The Crime Lady: Publicity Machinery

Dear TCL Readers,

My custom is to stop wishing people a Happy New Year after MLK Weekend, but in truth, we could use all of the extra happiness in 2020. What an exhausting start to the year. And that’s strictly from a book world standpoint.

I have — despite making legitimate progress on the new book, and work on some freelance features in various stages of development — spent an awful lot of brainpower over the last few days on the controversy swirling around Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt. Though the book only published this past Tuesday, but arrived trailing an astonishing plethora of advance hype dating back to Book Expo last May. Here’s a good recap of why people are upset, and why the book is going to sell astonishingly well anyway, at least for a little while. (Thanks, Oprah?)

I keep thinking about the cogs in this particular version of the book publicity machine. How everything that an author dreams of happening with their book did happen — but that it became some dystopian nightmare version of successful book marketing. There is a fine line between good branding and bad taste and barbed wire centerpieces crash through that line.

But where did it all start to go right for American Dirt, which is to say, where did it all start to go wrong, first in stealth mode, and then for the public to witness? Perhaps it was the original book auction in the spring of 2018, at a time when publishers were certainly looking for a “novel of the moment” to help readers (actually: them) understand the border crisis. Perhaps it was when the book picked up more in-house readers at Flatiron, then across all of Macmillan, then to the various bookseller, indie & corporate, accounts they needed to pitch.

Or perhaps it was with a particular endorsement by Don Winslow that described American Dirt as the “Grapes of Wrath of our time.” Certainly, that blurb caught Oprah Winfrey’s attention, as she told the AP on Friday, January 17:

I have read American Dirt a lot more recently than I have read The Grapes of Wrath, so I’ve no idea if that comparison is truly apt. But what American Dirt most reminded me of was Don Winslow’s trilogy: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border. Winslow’s novels — widely critically acclaimed, including by me — have never, and likely will never, receive the same scrutiny as has American Dirt. But perhaps they should, as novels, and as examples of the publicity machine.

As novels, Winslow’s trilogy had a similar aim as American Dirt: to show, in fiction, what was happening in Mexico, what the drug war had wrought, and the violent horrors that resulted. They are also thrillers, and as such, the end result is entertainment. Beautiful language would get in the way of propulsive pacing. The books, especially the later ones, lean heavily on short sentences and paragraphs. The characters’ moral complexities really aren’t that complex; whatever good behavior eventually gets corrupted. Women, in particular, have the appearance of strength and shade, but fall more into behavior and motivations befitting of melodrama, not reality.

Each book, despite the total word count, got progressively leaner and swifter. Winslow switched publishers for The Border and the advance marketing was impossible to ignore, especially if you were taking the subway at the West 4th Station and the turnstiles and walls were plastered with the cover. The book was successful, but William Morrow (as well as Winslow’s agent/amanuensis, Shane Salerno) also spent a great deal of money on advertising, bookseller co-op, and publicity to ensure that success.

But there was no pre-publication party with border wire-adorned centerpieces. Winslow did not tweet out a manicure of his book cover, since that cover wasn’t meant to be pretty, but “tough” and “stark”. The marketing for The Border was supposed to reach predominantly male readers. The marketing for American Dirt was, well, supposed to pander to white women, especially those who might only read one or two books a year. Earlier examples of this: Where The Crawdads Sing, The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train, The Help.

This strikes me as ironic. The publishing gaze, in the form of a seven-figure auction and corporate-wide marketing spend, cast its eye on one woman, expected to sell to and speak to other women. As Marlon James, the Booker Prize winner, said in 2015, publishers too often sought fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’.” (James was responding to Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering”, and how women were expected to write to the white male gaze. It’s worth revisiting, all these years later.)

