.
    Confession time: I’m not particularly fond of sitcoms. Even the ones I do like–M.A.S.H., for example–rarely become must-watch shows. So I stay out of debates about whether Seinfeld or Friends or Cheers was a worthy successor to The Lucy Show. I’m not qualified to weigh in, mainly because I don’t really care.
    Ditto for rap music. Or Wagner. Westerns (the books, that is, not the movies). Jerry Lewis (the movies, not the man). Coffee. All things I don’t much like and therefore don’t know much about–certainly not enough to review them or condemn them upon slight acquaintance.
    My taste. Or my limitation. Which I’m not going to elevate into a divine mission. Unlike some people we could name.

  18. “He’s played a significant role in promoting the careers of Michael Connelly, Thomas Cook, John Harvey, and many other important crime writers.”
    You won’t get any argument from me about that. Mel Gibson has made some great movies but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a bigot. And just because Otto has championed some writers doesn’t change the fact that he’s a sexist jerk (and seems to revel in it, too. At least Mel is apologizing for what he said).
    It’s one thing for Otto to dismiss cozies because they aren’t to his taste…it’s another to dismiss women writers as a whole.

  19. With our silence, we imply that we and the Mystery Writers of America endorse his sexism and hatred.
    With our silence, we imply that we and the Mystery Writers of America do not endorse Otto’s annual silly spouting–which I don’t think he even believes, since many of the writers he’s helped have been women.
    But it keeps his name in print. Publicly attacking an established group or figure is a publicity tactic with a long history.
    Why make it anything more than just Otto being intentionally insulting and getting himself talked about?

  20. I agree with Keith that part of the silence isn’t so much a unspoken endorsement as a polite dismissal of a naughty child’s misbehavior.
    And I wonder if Otto’s ever diminishing reputation is going to sadly have a negative impact on the often stellar works that fit within his narrow field of praise-worthy vision that he does remark positively on.

  21. “It’s time mystery writers stopped bowing and cowering in front of him simply because he established the Mysterious Bookshop and the Mysterious Press.”
    I’d speak up, but 1.) every time I go to New York and ask for a copy of the New York Sun, the news guy’s eyes glaze over and cross. I know. I’ve tried. In New York. In Manhattan. And 2.), I’m snoring as loud as I possibly can when he has his annual rant. Sleep apnea can only accomplish so much, and I do have to wake up sooner or later.

  22. I don’t think I agree with the position of “by ignoring him we are dismissing him”. This isn’t some johnny-come-lately blogger with a bee up his butt and a need to boost his hit count; Otto Penzler is, for better or for worse, one of the better-known figures in the mystery community, and as far as the general public knows his statements are reflective of widely-held views. After all, if everyone disagrees with him, then why don’t they say anything?

  23. Okay. I don’t read cozies much, so I can’t judge. I do think his sexist statement about men being more serious is complete and total sexist bullshit.

    As for whether “cozies” are literature, I’m not willing to condemn anything based on it’s genre, particularly since “genre” is very often a marketing decision more than anything else (as is “literature,” I suppose, although what genius thinks that’s a good marketing strategy I don’t know, university college professors? That’s a discussion for another time and one I’m fairly bored with anyway). I prefer to hold up an individual book by an individual author and decide by my own personal definitions whether or not it’s of high quality.

    So in that regard, Penzler, who I suppose has as much right to blow smoke as anyone else, should probably shut his mouth. But if his desire was to be the crime industry’s version of Miley Cyrus twerking, then he probably succeeded.

  24. Penzler is also assuming here that it’s only women who write cozies, which would come as a shock to the likes of Christopher Fowler. I admire some of the things Penzler has done with his anthologies and with Mysterious Press, but he’s way off base here.

  25. Seems Otto Penzler has a pompous attitude. I think he’s been sniffing too much of the book dust from his wall to ceiling NY library. I’ve met him twice, years back–once invited into his library and once with a drink in his hand at a conference. His comments listed here are insulting to writers. “Men take [writing] more seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature.” How sexist is that? There is nothing wrong with a well-written cozy. Not every reader wants to read violence and hard-boiled stories. I must say men with an attitude such as his often has me wondering if it would be better to write mysteries and thrillers under a male name.

  26. This is the 3rd, believe it or not, such mind-boggling rant I have seen this morning. Thanks Lee for defending authors and readers whose interests can not be ignorantly placed into a cookie cutter catalogue. My reading (sometimes on the same day) may range from a graphic police procedural to a culinary cozy where sex is apparently not being had, to a historical mystery with implied sex and violence but nothing explicitly described. Apparently the man is deep as a cookie sheet or has very narrow range of interest. Whatever the reason – it is sad for so many reasons – the rigidity and broad generalizations expressed render the comments ludicrous.

  27. Thanks for writing this, Lee. Otto has been reviled in certain circles for years. He just hates women. However, there is a lot of resistance to being frank about those who behave badly in the writing world. When I first started out, I heard over and over, never say a bad word about agents or editors because they all “talk among themselves,” and it will come back to bite you. Well, don’t they think we talk about them? That we don’t hear what’s going on? There are agents who ghosted their writers, and editors who demanded rewrite after rewrite to the point of sadism, and you wonder why they ever bought a project. So yeah there are cranky writers and problematic publishers.
    And once in awhile, someone like Jann Wenner, former publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine, is hit in the face with a pie. I can’t find anything on the web about that event. So maybe it didn’t happen. But I remembered it. It was memorable.

  28. I don’t really have a dog in this race, but I do think that if we are including Agatha Christie in the cozy category (and she certainly wasn’t noir), then you do have to look at her talent and her nearly universal appeal. Some of the best mystery writing on earth is what in this moment we might label as cozy. Some of the best mystery writing on earth is also noir. I think readers have different tastes and different needs even from moment to moment. I would hate to not have access to some subgenre because someone else decided it was unworthy. I am quite capable of making such decisions for myself.


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