Thursday, February 22, 2024

Thoughts on How to Handle Future Bouchercon Controversies

 I had a post drafted for today that discussed the recent Bouchercon Otto Penzler controversy, but Anthony Horowitz’s withdrawal from this year’s conference made the topic moot. The whole episode brought to mind things that seem to come up with increasing frequency, so I’m considering them fair game.

 For those unaware, I’m not just a cisgendered white heterosexual male; I’m old. If that disqualifies my opinion from your consideration, you can stop reading now. No hard feelings. I’ll catch you next week.

 Among the benefits of being my age is – at least should be – an ability to gain context through viewing the world through the perspective of time. I’d hate to think I haven’t learned anything in sixty-eight years, so I continue to see what I might do differently if faced with similar circumstances. As a man with a temper, this comes in handy. (Those who have seen my temper know that is not a self-effacing comment.)

 There is much injustice in the world. Readers and writers conferences are not immune, and people are right to point it out when it happens. The recent Penzler controversy had to do with misogyny, but race and LGBTQ+ concerns are never far from public attention, nor should they be. The question is what to do about them. Too often the first impulse is to withdraw from the conference and talk about a boycott, but no one ever talks about what a boycott would accomplish other than making the participants feel good about their self-perceived purity.

 But what about the collateral damage? Let’s stick with Bouchercon and Penzler for a moment. Who would it harm if everyone who objected to his appearance chose to skip the conference? Certainly not Otto, but if a total boycott were successful enough it could put a significant crimp into Bouchercon’s finances and endanger future events. Is that what anybody wants?

 I’m sure there are some out there thinking “If that’s how the conference is going to be run, maybe it should go away.” Let’s step back a second and think of all the good Bouchercon does. In addition to the charitable work, the celebration of reading has value in a world that seems to care less about reading all the time. It’s also a chance for readers and writers – who are more likely than not introverts – to get together in a safe place with kindred spirits. Do we want to endanger that over a symbolic gesture not likely to accomplish anything concrete?

 So what can we do? We can express our displeasure as Lee Goldberg did so eloquently in a letter he shared on Facebook.

 But what if Horowitz hadn’t gotten everyone off the hook by withdrawing?

I think the best response would have been to go to Nashville, do everything that makes Bouchercon special, then boycott the guest of honor event. I can think of no better way to show what the crime fiction community thinks of Otto than to make him  interview Horowitz in an empty room. A conference boycott would allow him to claim martyrdom; mass avoidance of  his specific event sends a much more pointed and credible message.

 I raised this point on Facebook and Lori Rader-Day made an excellent counterpoint: How many people there either don’t know or don’t care and would go anyway? I have two thoughts on that:

 1.    If they don’t know, then it should be our job to educate them. Have pins made up for folks to wear. It could be as simple as “Boycott Otto,” though something more cryptic. “Ask me about Otto.” Notices on the bulletin boards. Arm-, wrist-, or headbands. Messages on the Bouchercon Facebook page. Whatever works.

2.    If they know and still want to come, well, it’s a free country.

Otto Penzler has a right to hold abhorrent positions. Let him come. It’s not as if he was going to give a pro-misogyny speech or hold a men’s rights rally. We could demonstrate our disdain by effectively shunning him, or by making a point of exposing how wrong his ideas about women are by showing strong, empowered women who no longer feel threatened by his Cro-Magnon outlook. To say “he can’t come or we won’t” is a form of cancelation. Seize the opportunity to expose his wrongheadedness to those previously unaware of it. To discourage such discourse is no better than banning books, which I assume is something no one reading this advocates.

 I am not defending Otto Penzler, nor Bouchercon’s invitation. (I know, it was at Horowitz’s request; the committee still formalized it.) The apology issued after Horowitz withdrew was an example of the non-apology apologies that have become so prevalent. The decision to invite him was tone deaf and insensitive. I dwell on it here because a similar situation is bound to come up again, and we should all think about what remedies we propose: Will this accomplish something? Or am I just doing it to make myself feel better?

 I don’t know Otto Penzler; never met him. Based on what I know, I don’t feel like I missed much. If folks wanted to show their disdain for him, which do you think would be better: to boycott the conference, allowing him to claim martyrdom and possibly risking Bouchercon’s continued existence? Or  to give everyone a chance to show him exactly what they think of him in person?

 I know which I’d choose.

1 comment:

E. Ellis said...

Another fine, thought-provoking piece. As you suggested, there were probably more productive ways things like this could have been handled. For example, would it not have been much more useful to do either just as you suggested or, like adults, attend and ask sharp and respectful pertinent questions about Penzler and his past behavior and selections.

The point I'm trying to make is, that society is like watching a MLB game from 1970 and then one from today and not seeing the same thing whatsoever because of cultural and game changes and to be fair and in-depth, it might be more productive to consider where one came from before trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

And please don't mistake this for excusing or condoning horrible and wrong behavior, because it's not - it is about maybe this eighty-plus year old man has changed his perception, and if he hasn't, then holding his feet to the fire might have had a better result. But we will never know because of the idiocy over automatic "cancelation" in this country.