So I think of the whatifs: American Dirt, marketed more like The Border, and written in a more overtly entertaining way, leaning into the broader-stroke stereotypes and plot twists. Or The Border, marketed like American Dirt, emphasizing its apparent bona fides as fiction that would change the reader’s thinking and promote empathy (or, rather, “empathy”.) Winslow’s next book, a collection of novellas, will be published in a few months. There is no way it will get the marketing spend of The Border, let alone American Dirt. Public scrutiny will be far less probing, too.

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

  • Most of what I’ve been reading and watching lately is book-related or for the freelance pieces I’m working on. But I also tried to make time for some older fiction, including Jane Austen’s Emma (rereading after many years, and reminding me of how much went over my head when I first read it as a teen); Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (brilliant, also get The Corner That Held Them); and Nothing But The Night by John Williams (of Stoner fame), a taut, novella-length existential noir that he disavowed but shouldn’t have.

  • ARCs for Unspeakable Acts are starting to make the rounds, and receiving very kind bookseller feedback. Should you wish to obtain a copy, please contact my wonderful publicist, Martin Wilson.

  • The Edgar Awards were announced and, well, I thought Best First Novel was particularly strong. Fact Crime was also good, though some omissions definitely puzzled me. Awards giveth and taketh away, that’s how it always goes!

  • Three weeks after the death of Sonny Mehta, Knopf has a new publisher, and I’m so glad it is Reagan Arthur.

  • Podcasts have given me great pleasure of late. There’s Moby Dick Energy, Talia Lavin’s new chapter-by-chapter discussion of the classic novel; The Maris Review has been particularly terrific (I really enjoyed the most recent episode with Garth Greenwell); the DC Sniper episode of You’re Wrong About really does have a jaw-dropping twist; and The Rialto Report’s latest missive made my actual hair stand on end. I’m also excited to listen to Make Me Over, the spinoff of You Must Remember This that is devoted to the intersection of Hollywood and beauty.

More in early February. It will be less book-trade focused and more crime-y, mostly for my own peace of mind.

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: This Is The Year That Was

Dear TCL Readers,

So we come to the near-end of another year, another decade. We survived! Kind of! I’m contending with split instincts for 2020: to hibernate entirely — possible, since I do have a new book to write — or to be ever-present, considering how much is at stake. I suspect this disparate split is the only way for me to get through. To hide entirely is unacceptable, but so is forgoing quiet contemplation. It’s always been a question of balancing signal to noise, and that question grows ever more important here.

That it was a noisy year and decade is the most obvious observation for any of us. But thinking through these last ten years and…it was a lot. Professionally: wrote and published a nonfiction book, wrote more than a third of another book, edited three anthologies (that third one, of course, isn’t out till July), many longform features and essays, even some fiction. Personally: moving to and from Brooklyn, cancer, end of a bad long-term relationship, death of a parent. There’s enough distance on all these events that I can write them down with a lack of associated emotion. What else is there to do but go forward and live?

So my 2020 promises to be on the quieter side. Of course, I’ll be writing, and reading, and still very present on here and in the world.

**

Two pieces of mine published in December. CrimeReads ran an excerpt of the introduction I wrote for the new reissue of Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes, one of my personal favorites of her body of work. And for CJR, I took some time to listen to Break in the Case, a new true crime podcast produced by the NYPD, and reflect on why this bothered me and why a number of popular true crime podcasts seem to be overly friendly to police perspectives.

And this being a slow month — as in, not really — I’ve got a handful of freelance deadlines coming due by month’s end or early in the new year, so more on those when they appear. Here, by the way, is the Twitter thread of what I published in 2019, month by month. This is the piece I wish more people had read, and this is the one that was designated one of Longreads’ Best of 2019. (Speaking of Longreads, they asked me to contribute to their Best of Crime Reporting list, and I obliged with two pieces.)

**

I delayed on my Best-of-Year lists because even though I read plenty, it still felt like I was falling behind. But here are my favorites in crime fiction & nonfiction for 2019, which when I put them together, feel so right and true. You’ll notice the nonfiction category is also in large part about investigative journalism. Crime, alas, is everywhere.

