Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The wild card

Wild Card Question. If you could take a literary pilgrimage vacation, where would it be? What writer or work would you celebrate?’

by Dietrich

I wrote a recent post here on literary pilgrimages, so I’m going to focus on a twist of the second part of the question and celebrate writers and their work. 

Let me start with this group of talented authors who reside within these imaginary walls — the Minds. I’ve had the honor of being among these very talented individuals for some time, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of their fine novels. I’ve also had the good fortune of getting together with most of them at various writing events and conventions, and I’ve gotten to know them even better by interviewing each of them on my own blog, Off the Cuff. Josh is the one exception to the interviews, and that one will be posted on August 1st, and knowing Josh, that’s something to look forward to.

Of course, the best way to celebrate writers and their work is to read their books. It’s a chance to celebrate the diversity of voices by diving into their stories. And reading is such a great way to escape, to lift your spirits, and it can certainly inspire and encourage the next generation of wordsmiths.

Attending festivals, conventions, and writer events — which all are designed to celebrate writers — I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many other authors over the past decade or so. And I’ve found them to be a very supportive bunch. 

And I’m sure that’s what I’ll find at this year’s Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA), the second annual MOTIVE. It’s Canada’s largest crime and mystery writing festival, and it takes place June 2nd to 4th. For fans of the genre, it’s a great opportunity to check out over forty writer panels, readings, and master classes. It’s also a rare chance to meet some very interesting international authors and get signed copies of their books.

I will be heading there tomorrow, and I’ll be in conversation with my friend and fellow author Sam Wiebe, talking about a Tale of Two Crime Cities, discussing the importance of story setting and how and why we each set our recent novels in Toronto and in Vancouver. That takes place on Saturday, June 3rd, 11:30 AM.

For more information about the festival and all its events, check out TIFA’s site here.

Also, my publisher ECW Press has arranged a launch for my new one, The Get, while I’m in Toronto. That takes place at Supermarket Bar at 268 Augusta Avenue, right in Kensington Market where the story is set. It’s also on Saturday, June 3rd at 3:00 PM. I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Visit to the Author


Terry here, answering our question of the week: If you could take a literary pilgrimage vacation, where would it be? What writer or work would you celebrate?

 Does the question mean do I so revere a writer that I want to breathe the air they breathed, stand next to the desk they worked at, touch their writing implements, stroll in their garden, buy postcards in their town, hear the language they would have heard. Why? Is it in the wild hope that some of the magic will rub off? The reason I ask is that I probably would never take a “literary pilgrimage” vacation. I have a feeling nothing would rub off, although it might be interesting to get a feel for the kind of environment some of my favorite writers wrote in. 

 Instead of a literary pilgrimage, what I have done is read books written by authors from places I plan to visit. When I was in Australia for two months, I read nothing but Australian authors. I found such a wealth of wonderful writing, and to this day read a lot of Australian authors. To name a few: Nobel prize-winning Patrick White, award-winning Peter Carey, Tim Winton, (from years ago) and Lianne Moriarity, and Jane Harper, more contemporary). When we used to spend a lot of time on our boat and were anchored off the coast of San Lucia, I reveled in re-reading Derek Walcott’s masterpiece, Omeros.
Yes, I was breathing the same air he breathed, and being on-site brought a richness to reading his poetry, but I don’t think I would have bothered to go to his house, even if I could have gotten there. It’s the atmosphere of the setting I was after. 

 I’ve read Italian, English, Scandinavian, French, Canadian, Mexican, Korean, Japanese, and German authors. Because I was there and wanted to get an indefinable feel for the atmosphere. “Atmosphere” is what makes a novel come alive. That’s what I would like to “visit.” 

 Turning the question around, I’m trying to imagine someone loving my work enough to make a “literary pilgrimage” vacation to my home. Where would they go? To the place where I was born, but left when I was six weeks old, Orlando, Florida? Or to the real life town of Somerville, Texas, where my books are set, but where I never lived? Would they go to where I grew up, Lake Jackson, Texas? The house I grew up in is still there, but I think they’d find it lacking in the atmosphere that comes through in my novels, unless they like a lot of heat and humidity and the smell of the nearby chemical plant. 

