Saturday, July 28, 2007

If The World Is Your Playground, You Might Just Rub Shoulders With The Natives

I had refrained from commenting on minor whisperings of contention with the recent Dagger Awards but was aware of some expressed concerns at the number of foreigners who won. Perhaps the best place to read a summary on it is Mike Ripley’s Getting Away With Murder column at Shots, where he says:

All the major awards, it seems, have gone to writers from abroad. Admittedly two of them were colonials (American and Australian), but one, I was told in hushed tones, was actually French!

Pedants may point out that the Dagger in the Library was won by a Scottish person, Stuart MacBride, but I take that as cold comfort, for British crime writing seems in danger of becoming a minority sport.

According to my own personal database (where new titles are meticulously entered into a ledger by my factotum Waldo), it would appear that to date, some 529 new titles (books published in the UK for the first time) are scheduled for 2007. Of these, 264 are by British authors, but 265 are not. Of course, Waldo’s ledger will have more entries by the end of the year but the trend is ominous and 2007 could just be the year in which British writers form less than 50% of the gross crime fiction output.

(Can I have a minor rant about that ‘colonial’ bullshit first? I swear, the next time I’m in the UK and some pompous ass says “Oh the colonies” I’m going for blood**. I may have mostly British blood in my veins but I’ve heard too many people throw that at me with conceit and contempt, which just makes me want to emphasize my French surname all that much more. We aren’t some lesser hand-me-down Brits here, and if we are then stop your whining about Americans winning your awards right this minute. Good enough to sell your books to but still looking down your nose at us. It’s the root of that outdated and short-sighted attitude that could launch a whole rant about how crime fiction authors in this country are selling out their culture because the very people who criticize the use of stereotypes in fiction have Canadians limited to popular misconceptions that are spouted from the mouths of, well, idiots. Next time I hear a Canadian crime fiction author say they won’t write about Canada because it isn’t interesting, I have a simple suggestion for them if they don’t like it here: MOVE.)

Will we ever agree about awards? Will there ever be universal consensus on how organizations should run them? No. But it is not so much the awards, as the commentary here, that ruffles my feathers. The Daggers are not the only awards that are open internationally – The Edgar (save the ‘best first’ category, which is limited to Americans), The Barry, Anthony, Leftie (and probably a long list of others that I’m forgetting at the moment) all allow international competition.

Which is as it should be, in my opinion. The reality is that many British authors have won the Edgar, and many British authors have won fan choice awards in the US. Why is it suddenly worrying if foreigners are winning on British soil? After all, the award is for crime novel of the year. Not British Crime Novel, not American Crime Novel, not Crime Novel of the Year Written by One Of Our Own Kind… It’s for best novel. End of story. The very fact that anyone is publicly putting it on a blog that it’s a concern that too many non-Brits won suggests the perception that although foreigners might get nominated for the Daggers, they aren’t supposed to win them. And then those points are followed by numbers of titles being published this year by Brits and non-Brits.

What matters when it comes to awards is quality not quantity. It doesn’t matter if authors from the rest of the world are having as many books published in the UK this year as British authors are – what matters is the caliber of the books.

In fact, I find myself wondering if there’s a shift happening in the reading habits of the population that has yet to trickle through to the level of the awards. Allan Guthrie’s recent Theakston’s win for Two-Way Split, as well as his Edgar nomination for Kiss Her Goodbye show the kind of recognition he’s getting from the writing community, but the Theakston’s win was a bit of a surprise to me. Not because of quality, but because of the British love affair with police procedurals, and the fact that it seemed harder for Guthrie to earn a following on his home turf: It certainly was a bit harder for him to get a publisher there, initially. Two years attending Harrogate Crime Festival I can safely say most of the authors I rubbed shoulders with were writing in the mainstream. Police procedurals. If they were amateur sleuths they were lawyers or journalists (people with a reason to investigate). Al had a panel the one year, for new authors, but otherwise it seems that those writing about the meaner streets – Al, Ray Banks, Kevin Wignall, Ken Bruen – are missing from the equation.

If the British crime fiction community is concerned about the lack of awards this year, I hope they don’t have a knee-jerk reaction and just make foreigners ineligible. They need to get to the root of the issue, to look at what’s being published and perhaps ask why it is that particularly American authors have made such a strong showing. Get over your ‘colonial’ crap, forget the country on the passport and ask who’s producing what.

And for the record, a hard push from elsewhere can only be a good thing, because it pushes authors to be better. I always think when watching the Olympics, figure skating in particular, you don’t really want to win because the other guy fell. You want to win because everyone went out and skated their very best and you still outskated them. That’s what makes real champions. Nobody should get awards because of the country they were born in and nothing more – they should get the awards because they’ve earned them.

The truth is, I don’t put much stock in the awards. Okay, I’m very happy if friends are nominated. Happier still if they win. Hope that those who place in writing competitions will find themselves with contracts and book deals. Whatever works to build your career.