CRIME FICTION

  • Cristina Alger, Girls Like Us

  • William Boyle, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself

  • Alafair Burke, The Better Sister

  • Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay

  • Amy Gentry, Last Woman Standing

  • Elizabeth Hand, Curious Toys

  • Angie Kim, Miracle Creek

  • Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake

  • Lisa Lutz, The Swallows

  • Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy

CRIME NONFICTION

  • Maureen Callahan, American Predator

  • Casey Cep, Furious Hours

  • Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill

  • Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey, She Said

  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing

  • Chanel Miller, Know My Name

  • Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites

  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five

Other nonfiction that I loved: Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman, which should have been nominated for everything and cracked open how nonfiction can be created; In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which functioned similarly for memoir; Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, which we’ll look back as early work for a stunning writer; The Undying by Anne Boyer, a true literary treatment of cancer and the body; The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijung Wang, a true literary treatment of a deeply misunderstood mental illness; Godland by Lyz Lenz, a proper and complicated window into the Midwest; and two wonderful, tricky, experimental memoirs in translation, Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot and My Mother Laughs by Chantal Akerman.

Other fiction that I loved: Kristen Arnett, Mostly Dead Things; Jami Attenberg, All This Could Be Yours; Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman Is In Trouble; Susan Choi, Trust Exercise; Catherine Chung, The Tenth Muse; Juliet Grames, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna; Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread; Sally Rooney, Normal People; Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead; and a special shoutout to Bina by Anakana Schofield, which should have a US publisher but regrettably, still does not (I see no reason that if Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport can find an audience hear, this far shorter, more distilled, possibly superior work can’t.)

**

That’s the last dispatch of 2019. I wish you all a meaningful and healthy holiday season, in whatever state of celebration you are in. As always, here is to good books, because the secret is that every year is a good one for books — and 2020 is already showing that to be the case.

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: A New Anthology, Awards, Bouchercon, and More

Dear TCL Readers:

If I thought life would slow down after moving — no, I didn’t actually think that, because I knew it would not! But the last few weeks of events and travel were all worth it, even as I want nothing more than to cocoon myself in my apartment for the foreseeable future. More on where I’ve been and what I’ve done but first, some forthcoming project news, by way of the Publishers Marketplace announcement:

In fact, Unspeakable Acts has a July 28, 2020 publication date, as well as a cover!

I could not be more thrilled to edit this anthology, which reprints so many of my favorite features and essays from contributors including Michelle Dean, Pamela Colloff, Emma Copley Eisenberg, Sarah Marshall, Jason Fagone, Alex Mar, Karen K. Ho, Rachel Monroe, Alice Bolin, Elon Green, Melissa del Bosque, and Leora Smith. I’ve wanted a project like this to exist for years and my incredible publisher, Ecco, and editor, Zack Wagman, made it happen. Patrick Radden Keefe’s introductory essay sets the tone so well and is one I am proud to publish. There’ll be much more news as we get closer to next summer’s publication date. And in the meantime, you can pre-order the anthology at your preferred retailer through this link.

**

What a pretty award it is! I spent much of last week — with a brief pit stop in DC Monday night to moderate a kickass true crime panel with Carolyn Murnick & Maureen Callahan at the Union Market Politics & Prose — at Bouchercon in Dallas. While the 50th anniversary of the annual crime fiction convention did not lack in drama and in unfortunate incidents that will require deep reflection and action, it was also wonderful to see so many new and emerging writers who are well on the path to making the genre their own, in broader and more diverse ways.

I fared pretty well, too. Macavity Award winner & Anthony Award finalist (losing to Michelle McNamara’s standout and posthumously published I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is barely a loss at all.) Took part in a lively and entertaining panel on feminist mystery fiction with Steph Cha — with whom I am in conversation at Books Are Magic on Thursday, November 7, for her amazing new novel Your House Will Pay — Juliet Grames, Emily Giglierano, Lori Rader-Day, and Molly Odintz. Spent time with friends I hadn’t seen in months or longer. Went out to a brilliant author dinner hosted by Ecco. Closed it out with drinks at the Adolphus Hotel with dear friends, trying not to gawk at the tuxedoed and gowned guests roaming nearby.