 How about if they visited the place I lived in longest, Berkeley, California? I just moved from there and a nice young couple lives there now with a baby. I can imagine how puzzled they’d be if someone knocked on the door and asked if they could come inside to see the study where the “famous” Terry Shames worked. They’d be especially nonplussed because the brilliant realtors who decided to make the house into a “blank slate” tore out my lovely study
and made it into a…what? A sun room I guess you’d call it. Somewhere to sit and look at the backyard.
Not somewhere to slave over manuscripts. It no longer has the bookcases that held my hundreds of books. Which makes me wonder how much the supposed working places of famous authors reflect what they actually looked like. Did they have messy desks that have been cleaned up for tourists? Did they have crumbs on their desk from the toast they ate while they worked? Did they have overflowing wastebaskets and a soft blanket for a cat?
What if a fan wanted to visit where I wrote the first Samuel Craddock book? They’d have to charter a boat, because the first book was written when we were in the Caribbean on our catamaran. I got up every morning at 6 and wrote for 2-3 hours sitting on the bed in our cabin.
I can write pretty much anywhere, and I suspect a lot of authors inhabit a place of mind more thoroughly than they do a place of body. I believe that for a literary pilgrimage to be a true pilgrimage, it would have to entail a trip to the mind of the author. And that is only possible by reading the product of that mind—to what they’ve written. 

 As I child I soaked up the sound of Texas twang, of colloquial expressions, of cows lowing, and trains with their lonesome whistles; the sight of flat land, oil wells, snakes, and scrub brush; the smell of dank vegetation, creosote, bottomlands of rivers; the taste of water in various towns (muddy Austin water, shrimpy Gulf Coast, and hard minerals in mid-Texas water). I felt the sting of mosquitos and wasps and chiggers; the bone-chilling cold of damp winters; the debilitating summer heat. Somehow this all came together to enrich the books I write. 

 To make a literary pilgrimage to an author’s home or office would be to find only the dead tools of the writer’s world. To find the real literary home, you have to find it in the books.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Tapping into my Fan Girl

If you could take a literary pilgrimage vacation, where would it be? What writer or work would you celebrate?

Brenda kicking off the week.

Such a good question. One that makes me think long and hard. Combining an author I admire with a location I'd like to visit. Hmmm.

I already wrote in an earlier blog post about tracking down Hemingway's watering hole when my husband and I were in Paris last year. We looked up the address and walked the length of the Champs-Élysées and cutting into the shopping district to arrive at our destination. Alas, the bar didn't open until late afternoon and we didn't want to hang around this ritzy locale for three hours (guards at the doors of the shops, and a purse in one store window costing more than we would spend on our entire holiday). So all I have to offer is a photo of the exterior of the hotel. I would have really liked to sit in a chair and order a drink, but life moves on.

I've enjoyed reading a lot of crime fiction from other countries and admire many authors, but it seems a goodly number of my favourites come from the UK, lately Ireland and Scotland to be exact -- well, Britain too. So, perhaps a bit of a tour.

First up, tea with Ann Cleeves and a boat trip to Shetland for the day (maybe an overnighter) to visit the haunts of Jimmy Perez. I'd also like to drop in on fellow Criminal Mind Abir Mukherjee to talk books, life, publishing, perhaps over a glass of wine at his favourite restaurant. Then on to Edinburgh, Scotland for a pub meal with Denise Mina, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, after which they take me on a tour of city sites. I'd zip over to Ireland for another pub meal (of course) with Adrian McKinty and John Connolly ... 

So not a pilgrimage exactly. More like a pub crawl, but wouldn't it make for some great stories afterwards? Anyone want to join me?!


Facebook & Twitter: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, May 26, 2023

The Clash, AI, and Marketing 101, by Josh Stallings

Q:  Do you set aside dedicated time to do promotion for your book and your brand? If so, how much time and what do you concentrate on? If not, why not?

“Siri play The Clash Sandinista! loud.” Give me Topper Headon’s locked tight beat. Strummer’s chord stabs. Give me the fuck-capitalism ethos. To get the label to release Sandinista! as a triple-LP at a cost the fans could afford, the band lowered their royalty rate. Also for the first time they listed song writing credits not by individual members but as written by The Clash, thereby sharing the royalties equally. Pure fuck-the-money-man attitude.

Listening now. Fingers starting to feel the beat of typing. “Charlie Don’t Surf,” is the perfect answer to “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” The Magnificent Seven turns out that snapping boogaloo that has me dancing with words.

“WAIT. Come on Josh, this is how I answer a question about the business of writing?”