Ultimately, awards are subjective to a large degree. Taste is a definite factor. I didn’t find anything about the Dagger Awards particularly noteworthy, other than the number of nominations Gillian Flynn received. In hindsight, I agree her book has absolutely nothing to do with a James Bond-style thriller and haven’t a clue what’s going on with The Steel Dagger, which should probably be renamed or redefined if this is indicative of the books being nominated in the category.

But what I did notice lately from awards that left me perplexed had to do with The Barry Awards. George Easter, the Editor/Publisher for Deadly Pleasures, was good enough to explain how the awards worked in greater detail on 4MA, which alleviated most of my confusion. However, it’s the comments on The Rap Sheet that left me pondering awards in general, more than anything.

Says George:

”There are a handful of authors such as Lee Child and Michael Connelly who are so popular that if we listed one of their books as a nominee, they would win. They have each won two Barrys already and have asked not to be considered in the future so that others can be spotlit. We also try not to nominate the same authors in consecutive years, but we slipped up a bit on that front this year with Joe Finder and Simon Kernick. And speaking of Simon Kernick--I’ve got to go back a few years to see how many times he has been nominated without winning, but I would guess four or five times--I hope you are taking note of this exceptional writer and reading his books. I’d like to see him win one of these days. But he’s up against some tough competition again this year.”

I wish they’d post a list on their site of authors excluded because they’d win each year, or because they’ve requested not to be considered, or those not being considered because they were nominated in the previous year. That might sound a bit flippant, but I’m serious. There are always murmurings that awards are political, that people play favourites, or are sexist but this statement actually indicates that the Barry has an elaborate set of criteria that goes far beyond just what’s published in any given year. I had no idea if someone was nominated one year they’d typically eliminate them from consideration the next year (and am surprised, as Stuart MacBride won last year and has been nominated again this year). For the most part, I actually don’t care how awards are run, but just tell people how you do it so they can decide how much merit the award has.

This isn’t meant to be as critical as it probably sounds. Part of the reason I didn’t blog on it earlier was because it doesn’t matter that much to me. I guess there’s a part of me that finds sadness in the idea that award judging is entered with the preconception that specific authors are certain to win. I mean – gasp, shock, horrors – last year when I went to Harrogate I voted for Val McDermid for the Theakston’s prize. Everyone in the world (and probably various lifeforms in the universe that spy on us) knows who my favourite author is, and that person was shortlisted as well… But The Torment of Others was one of my favourite books and so I voted for the book on the list that I thought was the best, not the name of the author. (I mean, Val is one of my favourite authors, but you see the point I’m making…)

This is precisely why we’ve waffled over Spinetingler awards. We’ve talked about it. But every time we do I freeze up over the process. If we’re going to do awards I would want an open process in place. There are some awards that are limited to considering only the books the award givers choose to read (you can’t submit your book and be guaranteed they’ll read it). There are others that guarantee reading every title, but then have a little list of catches, similar to how the Barry works.

And then there are others that declare no process at all and who knows how they pick them.

You may be surprised to hear that the Barry Awards actually went up in my estimation (not that they were low before, but you know what I mean) when I understood how they worked. It actually made sense of some past lists that had – in my opinion – glaring oversights. Now, I know, not oversights. Just ineligibility for various reasons.

And the Edgar is certainly a respectable award.

What calls to question the credibility of the Dagger – and tarnishes it to some degree in my opinion – is the expressed idea that there’s a problem because only one Brit won this year. It infers an unstated belief that the Brits will always dominate the awards.

And it’s those unstated beliefs that surface that then give credibility to the arguments that the Daggers were trying to stack the awards in favour of British writers by removing authors who’d been translated from consideration for the top prize. Now it’s “look, we did that and the Brits still aren’t winning everything” instead of coming back with more determination to clean up next year.

As authors, I think it best for us to focus on writing the very best book we can, that fits the style of book we want to write, and not focus on the awards too much anyway. Recognition is nice, but nothing matches the experience of having someone tell you they read and loved your book. I had some fan mail this week, as well as a message left on my Crimespace page that said ”I think (Suspicious Circumstances is) excellent, and the best debut novel of the past year.”

And that, more than anything else, has me floating on air. I never even stop to think about the nationality of the person, usually, but this time I did. British. My other lovely letters of the week? Americans.

We live in a global village. My 2 cents to those flipping out over the non-Brit haul at the Daggers this year: Get used to it. We’re all happy for international sales, and that means we compete in a global marketplace. What’s next? Banning buying foreign rights so that local authors don’t suffer lack of sales too? I’m the first person to say that the UK features a number of incredible crime fiction authors that I’m a big fan of, but no industry can rest on its laurels either.

British crime fiction is strong. One anomalous result at the Daggers shouldn’t be enough to throw people in a panic, but my personal hope is that we’ll see Laura Lippman nominated for Best Novel next year. Now, that’s a nomination that’s long overdue, and I’d be thrilled to see her win.

** It is better to be referred to as an American, as Agent Phil regretted doing when I was last at Harrogate. What was incredible, though, were the Americans who pinpointed what part of Canada I was from off of accent alone. Kudos to them, because I doubt I could do likewise, despite my extensive travels in the US.


