Crime Writers’ Association

A CWA Dagger. Sadly, not mine!

The Crime Writers Association has been a group I have long enjoyed being a member of. I was inordinately proud to be elected as Chairman (and panic-stricken, I hasten to add), because it’s had such a brilliant history.

Not many people have ever heard of the CWA unless they’re in the business of publishing books, and more specifically, crime fiction. But the CWA has long been a great association of not-very-often like-minded people.

The ructions amongst members have only occasionally broken out into the news media. Usually tiffs have been accommodatingly resolved over a few glasses of the right stuff in a bar. In fact it has been the proud boast of the CWA that as an association only the Romantic Novelists’ beats us for alcohol consumption.

I joined back in the dim and distant past when I lived in Surrey, and once every so often I would go and participate in CWA meetings at the New Cavendish Club.

They were informative, entertaining and fun. I met with great writers, and many of my friends now date back to those fun meetings – Daphne Wright, Edward Marston, Simon Brett, Judith Cutler, Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Stella Duffy – there are so many it’s hard to keep track.

Which is why it was so hard to leave the CWA a couple of years ago.

The thing is, I loved the CWA because it was genuinely supportive of writers and writing. It was created back in 1953 by John Creasey, and the purpose was to support and promote Crime Writing. Over time all the country’s best crime writers have joined from the UK and abroad.

From 1955, awards for the best crime books of the year have been granted. Recognition of the best by the best. That makes them the oldest British literary awards. In fact, I think they could the oldest in the world.

Originally they were called the Crossed Red Herrings awards, but more recently they’ve become the Daggers. There is the Gold Dagger for the best in Fiction, the Silver for the runner-up, the John Creasey Memorial for the best first-time writer, the Fleming Steel for the best thriller, and the Debut Dagger for a work by an unpublished author.

In my time running that last, I helped to get six unknown authors published. All these Daggers were announced and awarded at a lunch in London each year, at which lots of journalists and reviewers met with crime writers to get fed and sloshed in a jamboree that always went without any great comment from the media. Irritating, but true.

The Chairman would organise the speaker (who invariably spoke for free. I well remember the excellent Greg Dyke shamelessly promoting his book with humour and great charm, and the witty, kind, amiable and in every way wonderful Terry Pratchett), while the poor Deputy Chairman would run around organising the awards, arrange the thousand and one details, and introduce all those who must announce the awards. A hard job, unpaid, of course, but fun.

About two years ago when a TV company contacted the CWA, it looked like a brilliant idea. Get lots more coverage, have the writers recognised, and let some of those fellows who’re unknown get a little blast of PR. With marketing budgets being slashed all the time, authors get little enough publicity, so having TV cameras on them could only help.

TV is after all the main medium nowadays. It is the one everyone recognises. While newspapers shrivel and their literary pages wither as their commentators disappear, TV and, to a lesser extent, radio, are the ones that publishers adore.

The CWA Dagger lunch was always a hectic time, but the great thing was, it was affordable. All the members could get in, generally. Venues were selected so that members could afford their tickets, and the publishers’ tables helped subsidise the memberships’. Which is fair. Authors tend to earn below the national average wage. The Society of Authors’ last survey showed over two thirds of authors earning half the national average. Things have got worse since then.

With the new Dagger Awards, how has this changed?

Well, yes, the event is televised. As planned. However, now, instead of the CWA Daggers, it has been renamed the Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards. No mention of the organisation that created them. Even John Creasey’s dagger has been changed to the New Blood Dagger. Presumably none of the TV crews had heard of John Creasey.

What is much, much worse, to my mind, is the addition of the new prizes. Now, instead of the CWA Daggers existing to support and promote good crime writing, we have a new series of prizes. The “Best Actor”, the “Best Actress”, the “Film Dagger” etc.

When the camera pans around the room, it avoids any lesser known or unknown authors – the public doesn’t want unrecognisable faces, after all – and instead focuses on the people the TV producers know. So actors get more promotion.

And we see the profoundly silly sight of a media superstar, who will earn more in that one event introducing those who are to announce the winners, than three quarters of the authors could earn in a year.

I find it inordinately depressing to see the Daggers changed so much. After all, actors and actresses have access to a number of awards every year. Crime writers get one – the Daggers. To see this highjacked by media superstars I think degrades the genre.

It certainly spoils the atmosphere for me.

Now, I know that some folks will think this is all sour grapes. And yes, I guess it could be described as such. But I’m only writing this because yesterday and the day before there have been such comments in the press about Mr Swift’s comments (Author of Last Orders etc) saying that the internet will crucify authors (see http://www.thebookseller.com/news/digital-rates-could-dissuade-authors-writing-swift.html).

I don’t necessarily disagree. But more important is the fact that if  our literary organisations, especially genre-specific specialist ones, are failing authors, we will never have a chance. Novelists will disappear because we cannot make a living writing novels.

That, I think, is the real shame.

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Comments
13 Responses to “Crime Writers’ Association”
  1. Julie says:

    Bravo, Michael. I do not believe you were expressing “sour grapes”, just the truth that not all change is for the good. I can’t imagine a world without the wonderful stories you and your follow crime writers create. You all deserve to have your own awards and your day to shine. without your imaginations there would be no films. The film/TV industry has enough awards without stealing from the writers.