Yep. It all connects… The Clash made Sandinista! as a middle finger pointed at the record business. Strummer said they made a triple album because the record company objected to London Calling being released as a double album. That’s rock and roll baby. Brazen guts, a rock steady beat, three cords, and something to yell about is all you need.

This is the mind set I need to do what I do. Starting a project I need the arrogance of a teenager to block out everyone's opinion and listen to my own. It is audacious to walk  into a dark room, stare down the blank page and say “I will find my story here, and it will be worth the work.” It takes a combination of Evil Knievel’s fearlessness and Iggy Pop’s raw power rage to pull that off… 

“Wait, slow your roll Josh, all that youthful angst and bravado has nothing to do with the business of promoting your work.”

Am I avoiding the question? Hell yes. 

Why am I avoiding the question? Fucked if I know. 

Let me put on my logical professor hat. 

Movie marketing 101: In the before times the keystone of movie’s advertising campaign was the trailer. The greatest effort and money was spent on this two to two and a half minute piece. It played only in theaters. It set the tone for the shorter work that followed. A thirty second spot placed on a hit TV show would be seen by millions more than the trailer, so why weren’t they as important? This speaks to the heart of marketing, it should be aimed at people predisposed to see or hear or read your product. A person sitting in a movie theater is already paying to see movies. They are predisposed to want to see another movie. The studios were also careful to launch a trailer attached to the opening of a film in the same genre as the one they were selling. Confident that audiences will get excited over their new film coming soon. Get this right and the viewers will tell their friends about it. They will evangelize. For the core audience the TV spots were simply to keep the enthusiasm going and as a reminder of the opening date.

Books aren’t movies, and streaming killed that old movie marketing model. Why bring it up? It remains relevant even if the venues shifted. Like movies, books sell by word of mouth, we need evangelized readers. So how do we meet those readers, where are their “movie theaters?” Where they read? Should we be hanging out in libraries looking over shoulders to see what folks are into? Seems kinda creepy. Social media (Twitter and Facebook) was where I was first “discovered.” Back then it worked to connect with readers and critics. Honestly, honesty is gone from social media. Political ideology and lying liars have poisoned the well, we don’t trust each other online, never sure if we’re talking to a writer/reader or a PR AI bot, or worse an AI bot with a neo-fascist agenda.

“What do you think about AI writing books?” My brilliant little sister asked. We were talking about AI in art and literature. If we couldn’t discern it was AI created why did it bug us. I came down on the pro human unionist point of view, 

“If we buy AI books, we take jobs from human writers.” It was true but also a bit self serving. 

My sister dropped, “Maybe the problem is, AI itself has no back story. Take Van Gough, love the paintings and we know his life story. We can study his work and know the man through it. Louise Penny? I feel like I know her. Getting a new Three Pines book is like a letter from an old friend.” 

“Can’t AI crack the old friends logarithm?” I asked afraid of the answer.

“Damn brother, that’s dark. Imagine a new Hap and Leonard book that AI personalized and tailored to the reader's unspoken wants and desires. Joe R. Lansdale without all those bad words and problematic social issues? Or with a heaping pile more of them if that’s your deal. Afraid of gay? Leonard is straight as ruler, well not any ruler, not Julius Caesar, obviously, or Alexander the Great.”

After I stopped laughing, I wanted to ask her if books shouldn’t pull us out of our comfort zones past our petty preconceived notions? But instead told her I needed to get back to my Criminal Minds essay.

Clearly I’m stuck. Here’s why, if I were to spend my time on marketing what would that look like? Shouting BUY MY BOOK in a social media echo chamber? Going to book conferences and connecting with readers? Writing essays on book marketing? These aren’t rhetorical questions dear readers, no, I really hope you have some answers. Any answers.

For now, “Siri play No Shit by Iggy Pop.”

Back to my master plan for literary domination, keep typing as true and real as I know how. Take no shit. Never give up. Demand that every book is better than the last. Remember fellow writers are my traveling companions. Only compete with myself. Push myself to write better. 

Failing all that, “Siri play Ziggy Stardust.”

 Ziggy played guitar…

Thursday, May 25, 2023

TikTok ate my Street Team

Do you set aside dedicated time to do promotion for your book and your brand? If so, how much time and what do you concentrate on? If not, why not?