And yet. I left Bouchercon, which I’ve attended since 2001, in a state of flux that seems to mirror the state the conference is in. The center isn’t holding. The status quo is crumbling. It has less to do with age or generations than in realizing that writing through chaos doesn’t get you to order, likability is a concept that we don’t have to entertain discussion about, a predominantly white male mode excludes far more than includes, and the convention doesn’t know what to do with crime nonfiction writers. I’m optimistic we’ll move to more positive territory, but not without public discomfort. I’m ready, are you?

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

  • A lot’s happened here lately, so best to keep going on that front. The Real Lolita was also just nominated for a National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award by the LA Press Club in the nonfiction book category, alongside untold illustrious journalists and authors around the country.

  • For Glamour, I profiled the great Susan Isaacs, looking at why her debut mystery Compromising Positions is a key 1970s crime novel and a formative one for me, why her newest book, It Takes One To Know One, is a lot of fun, and why meeting your heroes can get complicated.

  • I also wrote a brief piece for Intelligencer/NYMag on my extreme discomfort with celebrity pathologists like Michael Baden, because a lot of his history as an employed pathologist has been sanded over/forgotten/insert your choice of adjective.

  • Forthcoming books I can recommend without reservation: Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (MCD/FSG, April), a terrific suspense novel about the intersection of art and power and archives and family; After The Last Border by Jessica Goudeau (Viking, April), a wholly necessary look at refugee resettlement policy through the lens of two women and their past and present struggles; Nine Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson (William Morrow, March), a meta-crime novel that is steeped with love of the genre; and Weather by Jenny Offill (Knopf, February), which exceeded the expectations set by Department of Speculation. A special additional shout-out to Erica Ruth Neubauer’s Death At the Mena House (Kensington, April) a most delightful debut historical mystery with echoes of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series.

  • You Must Remember This, the podcast about Hollywood’s first century hosted by Karina Longworth, is back with a new season devoted to the 1946 Disney film Song of The South and I am learning so much already, just a few episodes in.

  • I think I have forgotten how to watch television and see movies. Maybe this isn’t so terrible. Or maybe this means I’m tired.

In any case, it’s good to be home, at least for a little while. Until next time, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: On the Move

Dear TCL Readers:

I’m sending this newsletter just before the movers are coming, set to transport my furniture, my books — my life, really — from Brooklyn to Upper Manhattan. It feels right to say goodbye to Brooklyn after nine years, though of course, the borough isn’t going anywhere. But I am, because now, in my forty-first year, I need to be closer to my family, blood and chosen, to a more concrete Jewish community I’ve waxed and waned on wanting my whole life, and to be more selective with social energy. The new place is also, I just realized, the first one where I have intentionally moved in by myself, and as a full-time book writer — such a different prospect when having to live with others, and having to juggle day jobs and freelance assignments and a general sense of peripatetic fervor.

A friend of mine, when I told her of my plans, applauded me for being “so healthy”. It is. I think so, anyway.

The thing about leaving a place is that it is, by and large, still there after you’re gone. It changes, but so do you. Most of my biggest life changes take place around the High Holidays. Book publications, cancer surgeries, terrible breakups, and now, this move. That seems right to me. These are times of reflection and contemplation, of atonement and fulfillment, and what I’m reflecting upon most is: can I be a better human? Can I be a better Jew? And then, can I be a better writer? The answers must be complex and even unsatisfactory. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

Also, brownstone living is lovely, but I will not miss the flights of stairs or having to go to the laundromat during high heat or bitter cold. Plus I now have this:

**

Naturally, the week of my move is when pieces publish. (Moving has been such a full-time effort that I’ve not been able to write since the middle of September. Oh will I be glad to get back to the new book soon…) First, for Elemental, I wrote about two vital books on breast cancer by Anne Boyer and Kate Pickert that accomplish very different things — Boyer is a poet and essayist looking inward, Pickert is a journalist casting outward — but together challenge orthodoxy about the language and myths of cancer.

