Thursday, September 16, 2021



I say enough unprovoked stupid shit that I try not to jump too hastily into controversies. This post concerns a disagreement between two friends of mine I didn’t want to get into, but have strong thoughts about. I’ll not mention either name; those who know them will likely know who they are. If you don’t, or aren’t sure, don’t bother asking. This is not about either of them, but the general principle the discussion raises.


Person A won a significant award, for which he gave a public acceptance speech. Person B was upset that the speech did not mention the influences and inspiration of women writers on Person A’s work. I was late to this party, not having seen the speech, nor read the Facebook post criticizing it before it came down. What I know is all from the aftermath.


To me, it’s tough to criticize a person for something they didn’t say, unless the exclusion is so glaring it qualifies as an insult by omission. Listing influencers and inspirations is particularly tricky. Influencers change over time; inspiration varies from story to story. I’ll use myself as an example, not because I have the answers, or am even the best illustration, but because I can speak authoritatively only about myself.


The first authors who inspired me to want to write were Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker; my first four books were PI novels. The “inspirations” for novels evolved even during those first four PI stories, as did what, and who, provided the inspiration. Were I to win an award, how many inspirations should I note, especially since events were more responsible for some recent books far more than anything I read?


Regarding influences, when asked early on I always said “Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Ed McBain.” Dashiell Hammett soon superseded Chandler. Over time, Joseph Wambaugh had increasing influence over what stories I told, and George V. Higgins over how I told them. James Ellroy is not without impact. Should I credit them all? Give the timeline? Or only those who had specific influences on the novel in question? Am I wrong not to mention a more diverse group?


It’s the diversity question that hangs people up, and rightfully so. All my listed influences are white men, most of whom are dead. What can I say? I’m a product of my environment. I grew up in semi-rural southwestern Pennsylvania in the late 60s and 70s. That’s when my tastes formed.


Have my horizons broadened since I got serious about writing? Damn right. I understand that Walter Mosely and Chester Himes are masters. No one does, or has ever, written crime better than Laura Lippman or Megan Abbott. Did any of the above inspire me to be a writer? Hardly, since I wasn’t aware of them when I first started. Have they been major influences on my writing? No again, as none of them writes the kinds of stories I write. True, Mosely and Lippman write (wrote) PI stories, but their universes and the experiences are foreign to my background. Do I have an obligation to credit a diverse range of writers as influences, even if they were not, at least for the book in question?


(I should point out that Person A has been a tireless supporter of women writers. He just didn’t make a big deal about it that particular night.)


Leaving diversity aside for a moment, let’s look at the entire business of author acknowledgements. Some novels now have acknowledgement sections that rival the bibliographies of scholarly works. Aside from the usual suspects (editor, publisher, agent, experts who provided special insights) we get heartfelt gratitude for beta readers; people we discussed the book with at conferences; people we drink with; our spouses, children, and friends for putting up with us while we write; Mom and Dad (possibly though neither one ever did dick to inspire or assist us as writers); our third grade teacher who liked a story we wrote; our junior-year teacher who was a prick and inspired us out of spite; Gutenberg for inventing publishing; Cai Lun for inventing paper; and our sophomore roommate’s girlfriend for inspiring the fantasies that led to those awesome sex scenes.


I’m not questioning the sincerity of those expressions of gratitude. I’m just saying, when we spread acknowledgements so thin, they become akin to participation trophies and lose all meaning. 


“But I don’t want to leave anyone out.” I get that. I do. We do no justice to those who were truly influential in the creation of a particular work if we provide equal gratitude to everyone even peripherally involved. There is no obligation to thank everyone who crossed our path, literally or through literature, every time we open our mouths. We’re writers, and among the most important traits every writer needs is the ability to know what to leave out, lest what remains loses impact.




EdEarl's Daddy said...

Spot on.

Ef Deal said...

Insult by omission is Charles Babbage's crime against Ada Lovelace, not failing to live up to someone else's expectations of what one should or should not have said. I had enough of that effluvium with my mother to have learned that lesson.