Not really, if that means "Thursday afternoons" or "the last morning of every month". But yes indeed if it means "put things that need to be done on the to-do list and do them in time".

best pic I've taken of Rachel

At least, for my book(s), that is. I solicit blurbs and accept invitations to give them, I go on blog tours, I appear at conventions and attend them, I arrange readings and sit agog at other people's readings, I offer bookclub visits, I keep my website up-to-date (pause while I go and check that my website is up-to-date . . . it was and you don't need to take my word for it - see), I've got an Author page on Facebook and a Twitter account where I share news about new books, trade reviews, award nominations and events, and if possible I hold launch parties for each new book.

current books

Sounds like I'm all over it, eh?

But I just Googled "How to promote your book" and found:
  • Television news
  • Book Trailer
  • Instagram
  • Tik-Tok
  • Street team 
And my answer is
  • Yeah, right
  • Umm
  • Nah
  • Hahahahahaha
  • Ewww
Mind you, these five points were top of a list called "nineteen ways to promote your book" which I would file under "twenty-five reasons there shouldn't be more than ten things on a list".

quite a lot of lemons

When it comes to one's brand, I get wriggly and start to fray. (For instance, I don't use the pronoun "one" but I couldn't type "my brand" for squirming.) What *is* a brand, when it comes to an author? 

Is it the shared characteristics of all her books? So my brand would be: crime fiction, Scotland, missing children, laughs (sometimes inappropriate)?

Or is a brand made up of all the other stuff an author puts out into the world - in real life or on social media - which would make mine . . . books (I read a lot and tell people what I'm reading), cats (God, she's annoying but how I do love her), inept gardening, cooking with confidence and varying success, escapist telly and the love of a good line of washing?

those were the days

Both? Anything else?

It used to be the case that publicists and gurus would say authors shouldn't talk about politics in case we reduced our audience by alienating people - or "tarnished our brand". I went along with it for a while, but not these days, when "political" has come to mean anything that makes someone feel ashamed of being horrid and when real harm is being done to people who don't deserve it. Silence isn't always apolitical, in my opinion, and I'm on the side of the angels.

So, my brand is probably this: a woke cat and cake fan who loves books and laughs a lot. (She sounds okay.)

At Left Coast Crime with Diana Chambers

Now then: do I set aside time to promote that? What a weird idea! It's inevitable that I'll keep quiet when the subject round a table, on a panel, or in a thread is . . . golf. And it's highly unlikely that I'd sit out a discussion of ironing, transphobia, or whether you have to skin broad beans (to take just three recent examples).

So I think, in conclusion, that if we as authors really are who we make out we are, we are our brands, and we promote them by existing in all our intersecting communities. Or maybe I'm so absolutely uninformed about promo and publicity that I just made myself sound like an iguana trying to yodel.

Wait! I do set aside time to promote one bit of branding: reader. I tell everyone on Twitter and facebook what I'm reading every #FridayReads and I've got an item on the home page of my website that shares what I'm reading Saturday to Thursday, with links to a list in date order. (here) Today, it's Kwei Quartey's third PI Emma Djan novel, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ. It's fantastic. His prose is so clean and he's a dab hand with plot. I know it's going to get dark towards the end, but I read Gabino Iglesias' THE DEVIL TAKES YOU HOME, so I'm bullet proof now.



Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Please...and thank you by Cathy Ace

Do you set aside dedicated time to do promotion for your book and your brand? If so, how much time and what do you concentrate on? If not, why not?

I wish I was sufficiently well organized to be able to say that I always make a detailed plan to promote my brand and my books, but I’m not, and I don’t. Yes, I know I’ll need to make a specific push at a particular time, but that’s more of a general plan rather than an effort that’s timetabled into my schedule. Which is possibly/probably a bad thing.

That said, I do take a few moments every day to think about ways I can better present my work to “the market” in some way; but I don’t like to beat those readers I can connect with through social media with a constant barrage of “please buy my book” or “please take a few moments to post a review about the books of mine you might have already read” messages because – well, you know how it feels to be constantly seeing that sort of begging in your social media feed, don’t you? Hmmm…too needy? Just a bit.

A library speaking engagement in Swansea,
with Mum, a few years ago

My days follow a certain pattern when I’m in writing mode (as opposed to plotting, researching, or editing modes, that is) which goes like this: about 8am get up, coffee, more coffee, time with Husband, phone sister in Wales, phone mother in Wales, DO PROMOTIONAL WORK, write, lunch with Husband, write, eat dinner then watch a couple of hours of vegetative TV with Husband, write, bed (by about 2 or 3am). That’s it. That’s my way of doing things. So, yes, I am carving out time to get done what has to be done to support my work in the marketplace.

