Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Are Women Crime Writers Being Short-Changed?

Natasha Cooper posed this question in the TimesOnline. Here’s a bit of what she said:
When this newspaper published The 50 Greatest Crime Writers in April, only 13 were women. (The half was part of the Sjöwal and Whalöö husband-and-wife team.) As one of the four-person panel involved, I had submitted my own top 50. More or less half were women, but many didn't make the final cut…. Someone said I should be grateful that the writer who came out as No 1 was a woman: Patricia Highsmith. Then I saw the accompanying photograph, in which she is naked to the waist. Why? None of the men was stripped of clothes and dignity.
Are women crime writers being short changed? Are they not taken as seriously as men writers? Do women writers have to use a pseudonym or initials in order to get their books bought?

Consider that Sisters in Crime was started in 1986, 22 years ago. Its mission is:
To combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries.
Things have gotten better, but not equal.

If books had no author listed anywhere inside or out, perhaps we’d judge the book by the story, the plot, the characters, the writing. But they do announce the author and thus that has an influence on us all. We naturally look for authors that we’ve read before and enjoyed. But when you’re hunting for something new, someone you’ve not read before, do you find yourself picking out primarily male or female authors? I know most of us would say, it doesn’t matter, the sex of the author is irrelevant.

But, in actuality, it’s not irrelevant.


  1. I'm not sure if this is going to be a contrarian opinion or not. Lemme ramble here for a moment and we'll see where we land!

    Are women being shortchanged? In one sense, definitely yes. I have no doubt that there are plenty of deserving women writers who aren't on that list. But that's the problem with those sorts of lists. They always suck. You'll always find cause to dispute them. If the list was more even, for example, someone would argue it's even only out of political correctness. If there were MORE women, you'd get outrage from the other direction.

    So, yeah, in the microcosm of that list and what it says about the list makers, yeah, women writers are being shortchanged.

    But in the marketplace itself, is it true? I can't answer that question, because it would require the analysis of sales figures and historical trends. But what we do see is that woman writers are very strongly represented on bookstore shelves, and it's well-known that the majority of book buyers are women as well. That doesn't mean they don't disporportionately buy male writers (like I said, I don't actually know), but it seems to me that women writers are getting the opportunity to be read.

    And for myself, one male reader, many and perhaps even most of my favorite writers are women. I haven't done a statistical analysis of my own book buying habits, but I can start rattling off marvelous women writers that I read and recommend.

    Someone with actual knowledge may hit me with a whole raft of evidentiary yeah-buts. And I wouldn't suggest that Sisters-in-Crime, for example, can safely abandon its charter. But I do suspect that there's a lot of good out there for women crime writers, even if there is also a lot of bad. So, my thinking is keep up the fight, but don't let the battles not yet won blind you to your victories.

  2. I read a split mix of authors, but some of my early favorites were men, because when I was in high school/college, not many women were writing crime fiction. And as a writer, I've always used my initials, so that readers would not have any preconceived gender ideas before reading my work.

    L.J. Sellers
    The Sex Club (a Detective Jackson mystery)

  3. Ramble all you want, Bill. I, too, am a rambler.

    I do agree that things have gotten better for women crime writers. Just look at their numbers compared to decades ago, as an example.

    Sisters in Crime does a yearly report on print reviews for crime books. Those statistics seem to be going the opposite way, though. But those statistics, I believe, are becoming less helpful as print reviews begin to disappear and Internet reviews not only increase but become more important.

    The Internet is becoming more powerful all around for authors -- look at the decline in store book tours and the popularity and effectiveness of virtual book tours.

    Will the Internet work to level the playing field for women crime writers? Possibly. I'm not sure how you could track those statistics. You could look at the biggest review blogs, but there are a lot of smaller blogs that do reviews that might be difficult to identify.

    Things are changing quickly and even if they tilt one way, they will see-saw back and forth. It will never remain equal, but it's nice that they are moving closer to an equilibrium.

    See? I too can ramble.

  4. LJ.

    I think it's interesting that you use your initials. It might get people to pick up your book in a store, but if they looked through it, they'd figure out you were a woman.

    I assume you're thinking that by the time they noticed the bio (assuming they had a bias), they would be captivated by the cover blurb and not care.

    And you do a good job of getting in to the heads of both male and female characters. So, if they didn't notice, they might not be able to tell.

  5. Although I hadn't thought about it before, I tend to read more women mystery writers than men.

  6. Okay, y'all are all making me think. Ooh, brain freeze.

    I buy both men and women writers. I like CJ Box, Lee Child, Robert Fate... I like Susan Wittig Albert, Diane Fanning, Stephanie Meyer -- too many to name, really. I read both sexes -- and my husband does too.

    I guess, if I was in a bookstore and knew nothing about the authors on the crime/mystery shelves, I would pick up women authors first and I would be drawn to suspense/thrillers over cozy. And, yet, I have a cozy on my TBR pile that I'm really looking forward to reading.

    I think I would have to go to my bookshelves and tally the writers -- how many men, how many women. And even that wouldn't be the whole picture.

    It would also be interesting to try to see how my tastes have changed over the years.

  7. I actually am more inclined towards the female authors. No offense to the men 'cause I've read some fantastic books lately (and have Bill Cameron's in my to read pile) by Simon Wood. I do see a trend of male authors getting treated more seriously by critics.

  8. I wonder if there's been a survey to find out whether the majority of critics are male or female.

  9. I don't know what the stats are on male/female book reviewers, but I remember several years ago I gave up my subscription to Time magazine because I began to notice that the reviewers, both men whose reviews I enjoyed reading, almost never reviewed books written by women.

    I like to think things have changed some since then, but I don't really know. I do most of book review reading online now, which I agree is becoming more important.

    This seems to be an easy subject to ramble on! Thanks for bringing it up.

  10. The Internet and the digital age we're in are really changing things. Books are being written via text messaging, for heavens sakes! Every day I hear more and more about ebooks, Kindle, Podcasts, trailers, and more. It's hard to keep up with this fast-changing world. But it is changing. And the growing importance of online reviews is just one more change.


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