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    • It sounds like sour grapes, but when you consider the UK awards for actors, the US awards, the film awards, the TV ones – I cannot for the life of me understand why the CWA has thrown away it’s main purpose in life, which is to support writers and good crime writing. It’s terribly sad, I think. And I do miss the CWA I joined almost twenty years ago. Hey ho!

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    • Whoops – thanks for the comment, too!

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  2. “Novelists will disappear because we cannot make a living writing novels.” So so true. And shocking, and dreadful, but writers have to eat too….

    Am in total agreement Michael, the Daggers aren’t about TV dramatisation, they are about writing. Good writing. The very best writing. It is essential to maintian that focus and to support the authors. The Daggers are the holy grail of crime writing. If a balance can be found that benefits authors, superb, but the Daggers are not the place for TV awards, they are and should be about the writers.

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    • Thanks, Vanessa – I really don’t understand what the concept is at the CWA. It’s so depressing just at the time when writers of all sorts need all the help they can get.

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  3. Philip Amos says:

    Phooey to sour grapes. It would only be a case of sour grapes, or possibly so, if you felt the CWA had injured or slighted you personally. You are, in fact, writing with complete candour and great honesty, bravely indeed, about a very serious problem. It was easy to see this coming, given the amount of attention now given to the actors who appear in dramatisations in spite of the fact that — and this is not mentioned very often, I need hardly say — those dramatisations are out of the bottom drawer. The same actors are employed time and again, as if the producers had formed some kind of joint repertory company. And they are often type cast, which on one occasion caused me to forget what I was watching. But the main problem is the quality of the dramatisations — think of Gently, in which Alan Hunter’s novel are hardly to be discerned; Agatha Christie’s Marple stories in the series with Geraldine McEwan and Julia Mackenzie; Wycliffe reduced to an utterly unsatisfying and usually miserable, for some reason, 45-minute episodes. P.D. James adaptations in the 70s — the cheapest production values and acting that even Roy Marsden could not compensate for. In truth, almost the only good crime fiction on television are the series that are written for television: Some very good stuff indeed, there, and why is that? THE WRITERS. But compare the wondrous characterisation, the fine plotting and unerringly placed humour in Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe with the television adaptations — give me strength! They couldn’t even find a fat actor to play Fat Andy, and one who knows how to give his crotch a good scratch.

    Of course, the awards ceremonies are being slewed toward the visual because they want to harness THE DEMOGRAPHIC THAT DOES NOT READ BOOKS. The other problem with so-called dramatisations, apart from their general quality, is that almost no viewers know of the books. There is nothing in them to make a viewer dash out to the library in search of them, and the few who have already read the books probably watched them with growing dismay. The television producers gain from these developments, of course. Everyone else, especially the members of the CWA and their colleagues in other parts, lose.

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    • What can I say? I agree entirely. While there are some good adaptations (I thought Zen was superb) I generally don’t watch TV crime because any subtlety is lost. In any case, my main point is, why prostitute the CWA and Daggers to grab a market which is already catered for? How many awards are there for actors and script writers already? And to win a probably small TV audience, they have insulted their base: crime writers. Madness.

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  4. Carole Schultz says:

    When I see the word Dagger, I automatically think of books/writers, so this is all so sad.

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    • I know, Carole. It really is such a shame. Especially since any aspect of the CWA’s history has gone. What is so hard about maintaining John Creasey’s name on a Dagger? Without him there would be no Daggers. Perhaps it is because of dumbing down for TV, but that is no excuse. They seem to have thrown away the whole reason for the CWA’s existence.

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  5. Philip says:

    Just an additional thought re John Creasey, Michael, with a touch of irony. We know why the-powers-that-be wanted his dagger renamed, and we know who some of those powers are, so it does seem a bit ironic to reflect that his characters were used in the two BBC television series: Gideon’s Way in 1964-66 and The Baron in 1965-66 — in other words, two series at the same time. And then in 1967-71, BC Radio produced a series based on Chief Inspector Roger West. All this is during the period he won an Edgar and was named a Grand Master. Those three overlapping and continuous BBC series are a notable achievement in themselves. Has any other crime writer pulled that off? Francis Durbridge perhaps, but I can’t think of any others. But the point is that the very logic is skewy, for they should want to keep the name on the dagger to maintain the small screen connection. For the crime fiction community, obviously it reminds us of the founding of the CWA, in which Creasey was sine qua non. Creasey’s son, Richard, I know is quite dismayed over the dismissal of his father and his works and himself hopes to bring his books back to television — Richard is a television producer. Irony.

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    • Thanks for that. Have to admit, I had expected to be shot down in flames for my item, but it appears a lot of writers and readers agree. I’m really sorry to hear Richard is despondent over it too. The CWA has thrown away so much with this – and, sadly, all in order to gain the alliance of a most fickle medium just at the time writers need strong support most. It makes me terribly sad.

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  6. Nicely put from a fantastic blogger

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