However, other than a social media presence, there’s my website to keep up to date, newsletters to plan, write and send, organizing and preparing for events I am attending (conventions and conferences, for example…four this year, of all goes according to plan) as well as making sure that I’m replying to, and following up on, any emails or comments I receive from readers, as well as publishers, reviewers, bloggers, bookstores etc.

So it’s not as though everything is about just social media, though that’s important…especially Facebook, where I feel a real connection with my community of fellow writers, and readers. Do I sometimes “death-scroll” under cover of “this is useful for me to promote my work”? Yes, but not often. More frequently I’ll find myself down a bit of a rabbit hole considering the minutiae of self-publishing issues…which I hope builds more overall knowledge for when I’m working on that part of my responsibilities.

I suppose, overall, I try for a balance of promoting as I can, but not overdoing it…which can prove a challenge when a few good reviews I’ve been praying for all seem to appear at once (this happens!) then I have to have a plan to drip-feed them into the feeds I am using. But an embarrassment of riches is something I am only too happy to have to deal with, so there’s that!

Quite literally flying the flag to promote my books set in Wales

If you'd like to find out more about me and my work, easily follow me on social media or sign up for my newsletters, you can do all of that via my website:

AND NOW SOME PROMOTION!!! On May 21st the cover of my WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery Book 8 was revealed - you can see it above, and the blurb is below. I hope you like the look and sound of it (maybe even enough that you'll pre-order it! (Links at my website, below)


The women of the WISE Enquiries Agency should be enjoying the early summer with their loved ones, but find themselves facing a truly baffling case: a mysterious figure has been spotted in Anwen-by-Wye, heralding tragedy. Nerves in the village are frayed, and the skills of all four of our private investigators are needed to work out what’s going on – aided by Althea, dowager duchess of Chellingworth, of course.

When death strikes far too close to home for our beloved enquiry agents the stakes are raised in what has become a fatal game of cat and mouse…revealing dark secrets hidden by a person everybody thought they knew.

Meanwhile, the duke and duchess are busy organizing projects designed to help revitalize the Chellingworth Estate, though their proposals aren’t viewed favorably by all, and - snatching time as a couple when they can - Annie and Tudor are considering their future, as are Christine and Alexander…though in different ways, and with some surprising outcomes.

The eighth book in this series presents the WISE women with challenges of both a professional and personal nature they’ve never faced before; join them to find out how they fare.

Links to pre-order, and you can keep up with me via my website:

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Morning Caffeine, Munchkin, and Promotion by Gabriel Valjan


Do you set aside dedicated time to do promotion for your book and your brand? If so, how much time and what do you concentrate on? If not, why not?

 As a rule, NO, I don’t dedicate a special time to promote myself and my brand. However, I do commit my daily Coffee Time to doing social media. It’s a qualification with a distinction because I use social media to support other authors. My books are released into the wild once a year, so I do my best to to keep the flame alive.


Every morning, I orient myself to Time, Purpose, and Location with a doppio of espresso within reach. I’ll open up Canva and create a graphic for my Facebook feed. I might move onto creating a graphic for an author with a New Release, a review in the trades, or an event at a bookstore or conference. This creativity awakens the writer within.


I find it easier to promote others than promote myself, probably because I’ve scrolled through enough feeds to tire of the screams to BUY MY BOOK.  Blame my Catholic upbringing, but talking about oneself is equated with hubris and about as pretentious as talking about yourself in the third person—and illeism is something we associate with egocentrics and eccentrics. Ezra Pound spoke about himself in third person in interviews, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho was guilty of the same deadly sin of narcissism.


When I post on social media, I try to start the day with a laugh. It’s not Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood out there, and there’s that guy screaming again, BUY MY BOOK. I’m sure I am not alone, in the need for something positive. My Facebook Friends know I post humorous memes, often a melange of pop culture, cinema, and my cat Munchkin. Humor is both my self-defense mechanism against the negativity in the world, and my way of making the morning better.

 Writers know all about the power of words (diction) and delivery (syntax). If my image of my goofy cat doesn’t make a smile break on the face of even the most hardcore dog lover, then something is wrong. When I campaign one of my books, past or present, I’m bringing promotion of my ‘brand’ into a certain context.  Friends understand it’s business. I have to do this, so they know I am different from that guy chanting BUY MY BOOK.


