In defence of grumpy old men. The publishing world needs cantankerous codgers

From Unherd:

In every culture, in every era, you will find the archetype of the cantankerous old man. He’s ubiquitous in cinema — the aged, scowling hero of Gran Torino; the feuding codgers of Grumpy Old Men; the dementia-stricken patriarch of The Father — but no less so in real life, where you can find him parked in an easy chair on the shady side of the porch, yelling at the neighbourhood kids to get off his lawn. He can be a comic figure or a tragic one, an object of respect or ridicule, but you ignore him at your peril. The next American president, after all, will be a cantankerous old man. We just have to decide if we want the one with the spray tan and the multiple felony indictments, or the one who recently confused the current French president with the one who died in 1996.

Some old men lose their edge as they age, while others develop a sharper one. Otto Penzler, the white-haired proprietor of the storied Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, would seem to be the latter. Now 81, Penzler is a polarising figure within the mystery writing community, the kind of person whose name elicits either a grin or a wince. In addition to building from scratch the biggest mystery bookshop in the world, he has edited dozens of mystery novels and anthologies and overseen multiple publishing imprints. At the height of his power, a good word from Penzler could make a writer’s career.

But his good words, his critics note, were reserved largely for white, male, heterosexual writers — and Penzler has a reputation for being less than reverent about the sacred cows of his more progressive peers. In 1991, he publicly criticised the women’s mystery writer’s group Sisters in Crime in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “It’s a negative, flawed concept. It’s an organization that espouses non-sexism but is sexist.” In 2005, he described cosy mysteries as “not serious literature”, adding: “Men take [writing] more seriously as art.” More recently, he excoriated the Mystery Writers of America after the organisation, under pressure, rescinded its plans to honour mystery novelist and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein with a “Grand Master” award for literary achievement. (This was part of a broader campaign to cancel Fairstein over her role in prosecuting the Central Park Five, spurred by a Netflix series that portrayed her as the case’s chief villain; a defamation lawsuit brought by Fairstein against the series’ creators is currently making its way through the courts.)

Among those who dislike him, these incidents are seen as damning evidence in favour of Penzler’s defenestration. A recent X thread, prompted by his upcoming appearance at a mystery event called Bouchercon, bemoans his continued influence despite what the author describes as his “terrible opinions and inexcusable behavior” — although the behaviour in question, as I discovered in the course of reporting this piece, is more a matter of rumour than record. For those who remember the MeToo-era debacle of the Shitty Media Men list, it’s character assassination via whisper network: people will tell you that there are stories, but plead ignorance when asked to relate one. Penzler’s status as a Bad Man is entirely vibes-based. A snub here, a brusque comment there. Once, perhaps, there was a confrontation with a female critic who had panned a book written by one of Penzler’s friends, after she showed up uninvited to a party at his bookstore.

. . . .

Mystery writing, like the rest of publishing, has undergone a reckoning in recent years — and what the diversity activists want is nothing less than a metaphorical asteroid hit, an extinction-level event that clears out the pale-male-stale old guard, and ushers in a colourful new world order. There’s just one problem: metaphorical asteroids, unlike their physical analogue, don’t actually kill the dinosaurs. And while it’s one thing to campaign for the ouster of dead white men from their various places of honour in the sciences, or the arts, or atop the lists of history’s greatest works of literature, it’s quite another to be confronted with live white men — men who’ve worked hard all their lives to get where they are, who do not agree that they have outlived both their relevance and respectability, and who are not about to slink off into obscurity just because the passage of time and the sensibilities of a new generation have rendered both their identities and opinions unpopular.

This all-encompassing presentism, in which every person must be judged by his worse offences against the pieties of the Current Thing, has found an even easier target than our oldest living citizens: those who are recently dead. It’s a phenomenon that makes for some interesting reads in the newspaper’s obituary section. “Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate and supporter of President Donald Trump who pointedly refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, has died after contracting COVID-19,” reported Reuters in 2020, while a New York Times obituary for former Interior Secretary James Watt informs readers that he “insulted Black people, women, Jews and disabled people”, before it describes his life or contribution to politics. As the writer Oliver Traldi quipped, “before you read about this man’s life, let’s precisely calibrate your sense of to what extent he was on the right side of history as conceived by readers of this absolute rag in the current year”.

Meanwhile, some progressives have taken it as an article of faith that we cannot wait anymore for these living relics to exit the world’s stage; we have to just push them out of the way. This sentiment was palpable in the MeTooings of people like Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, Leon Wieseltier, and Frank Langella, as well as the ouster of older white men from positions of influence in media, the arts, and more during the Covid-era Awokening. Even if you didn’t necessarily think these guys had done much — or anything — wrong, there was a sense that perhaps they should just go away on principle, for the sake of the cause. Hadn’t they been in power long enough? Wasn’t it time for them to step aside, and give someone else a turn?

Link to the rest at Unherd

As regular visitors to The Passive Voice know all too well, PG has very little respect for many/most of the people who work at traditional publishing houses, old and young, male or female, bond or free. He’ll spare the patient visitors to The Passive Voice another rant about the exploitation of authors that qualifies as, “The way things are done.”

5 thoughts on “In defence of grumpy old men. The publishing world needs cantankerous codgers”

  1. Wasn’t it time for them to step aside, and give someone else a turn?

    Anyone who has to be given a turn is second rate.

  2. I actually like grumpy old men (and women). People who look at what has become of the world since their youth, and dare to criticize some of the changes.
    I was blessed to have known three of my grandparents well. Before they died (two of them at 86, one at 97), I had spent sufficient time with them to be able to take the pronouncements of my modern history professors with a skeptical grain of salt. I also had many great-aunts and great-uncles, as well as other assorted aging relatives.
    I’ve been writing down many of the stories they passed on. Some I’ve verified on Ancestry, others seem to gloss over unpleasant realities.
    But, whether truth or bland cover-ups, their perspective did form my first, and in some ways, best, education. I learnt practical skills (baking, gardening), money management from those who had lived through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and post-war plentitude, and how to relate to people of all walks of life.
    But, yes, many of them – particularly the men – did get more cranky as they aged.
    I can’t fault them – I’M more cranky than I used to be. Some of that is observing people who are as old as I, or even older, repeatedly make stupid decisions – on life, love, and money – as well as supporting their voting choices with ‘evidence’ that makes no logical sense.
    Often, I think, “Just how stupid can a person be?”
    Sadly, there are those who make it their life’s mission to find out how deep the well goes.

  3. If you want to read what precipitated this article, go to the Bouchercon Facebook page and read their recent posts. Author Lee Goldberg wrote an entire letter “to whom it may concern” detailing his concerns about Otto Penzler as a comment to the post where they notify everyone that they are examining the question. It’s quite a read.

  4. There’s also a faint echo of “Some of my best friends are [insert somewhat-condescending description of disfavored social grouping]” in the OP.

    But I can’t say that some of my best friends are commercial-publishing executives. At least not any more. Please don’t kick at that part of the flower bed, I’m just getting ready to put new rosebushes there…

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