Hey Otto! The Times They Are a-Changin (And It’s About Damn Time)

Gabino Iglesias reflects on the controversy surrounding Otto Penzler and change in the direction of The Best American Mystery Stories of the Year series. 

A few days ago, the internet felt a small tremor: Otto Penzler, long-time editor of The Best American Mystery Stories of the Year and various other things, wasn’t invited back because the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, wanted to, and I quote, go in “a new direction.” Penzler could have reacted to the news like a decent human being and said “Thank you. I edited this thing for 22 years and had a blast doing so. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for the series.” Sadly, he didn’t do that.

On May 21, the tremor became an earthquake: Penzler posted a rant on his Facebook page saying he had received “many supportive comments” and “kind words about me and the series.” You know, basically saying that the series is dead without him. Sure, that was an asshole move, but it was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Penzler went on. Here’s the rest of his message, which I think as been altered since (and he deleted comments taking him to task on the thread):

“According to an announcement from the editor-in-chief of HMH on Monday, the series “is going in an exciting new direction in response to the changing market and evolving readership and with an increased focus on traditionally marginalized voices.” This means that stories will no longer be selected for excellence, the major criterion evidently now being the race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of the author.

Forgive my bitterness. First off, I published lots of black writers and probably more than I knew since I never required a photo ID. I also published some writers who I know are gay but, again, doubtless others whose sexual preferences were unknown to me–as they should be.

From time to time, I talk about these things for free because fighting for equal opportunities is part of what I do.

No one was marginalized when my first reader Michele Slung, and I, and the guest editors, sought the best stories. I’m now glad that I was not asked to stay on as I never would have agreed to edit a book on these terms. It’s not over. I’ll make an announcement soon.”

Listen, I get paid to give keynotes and talks about the lack of diversity in publishing. I can talk for hours about how YA is only now accepting young people are gay, that kids are exposed to giraffes, elephants, aliens, witches, and talking trees in their books before they’re ever exposed to a person of color, that a large percentage of crime novels are mediocre amalgamations of tired tropes written by people who have no understanding of the psychogeography of crime, or that reviewers of color only make up about 4% of all reviewers on a good year.

From time to time, I talk about these things for free because fighting for equal opportunities is part of what I do. However, when I encounter someone as ignorant about all this as Penzler, I don’t engage unless I’m getting paid. He has been in publishing for decades, which means his inability to see the need for diversity and his denial of the obvious biases that have shaped the publishing world for decades are things that stem from one of two things: pure stupidity or racism. I have time for neither.

My guess is these folks were angry because opening doors to new, diverse voices means all the straight white folks are going to get kicked out, right? Wrong. No one has ever said that, you dumbasses.

Social media is a small hell we impose on ourselves, and Penzler’s post was no different. Supporters came out to yell against diversity. They said diverse writers are “cheap.” They claimed they were straight and white and had received rejections (oh, the oppression!). They said diversity is just “woke sensibility.”

They said they preferred “qualified and knowledgeable over color” (you know, because us people of color aren’t qualified or knowledgeable…and in the immortal words of Roxane Gay: “I can wallpaper your hourse with my CV, motherfcuker”). They obviously said “Fuck this PC shit.” Some asshole called an incredibly talented, Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and Independent Publisher “IPPY” award-winning author, a woman of color, a “cookie” and then called a professor of color “kiddo.” You know what? I’ll stop there.

You get the idea. You’ve seen how racists get every time you bring up diversity. You know what Penzler said about all that? Nothing. Washing your white robe in silence doesn’t make it less awful.

My guess is these folks were angry because opening doors to new, diverse voices means all the straight white folks are going to get kicked out, right? Wrong. No one has ever said that, you dumbasses. Furthermore, implying that diverse voices can’t be excellent is so incredibly dumb and racist I’m surprised it’s not something Trump tweeted.

Oh, and just so you know, those of us who write from Otherness tend to infuse our narratives with a lot of truth, so any decent editor can usually guess the positionality any author of truth-infused fiction. We write about our experiences. We write about ourselves. We address our positionality and work hard at presenting fiction that comes from the way we see the world.

Penzler tried really hard to defend himself while also taking on the role of victim of the “PC Police.” Then someone shared a photo of their collection of The Best American Mystery Stories of the Year and made a quiet statement he surely ignored he was making.

You see, the photo showed the names of a bunch of guest editors: Carl Hiaasen, George Pelecanos, Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Lisa Scottoline, Laura Lippman, Robert Crais, and James Patterson. Just to be clear, the anthology has also been guest edited by James Ellroy, Jonathan Lethem, Scott Turow, Neslon DeMille, Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly…okay, you get the idea. Again. Two decades, not one black or brown guest editor? Maybe I missed one. Wait, I forgot people of color are not knowledgeable and are incapable of excellence.

Listen, all those folks I just named? I’ve read them. I like their work. I also love and admire the work of a bunch of other white crime writers like Harry Crews, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn, Charles Willeford, Joe Clifford, Michael Farris Smith, William Boyle, Tom Pitts, Jason Pinter, Shannon Kirk, and tons of others.

My career wouldn’t exist without the chances, help, and support of a bunch of my favorite people on earth who are also straight white writers: Brian Keene, Nik Korpon, J. David Osborne, Benjamin Whitmer, and my brother David Joy.

I love what they do and who they are. But I also love and admire the work of Chesya Burke, Roxane Gay, Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Jennifer Hillier, Steph Cha, Walter Mosley, Rachel Howzell Hall, Kellye Garrett, S.A. Cosby, Yuri Herrera, Carlos Velázquez, and Attica Locke, to name just a few. The second group is made up of writers that are just as good as any other writer named here. Fuck you if you think writers of color can’t produce excellence, and I say that from the bottom of my heart.

As the discussion raged on, numbers came out, and numbers speak truths that opinions can’t erase. For example, it seems that diverseity hasn’t been too present in Penzler’s Mysterious Press, which was relaunched in 2011. It looks like the press has published 83 books but only 9 of them are are by women…and 7 of those were written by Joyce Carol Oates and the other two by Minette Walters.

We have work to do. We have amazing narratives to work on. All of us.

From the bottom of my utter lack of excellence, I have to wonder why Penzler was unable to find a single Black, Latinx, Asian, or First Nations writer worth publishing in almost a decade. I’ve seen the beautiful snow that covers the highest points of the Rocky Mountains in late winter, and Penzler’s recent publishing history with Mysterious Press is whiter.

Anyway, Penzler and his fellow close-minded minions don’t deserve another second of our time. We have work to do. We have amazing narratives to work on. All of us.

That means white writers, black writers, brown writers, poor writers, LGBTQ+ writers, Appalachian writers, First Nations writers, immigrants writers…everyone. Those who don’t want to come with us can stay in their hatred bubbles and rot. If racist editors and publishers spent half the energy they spend on being racists and fighting to perpetuate the status quo actually editing and publishing, their legacy would be outstanding.

Here’s something I’ve said before and now have to say again:

Your time is up, racists. The new wave is here and it’s full of women, writers of color, poor folks, Appalachians, people with disabilities, First Nations brothers and sisters, immigrants from all over the world, and LGBTQ+ writers who are better than you. We’re here to stay, so stop fighting it.

We don’t give a fuck about you or your work because your troglodytic actions tarnish whatever you’ve accomplished. Respect must be earned, and you haven’t earned any. Your options are simple: get with the program and stop being assholes, take your nonsense back to the basement and get out of the way, or keep doing what you’re doing and get destroyed.

Have a nice day.


To read other essays by Gabino Iglesias on Mystery Tribune, please visit here.

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