If and when I pitch my books, I’ll note that all my books are about friendships. No matter what happens in life, we need each other, and it helps if someone has your back.


Maya Angelou said, ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’


In a word—a moment of mirth in this madcap insane asylum we call Life.


I do what I do, a bolt of espresso down my throat, and caffeine in my veins.


If interested in my Lessons Learned in The Business,’ then visit this link on Criminal Minds where I dispense some advice on the topic.


Oh, and buy my books.

Monday, May 22, 2023

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

 Q: Do you set aside dedicated time to do promotion for your book and your brand? If so, how much time and what do you concentrate on? If not, why not?

-from Susan


Yes and no. I cop to a lack of focus, especially when it’s a promotional sphere I’m clueless about. The learning time takes up all the mental bandwidth I have at times, witness I was told I had to have an Instagram account and so now I do, but it’s anemic because I can’t figure out on my own how to use it and I’m too impatient to read the extensive how-to information available online. I’d rather be writing. I wish I could hire someone to do that for me, but it’s expensive. 

I focus more when a book is due to come out and when it has just been released. Dedicated time, sort of, although I feel pushed to keep writing the next book. I’m sketchy about specific times to do things, relying more on an hour here or there, or the demands of responding to a specific task. 

It wasn’t always thus. When my first book was in production in 2007, I got serious about ways to promote sales. Because that book, the first in the Dani O’Rourke series, was built around a professional fundraiser, I contacted my former colleagues in the business. I’d been a frequent speaker, panelist, article writer in the field, so I thought it was a no-brainer. So wrong. My outreach led to a few private launch events and book club sessions, for which I was grateful, but the non-profit community didn’t fall over itself to welcome back one of their own. I put together a launch party at my home indie bookstore and invited all my local friends. That worked and sent my spirits soaring. But it turned out my publisher sold mainly to libraries, so they weren’t interested in bookstore sales or promoting the book other than to librarians. For that series, I did what we all do over the years: website, blogs, guest blogs, “blog tours,” contests. Did it help sell books? I have no idea.

Time passed, and when a big five house contracted for a new series, I revved up, determined to make the most of the opportunity. Their publicist met with me and to her credit she got me the one item of publicity I told her I wanted most. The rest was up to me. I made contacts with bookstores, held launch events in different areas, reached put to my mailing list, did a few more book club events, took advantage of every Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America platform. By then, I had learned what we all know about conventions like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Malice Domestic, and participated in everything they offered. My book sales weren’t great but I told myself I was “building visibility.” I reached mid-list status, but remain firmly rooted there.

 My granddaughter even pitched in!

When Covid hit, everything in-person vanished. Like everyone else, I had to concentrate on social media and zoom participation, and realized those formats work best to build my brand; that is, who is this writer and what are her strengths, passions, and interests as a writer of murder mysteries? Facebook and this blog became my primary ways of promoting my brand. I got invited to be a guest on several podcasts, in part because other authors and book reviewers were also casting about for ways to build their listener/viewer/reader visibility! We were and are all in this together. 

Truth is, I’m pretty haphazard, easily made glassy-eyed by technology, much prefer in-person connecting, and long for the old days when newspapers had regular book reviewers and had the staffs to interview local writers. I’m old school in a new world, but I’m trying to keep up. 


“The quirky village residents make this an appealing series debut… recommended for fans of M.L. Longworth, Martin Walker, and Serena Kent” – Library Journal

Friday, May 19, 2023

Freedom of Expression?

by Abir

Begging my colleagues' indulgence, I'm going to stray from this week's topic and talk about some important issues that have been making news in the literary world this week.

A week may be a long time in politics, and three days it seems can be seismic in the world of crime fiction.


On Monday night, I was fortunate enough to be attending the British Book Awards in London. The highlight of the night was an appearance, via videolink, by Sir Salman Rushdie to accept the Freedom to Publish Award. Sir Salman used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to warn against what he perceived as the growing threat to freedom of expression in the West. You can read more on his speech here:


But here’s a key passage:


"Now I am sitting here in the US, I have to look at the extraordinary attack on libraries, and books for children in schools…The attack on the idea of libraries themselves. It is quite remarkably alarming, and we need to be very aware of it, and to fight against it very hard."