Then, for CrimeReads, I wrote about a strange incident that’s obsessed me for a while: what really happened in June 1947, when the mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was very nearly murdered in her own home in Bar Harbor, Maine by a longtime servant? To find out, I stayed on the grounds of the Rinehart estate (which burned down four months after this incident), read an excellent biography of the writer, and dug through old newspaper clippings. The answers I wanted eluded me, but the answers I got turned out to be more meaningful, and far sadder.

(Interestingly, Rinehart is the link between both of my pieces, since she wrote an essay about her own breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and granted an interview to Ladies Home Journal on the topic.)

And there’s a third piece posting soon, perhaps even later today. Next Saturday, the 12th, I’ll be in conversation with Art Taylor at Fall for the Book. More events listed here. You can always see what I’m doing or nattering on about on Twitter (and less so, on Instagram) and paid subscribers get special bonus content, so here’s the link for that, too.

**

Some of the books I’ve read and loved of late: Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name, which unmoored me and which is clearly going to be taught in college (and, I hope, high schools) from now on; Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey’s She Said, which fired me up for investigative reporting and affirmed that approaching subjects with utmost empathy and compassion is the only way to go (something Bob Woodward clearly has no concept of); Belonging by Nora Krug, a fantastic graphic novel combing through family history to figure out the degree of Nazi sympathy and collaboration; Leslie Jamison’s new essay collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn; Imani Perry’s hybrid biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Looking For Lorraine; and Elizabeth Little’s long-awaited second crime novel, Pretty As A Picture, which is seriously effing great.

And after the move, I am looking forward to watching Unbelievable, the television series most recommended to me by friends. I’ll watch it! I’ve just been a little preoccupied lately.

Finally, a plug for Dan Sinker’s already-indispensable daily newsletter, Impeachment.fyi. Because the news cycle is simply too much to keep up with when there’s work to be done and life to live, and Dan — who co-hosts the wonderful Says Who? podcast with Maureen Johnson — has it covered for the rest of us, thank god.

Next newsletter will be from the new place, and new horizons. And to all my book trade friends who subscribe (and those who read it anyway): new address update coming soon!

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady

The Crime Lady: THE REAL LOLITA, Now In Paperback

Dear TCL Readers,

Today is paperback publication day! The Real Lolita is now available in the US in paperback, with a new subtitle — A Lost Girl, An Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece — and a new afterword. What a post-publication year it’s been, and I cannot thank everyone enough who read, bought, listened to, and borrowed my book. I’m also happy that a more affordable print edition is available so that it may reach an even broader swath of readers. I’m excited for the book to have a long paperback publication life, to be taught in universities and colleges — that’s already begun to happen — and to continue conversations about art, appropriation, and the responsibility authors have to their source material. Not to mention, to center Sally Horner, her brief life and her tragic death, in these ongoing discussions.

To learn a little bit more about what’s in the afterword, here’s what Ron Charles wrote up for the Washington Post’s newsletter “Book Club”:

And yes, that is indeed a plug for the Center for Fiction panel I’m moderating. Details are here. For the full list of events for the paperback, go here. I’ll be doing readings and events in Queens, Brooklyn, the Washington, DC area, Chicago, and Dallas, which is hosting the 50th anniversary Bouchercon, as well as the Anthony Awards — and The Real Lolita is nominated in the Best Nonfiction/Critical category. (I’ll also be on a couple panels, one awards-related and one on a topic I’m well-versed in, but specific details have to wait till the whole panel grid is up.)

