Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Opinion — Male and Female Crime Fiction Writers: A Level Playing Field?

I don’t socialize a great deal. When I do it usually ends in some sort of minor disaster. I prefer small get-togethers to parties. Even then, I’m not what you’d call a conversationalist until at least the second glass of wine. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a writer and not an actor, politician, realtor or event planner.

Occasionally, I do push myself out into the larger world. Professionally, I know I am supposed to go to book signings, conferences, workshops and other events to “network.” So, I’ve attended a half dozen Bouchercons since I began writing mysteries. And I’ve attended a few meetings of the Northern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and their joint annual holiday party with Sisters in Crime at the incredible “M” is for Murder book store in San Mateo a couple of times.

At the holiday party last year — I think it was last year — I chatted with another writer who encouraged me to investigate Sisters in Crime. I had heard a lot of good things about the organization, but because of the name, assumed that I wasn’t a likely candidate for membership. Being as uninformed as I was, I was surprised at the recommendation because it was a male writer making the enthusiastic suggestion.

I checked their web site and, on the surface, it wasn’t real clear about welcoming male membership, but it did have this statement: Our mission is to promote the professional development and the advancement of women crime writers to achieve equality in the industry!

Nothing wrong with that. Women are among the categories (the largest actually) of populations suffering from discrimination. Recent reports indicate that women earn 75 cents on every dollar a male earns. Though it’s changing, women do not have a proportionate share of top executive positions in business, government, politics or the military. Are women writers — in this case crime writers — discriminated against as well?

I decided to do a little informal investigation. So I began my Googling. Hidden Stairway Mystery Books listed best-selling mysteries for the week ending December 16 of this year. Women wrote five of the top ten sellers. The Seattle Mystery Bookstore’s top ten hardcover sales in April 2011 indicated seven were written by women. The American Booksellers Association did a survey of 100 independent bookstores. During an eight-week period ending September 29 the results showed that four of the ten best sellers were by female authors. I checked my handbook from the San Francisco Bouchercon I attended a little more than a year ago. Of the roughly 389 crime-fiction panelists, the vast majority of whom were authors, 186 were women — a fraction over 50 percent.

I also checked MWA’s Grand Master Awards. Since they began in 1955, there have been 56 awards. Only 17 women have received the honor, though in the last 20 years, nine women have received the award. This shows some improvement. On the other hand, since 2000, only two of the prestigious “Best Novel” Edgars have been bestowed upon books written by women. Imagining a third hand, the Anthony Awards, also given out by the Mystery Writers of America, but determined by attendees at the annual convention, have honored 26 best novels over the years, 15 of which were written by women.

What does this all mean? What’s my point? So far it’s more an attempt at observation than conclusion. But it does seem that because of the efforts of organizations like Sisters in Crime, female mystery writers seem to be faring better than their counterparts in other careers. I suspect that in addition, readers (book buyers) are responsible for narrowing the gap as much or more. The other reason that I’ve tackled the subject is to seek information. How big is the disparity between male and female mystery writers today? Is there one? Are there subtle forms of discrimination that I’m missing and should see the light of day? Are there other forms of discrimination in the mystery-writing field that need to be examined? Or is the marketplace taking care of the issue?

Of course, even bringing up the subject may be one of the reasons I do so poorly in social situations. And as I suggested earlier, the investigation was hardly scientific. Comments — arguments, corrections, and other perspectives — are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

CAPTION: (top) Agatha Christie, first winner of MWA’s Grand Master Award; (bottom) Sue Grafton, a more recent winner.


The Passing Tramp said...

A very interesting subject. I think the perception is that male crime writers get more of the "prestige" attention, but I don't know. In Britain the Crime Queens formulation, in regard to the classical puzzle mystery, certainly has favored women writers. Crime Queens, both then (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Marsh) and now (James, Rendell), tend to get much more attention than their male counterparts.

Traditionally, however, I think many women crime writers in more traditional ("cozy") fields have felt slighted by the attention given male hard-boiled and noir writers. They would say Louise Penny, say, deserves all the accolades Ian Rankin gets, for example.

Ronald Tierney said...

Thanks. That's true. However, I believe even that seems to be changing. Louise Penny hasn't been around as long as Ian Rankin, but she is a comet.

The Passing Tramp said...

Yes, she's won a lot of awards herself now!