Anonymous said...

I love British fiction, no question, but it pisses me off that there are so many good American mystery authors that just ignored by the 'crime' writing world. It's not entirely their fault, these author's aren't on the bestseller lists here in the US either, but they deserve a lot more attention then they get.

Sandra Ruttan said...

There are a lot of great crime writers being completely ignored almost everywhere. Personally, I think opening up fiction to an international audience should be a good thing, because people can find their readership. The real flaw in this guy's reasoning seems to come from an idea that because the Daggers are judged by Brits, Brits should win. It presumes people of a certain culture all like books of a certain culture, and that's not what's supposed to be relevant. What's supposed to be relevant is great writing. End of story.

Just because I'm curious, which American authors were you thinking of that are overdue for recognition?

Randy Johnson said...

I'm always on the look-out for a good novel. The nationality of the writer might be the last thing I care about. That said, I'm beginning to read more crime writers from the British Isles(mostly on recommendations from yours truly; thanks). My buying their books can only help them, however little it might be. But I'm trumpeting them to friends. Awards should be for the best period, Not the best British, The best American, The best Canadian, etc.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm with you Randy. I mean, if you want to recognize your own, have a Best British Novel category, or have two sets of awards. But if the awards are international, then let them be international, and don't presume anyone will win.

Am I not correct in thinking a Brit won the Edgar this year for Best Novel? And Denise Mina was nominated as well.

End of the day what matters more than anything is a damn good story. Nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Ridley Pearson is one of the first that comes to mind. I've been a fan of his since the 80's, yet it none of the people I know overseas read him or even seem to have heard of him.

Granted, this may have more to do with his publisher than anything else, but given his latest foray into children's lit with Dave Barry, well, he's long overdue for some recognition.

John R said...

Mike Ripley's famously cranky and opinionated. Bitter, some might call him. I wouldn't pay much attention to his ranting.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A real shame is that so many European novels are not in translation here and vice-versa. I would like to read crime writing set in some of the lesser known spots in the world before it's all Applebees and Tim Horton.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby, it may be a distribution issue, but that's someone I haven't read myself.

John, thanks for the insight. I don't know who Mike Ripley is, but I certainly took issue with how he expressed himself on this subject, anyway.

Patti, that's actually why the numbers of non-Brits published in the UK are so high. They do have a lot of translated works, I find. Harrogate used to (maybe still does) a panel of translated authors every year. I agree with you - it's good to have a chance to explore through fiction.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I think you might be a bit hard on Mike Ripley. Sure, his flippant tone might be grating (and I’m Canadian, too), but the problem is less with the statistics he notes than with what others might do with them.

I’m not sure that concern about the state of British crime fiction entails rejection of crime fiction from elsewhere. To be fair to Ripley, he does acknowledge the excellence of non-British novels, including the superb Dagger-winning The Broken Shore.

Like you, I hope that no one thinks of making non-British writing ineligible. First, whining about foreigners contributed, I assume, to the splitting off of the former Golden Dagger into separate awards for translated and for English-language fiction. How far will this trend go? If Welsh authors (Bill James, perhaps?) dominate a future Duncan Lawrie British Dagger, will there be a outcry for a separate English Dagger award?

This year, happily, the Duncan Lawrie Dagger and the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger both honored superb books. Isn’t that good enough for everyone?

P.S. Where the hell were the Dagger voters when they should have been piling award after award on the British Bill James for the middle books in his Harpur & Iles series?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, it's your last comment that is the most critical one to me. See, what I didn't go into in the post was the fact that there are a lot of books by British authors that I personally think were overlooked in the nomination process. And if the books weren't nominated, they can't win. I don't see any evidence at all from one year's results that British crime fiction is in jeopardy, and admittedly the stats aren't finalized and are down to one person's tally. Hardly scientific, hardly conclusive.

Besides, what matters not is how many British vs non-British books are published in the UK, but how well they sell. If you have 1000 British crime fiction novels published in a year and 500 non-British crime fiction novels published in a year, but the non-British crime fiction novels account for 50% of the sales, you might have something to worry about.

"First, whining about foreigners contributed, I assume, to the splitting off of the former Golden Dagger into separate awards for translated and for English-language fiction. How far will this trend go?"

There were murmurings and denials about this. Without knowing the inside of the CWA, who can really say? But one thing I will say on it, if they make any further changes to eliminate non-Brits from contention it won't matter what they say about that move to separate translated works from consideration for the top prize.

And I am correct in pointing out that a Brit won the Edgar this year, and another Brit was nominated. If memory serves, neither of them were nominated for Daggers.

"A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country." Jesus

Peter Rozovsky said...

Those Americans who pinpointed where you were from by your accent did better than I might have. A few months ago in London, I was surprised by a bookshop clerk's obviously non-British accent. "American?" I asked, and I realized, as soon as she replied, "No, Canadian," that she was from somwhere west of Toronto.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"