Paperback publications typically don’t have the same publicity blitz as would the hardcover edition (which is precisely how it should be) but The Real Lolita still garnered some extra attention of late:

  • Attica Locke, as part of her “By the Book” Q&A for the New York Times Book Review, had this to say about me and the book: “Sarah Weinman…is the future of true crime reporting. The Real Lolita is a page-turning look at a salacious kidnapping — which inspired Vladimir Nabokov, whether or not he wished to admit it — but it is also a sociological study of girlhood and the ways in which our views about rules and meanings of girlhood both have and haven’t changed since the publication of Nabokov’s book” (Attica’s latest novel, Heaven, My Home, is wonderful, and she’ll be in conversation with Megan Abbott at Books Are Magic on September 17.)

  • The Seattle Times’s Moira Macdonald included The Real Lolita in her paperback roundup column

  • NJ Spotlight chose it as a Summer Reading pick

  • Book Riot mentioned it in a recent true crime reading roundup

  • Jason Goodwin, one of the judges for the Historical Writers Association’s Crown Awards (for which I’m longlisted), said The Real Lolita was “brilliant sleuthing” in Country Life

Now, almost all of this coverage is for the US edition, published by Ecco. Canadian and UK readers will have to wait a little longer: Vintage Canada will publish its edition on January 28, 2020, while Weidenfeld & Nicolson brings out the paperback edition on February 6. Here’s a sneak preview of the covers for each of these new editions, which have also been changed from the hardcovers:

**

READ/WATCH/LISTEN

  • The Washington Post has been extra-kind of late, as they also published my most recent piece, a short op-ed on season two of the excellent Netflix series Mindhunter, why I’ve become increasingly sensitized to true crime, and why that’s ultimately a good thing. As I write: “I don’t want to reduce trauma to bite-size beats before a mattress commercial. I know violent death is messy, and real life can never neatly fit into a tight narrative structure. But I also see how shaping that pain for the edification of a larger audience can be helpful, even cathartic.”

  • Most of my book reading is either for forthcoming articles, book research-related — I spent the first week of September in the happiest state, working through the archives of William F. Buckley, Jr. at Sterling Memorial Library — or book research-adjacent, in that I am gravitating more towards classic works. I half-jokingly dubbed this past season the “Summer of Wharton” because once I started reading Edith Wharton’s novels and stories, I found I could not stop. They are all masterpieces to varying degrees, but I’m especially admiring of the ending of Ethan Frome and the sweep of The Custom of the Country, which seems to be undergoing an extra revival now (see Jia Tolentino’s essay on the book, which she considers one of her all-time favorites.)

  • I was also blown away by Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, and while I have no idea if it is, in fact, the best memoir published in the past 50 years, it’s certainly among the best I’ve ever read. I tore through several of her other books while on a writing mini-retreat in Maine last month, and can recommend The Situation and the Story in particular for how to approach memoir and essay writing — or even to heighten creative nonfiction pursuits in general.

  • Still, I am reading some 2020 ARCs. I really enjoyed The Only Child by Min-Ae Sao, which is being pitched as “The Bad Seed meets Silence of the Lambs” but which I prefer to think of as “Mindhunter as written by Natsuo Kirino.” And William Boyle has a new crime novel out next month, City of Margins, that further cements him among the best noir novelists we have now, and among the best chroniclers of a Brooklyn still stubbornly resistant to gentrification.

  • In podcasts, I’m already hooked on the new season of CBC’s Uncover, on the unsolved murder of 15-year-old Sharmini Anandavel in 1999. I remember her disappearance so vividly, as a Canadian girl not too many years older, and wondered if her killer would ever be apprehended. 2 episodes in and already there are so many more answers and new questions on this case.

And now, it’s time to get back to work on the new book. More soon, including a new dispatch for paying subscribers, and if you want to get on that, here’s how:

Until then, I remain,

The Crime Lady

Loading more posts…