This piece was originally published in the Stansbury Forum on June 6, 2020. The Stansbury Forum is a website for discussion by writers, activists and scholars on the topics that Jeff focused his life on: labor, politics, immigration, the environment, and world affairs. Please be sure to check out their impressive work and support their mission. The original link to the piece is here and their website is here.
The Narrative of Change
by Gary Phillips
Trying to get a breath in a time of COVID 19 and knees to the neck.
I belong to several dues paying mystery writer associations. These groups do not have the collective bargaining power for its membership like my white-collar Hollywood union the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The WGA has a past when its members got in the face of the studio bosses and some got their heads knocked in for their efforts and others blacklisted. Different then from the WGA, these aforementioned associations don’t exact a floor for book advances, set a standard pay for a short story of a given length, or seek to establish working conditions for the writer – which in the case of prose writers as distinct from script writing; it’s a solitary undertaking. But not for nothing the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), a national board I once served on as well as past president of the local chapter, does have as its motto, “Crime doesn’t pay…enough.”
To that end the 75-year-old MWA has used the bully pulpit to advocate for a better status of genre writers, intervened in contract disputes, called to task shady publisher practices, and more than anything, provided a way for established pros to interact with first timers or those looking to get published. This through formal talks and seminars as well as bending an elbow at a neighborhood tavern or the bar in the evening during a mystery convention. And like the history of a lot of unions, the MWA wasn’t always diverse. It would be fair to say the MWA was something of a white old boys club for many a year. In fact, Sisters in Crime (SinC) was founded in 1987 by 26 woman crime writers including bestseller Sara Paretsky specifically to address the frustration they had with the obstacles they faced in publishing, and not receiving their fair share of book reviews in a field then dominated by male reviewers.
Today matters are different. There is not only diversity of gender and race/ethnicity on the board of the MWA as well as sister misters on the SinC board, the membership reflects a changed landscape of the types of writers penning these stories. While the police procedural is still told, it could be a story of cop who’s a black woman confronting departmental racism to do her job right. Or about an Asian-American private detective who not only is perceived a certain way by others but is investigating the questionable death of a suspect at the hands of the police or some other so-called authority.
No surprise then when in 2018 the MWA awarded former prosecutor turned author Lina Fairstein its Grand Master award and the membership rose up in opposition. Fairstein to many, me included, helped railroad, along with the police, five black and brown teenager into prison for serious time, convicting them of rape and beating a victim half to death in a “wilding incident” in the infamous Central Park Five case. A case where DNA finally exonerated the now grown men and the city paid out $41m in a settlement. The award was soon rescinded.
Fairstein who has a solid record of pursing justice for years in cases of sexual offenses, maintained the youths were involved in some way in the rape in an op-ed piece she wrote for the Wall Street Journal in June 2019. Really the surprise was the MWA board picking Fairstein and claiming not to know the controversy surrounding her.
Now in the wake of nation-wide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, captured agonizingly on smartphone video, by fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (now charged with 2nd degree murder), the MWA and SinC (and I’m a sister mister) have both stepped up. The organizations issued statements in support of efforts at reform of the police.
From SinC’s statement, “The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are only three recent reminders of the 400-year history of violence visited upon Black people of the United States.”
“Listening leads to understanding, and action leads to change,” the MWA’s statement read in part.
On a listsev I’m part of, Crime Writers of Color, various discussions fly back and forth via email among the loose-kinit group – some of whom are part of the MWA and SinC. The morning following the publishing of these statements, folks on the listserv heard of examples of pushback from the membership, and the nature and character of such was bandied about.
More importantly, reality demands that writers of color and their white colleagues have to re-evaluate what they write and how in they tell the story. There is no getting around the way in which black and brown communities are policed, be the cops white or not or a mixture as was present at Mr. Floyd’s demise. In this time of the virus that too will have to be depicted in some way in our fictions. Yet not every mystery story has to be about that (though I can imagine a story where a murderer kills someone and tries to make it look like complications from COVID) or the use of excessive force and race. But me and my fellow crime writes are challenged to consider the point of view, of who is telling the story and thus who controls the narrative…from the hardboiled to the cozy.
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