He also criticised the rewriting of older books in modern times to remove language deemed offensive, saying that books should "come to us from their time and be of their time."


A few days earlier, at a crime fiction festival in England, a different author made a speech allegedly criticizing, amongst other things, political correctness and the use of gender pronouns and lamenting the fact that white men were no longer allowed to write non-white characters. All of this was, I understand, wrapped in the language of freedom of expression. The speech was described by some in the room as: “outdated and offensive”, “inappropriate”, and sounding “as though it was written in the last century”. While at least several people in the audience complained about the speech, others appear to have laughed in agreement with its sentiments.


I don’t want to talk about the specifics of the latter, because I was not at the festival in question, but I do want to discuss some of the issues underlying it as well as the points raised by Sir Salman Rushdie in his speech on Monday night, because they are, to a certain degree, all linked.


First, a couple of things: This article is not a witch hunt. It’s not about attributing blame or casting aspersions. And it doesn’t have any answers. It’s more about setting out my own thoughts and questions. Some, maybe many of you, will disagree with part or all of what I have to say, and that’s fine. I don’t claim to be right, my Twitter bio reads ‘generally confused’ and I stand by that. All I can tell you is that I’m writing this in good faith.


Let’s start with Sir Salman’s speech. As I understood it, he is concerned by a creeping authoritarianism and a new puritanism that seems to be infecting the liberal west – an attitude that considers certain ideas or points of view as so heretical that they must be banned. And he chose his words carefully – he criticized those who would stop our libraries stocking books on critical race theory and gender fluidity AND those who would seek to rewrite books from the past in light of present mores. This to me is important. For the intolerance is not just on the right but on the left too. Now these threats have always existed at the extreme margins. What is different now is that the notion that censoring ideas and viewpoints deemed controversial is acceptable or even desirable, now appears to be gaining ground amongst the mainstream, especially amongst millennials and Gen Z, as exemplified by staff at certain publishers refusing to work on books by authors whose views they find disagreeable.


 Gone, it seems, is the Voltairean principle that one can be wholly disapproving of what someone might say, yet still defend to the death their right to say it.


I’ll be honest. This makes me nervous. I grew up in a time and place where the primacy of freedom of speech was sacrosanct. It you didn’t agree with something, you called it out, you debated it, you ridiculed it, you held it up to the light of scrutiny. You didn’t ban the idea or blacklist the person espousing it most of the time. It didn’t really matter if feelings or people were hurt in the process. And yet, the time and place I grew up in was a far less just and equal place than the world today. The world I grew up in was dominated by the voices of educated, older, straight, white men. The voices and opinions of women, non-whites, non-cis and pretty much any other group were, if not unheard, at least significantly marginalised. The Voltairean principle didn’t always apply to people who looked like me. 


When it comes to views and opinions and opportunity, today’s western world is much more diverse, much more multipolar (though still far from perfect) than it was when I was growing up. And it is a better place for it. So, even if I have my doubts, who am I to say that the attitudes of millennials or Gen Z, their emphasis on respect for the views and feelings of marginalised groups over the right of someone to say what they want, regardless of how it affects others, isn’t the right one?


And let’s not forget that the right to freedom of speech is not unqualified. It is a right qualified by criminal law. Free speech cannot be used to cause disorder or to harass or cause fear of violence.


Yet, like Sir Salman, I can’t help but feel that this new puritanism for what can and can’t be said or published is dangerous. My gut, as well as my lived experience, tells me that banning ideas doesn’t eradicate them. It just sweeps them into the shadows where the fester, ready to infect the disaffected, the malcontents and those forgotten about society. 


And that leads me to the issues from the festival in England last week. Again it is couched in the language of censorship – the view that these days, in our new ‘woke’ world, straight white men are at risk of being cancelled for writing characters of colour or non-cis characters. Surely, they argue, this is the same as what Sir Salman is saying? Freedom of expression, they say, is being curtailed. 


Except it’s not. It’s not the same thing at all because no one – literally no one - is saying to straight white men not to write characters of colour, or non-CIS characters or for that matter, female protagonists. What is being said is, if you create these characters, make sure you do it from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. Do it with the care and love and research you put into your straight white male characters. Gone are the days when you could portray the rest of us as tokens, or eye-candy or stereotypes of the worst kind, because WE, the non-white, or non -straight, or non-male, or whatever else minority group that you’ve focussed on, are not bit players in a straight white male world. We are real and three dimensional and your depiction of us matters.That’s not to say you can’t make us villains or the bad guys or anything else, but for god’s sake, make us real. Trust me, you do it well (you understand our cultures, you don’t exoticize us, you treat us as normal people) and no one has a problem. In fact I would hope that the opposite is true. I certainly want to see you write more such characters. But you need to do it properly, not in a lazy, half-arsed way. The issue is that for too long, too many of you haven’t bothered to do that, probably because until recently, you’ve never had to.


And at this point, I’ll make an admission. I think it will be harder for a straight white man living in the west to write authentically about a non-white, or non-straight person, or a woman, than it would be for one of those groups to write authentically about a straight white man. And that’s because we still live in a world where the straight white man’s experience has primacy. We see it in every facet of our lives, and so, I think, we find it easier to write about your experience authentically than you might find it to write about ours. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means it’ll take you a bit of extra work, and if you’re a writer, isn’t discovering these differences part of the joy of writing?




I suppose that leads us to the issue of objecting to someone’s preferred pronouns. I won’t say much on the subject, other than to ask: why do it? 


How does someone’s wish to use different pronouns affect you? If it makes someone else feel more accepted and literally requires nothing from you except a bit of understanding, then what’s the problem? 


And if this is about free speech, then for me, freedom of speech is intrinsically linked to tolerance. How can you believe in freedom of speech whilst being intolerant to the wishes of someone to be addressed by different pronouns?


With regard to the speech at the festival, a lot has been made online of the fact that certain members of the audience were laughing in agreement at some of the points being made. I’m not going to condemn anyone for that. Our views, I think, are shaped by our lived experience. If you are in your sixties or seventies, you’ll have grown up in a world very different to people in their twenties and thirties. During your formative years, you may never even have met a non-white person, or a person who wasn’t straight. You probably wouldn’t have seen them portrayed in a positive light in much of the media you’d have been exposed to. In those circumstances, I would imagine it’s difficult to understand and to empathise with the issues faced by people growing up in a different time, with different values. And suddenly those people whom you can’t empathise with are wanting a say, and everything you’ve been taught or taken for granted your whole life is now considered wrong. It’s a difficult position to be in. 


I would imagine that many of the claims of the world going ‘woke’, or of ‘political correctness gone mad’ are simply a reaction to the world changing. It’s not a new phenomenon. It happens with every generation, though I guess it’s exacerbated by the advent of social media.


The attacks on pronouns and the laughter that may have been given in receipt, I think, come from this fear of a changing world. A world without the certainties that those making the attacks grew up in. It doesn’t make them bad people. My gut says it’s more out of confusion, a rage against the dying of their light, an anger at the world having moved on and them having been left behind. I think it’s the laughter of the bitter, not of the all-conquering victor.


But how can these people be condemned for their lack of empathy if we too, cannot empathise with them? Their world has gone. It might be your world today, but not for long. One day your views might be considered just as outmoded as theirs are now. What's worse, if you're in your twenties or thirties, pretty much every opinion you've ever had is probably recorded somewhere on social media. When attitudes change (and they will), there's a fair chance that you'll be even more prone to cancellation that those out-of-touch people we criticise today.


So that’s about it. As usual, more heat than light. And so I’ll end by making a plea for tolerance. I’ve found that most people in the writing world start from a position of open-mindedness and goodwill. Disagreements are often magnified through the medium of social media and complex issues reduced to bald statements of two hundred and forty characters. Nuance is lost. Everything is either black or white, right or wrong, good or evil, when we know the real world isn’t like that. The real world is full of fallible people with good intentions who sometimes (well, pretty damn often) make mistakes. That doesn’t make them racists or bigots or anything else. We know the real thing when we see it. Let’s not condemn or paint others in those colours simply because we disagree with them about something, because that, I think, is what leads to polarisation. Much better, I think, to have the dialogue; to explain, to rebut, to discuss, to change opinions. Because conversion, I think, is better than condemnation.


Feel free to leave comments in the chat. I’m interested in your thoughts. As I say, I could be totally wrong on all of this. I’m getting old and I’m certainly irrelevant, but my mind is open to change.

 (Note: My thoughts regarding the issues from the festival in England relate solely to the points around freedom of expression which I understand were raised in the speech, not any other aspects of that speech, nor anything else that may have transpired at the festival.)