Monday, November 16, 2009

Where Angels Fear to Tread...The PW Top 10 List

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I seriously considered entitling this post 'Gender Blind My Arse' but was worried it might be too...ambiguous...and I wisely held off from commenting on John's Saturday post for fear that I might come across as some half crazed loony, or worse...a feminist...that's right, that terrible eight letter word (I know, it's amazing, I can count!)

But before I start pissing everyone off already, let me say that the PW top 10 list doesn't bother me all that much. Why not? Because it's not surprising. Because all lists are subjective. Because at least on the extended list women are (sort of) represented. So why, do you ask, am I pissed off? I'm angered by the reaction it has garnered - because it feels like we've been down this road so many times before and it's always a dead-end. Reviewers will always say they were gender-blind, that they tried their very best not to be influenced by anything other than the writing itself (what lies beneath the covers, not what lies between the legs to paraphrase from John's post). To this, groups like Sister-In-Crime will always counter by saying that gender bias is systemic in the publishing industry - from the books selected for review, the level of critical 'gravitas' bestowed, and in the awards handed out. As far as I'm concerned it's a no-win situation and this is what drives me nuts - I mean, after all that we have fought for, I can't believe we're still having this debate.

What I don't get is how women, who buy the overwhelming majority of novels and dominate the publishing industry (at least in terms of editors), don't just proudly denounce all the nonsensical crap that comes up around the gender issue:

  1. Women do not write 'small' 'domesticated' books. So what if the traditional cozy doesn't have zombie dismemberment, it can still be well-written and it can still deal with important 'universal' issues surrounding the human condition. Just because there's a picture of a cat with a ball of yarn on the front does not mean the book has to be marginalized as 'chick-mystery-lit'.

  2. Romance does not equal brainlessness or crappy writing.

  3. There are no inherent gender traits in writing. Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I write emotions well and action scenes badly. I may write a traditional historical mystery but that doesn't mean that (as a woman) I couldn't write a gruesome, psychologically disturbing book (Val McDermid, anyone?) .

  4. White men don't write better books...

The final point seems spurious to me...but in light of PW's list...I guess I had to say it.


  1. I don't subscribe to PW or pay too much attention to lists ((unless of course my book appears on a 'Google Alert' list(which hasn't happened yet)).

    I will admit to 'gender bias' as a reader before I became a writer though. I didn't really understand why that was until I figured out that I related more to MCs who were male. By that, I mean I could better lose myself in a thriller where the MC was a male. This had nothing to do with the quality of writing, rather that most female authors had female MCs whilst most male authors had male MCs. And, I'm only talking about thrillers/crime fiction as this is my genre/s of choice to read. Perhaps this could explain some reviews/lists.

    As a writer I've expanded my reading habits and have been delighted to discover some great reads that I probably would not have considered as a reader. I recently had the pleasure of reading some thrillers written by females including the extremely talented Lisa Unger (who I also hadthe pleasure of meeting) who I would highly recommend to anyone as a great read. She is a NYT bestseller for good reasons.

    I've also been fortunate to have come across a fantastic network of female thriller writers online (who in my opinion, have a greater online presence) that has also led me to some other great reads. Having recently won a contest from TKZ, I can say that I dug straight into Michelle's book first, and what a fantastic read it is (I will get to the rest soon - writing and editing taking precedence at the moment, sorry).

    As I'm a part of the Debut Authors program at ITW, I'm impressed at the number of female thriller writers who are in the program and am super-impressed at their dedication and professionalism. We all know how hard it is to get published, so I'd suggest that the quality of writing from by fellow thriller writers (female) is far outstripping that of what we (males) are producing of late.

    Having said all of that, I'm hoping I'm in with a chance for Best Debut Author at Thrillerfest next year and you all won't throw stuff at me (LOL). Hoping to catch up with all of the fantastic female and male thriller writers there.



  2. I wonder what motivates many female authors to take male sounding pseudonyms or use initials before their last names to hide their gender? I think it's because gender bias is alive and well, and living in large sections of the bookstore shelves. Read my June 10 TKZ post as an example. The dual-sister mystery writing team of P.J. Parrish said concerning gender bias: ". . . since our books were hard-boiled, we had the feeling we were working against a marketplace with pre-conceived notions as to what the tone and genre should or would be of books authored by women."

  3. Kinda makes you wonder why Nicci French selected that name to write by.

    I really believe that their (Nicci French) writing has landed them the fan base and sales that they've fully deserved, rather than their writing name.


  4. JJ - I'm glad to hear your reading habits have expanded:) and good luck with the debut thriller writer program! Joe, I agree - if the world was gender blind why are so many 'hardboiled' women having to adopt male sounding pseudonyms. I just wish we'd moved beyond the Bronte era in this respect!

  5. I've never found this to be an issue as a reader. I'm as likely to read a crime novel by Laura Lippman as I am by George Pelecanos.

  6. I can think of two female authors that haven't done too bad:

    1. JK Rowling
    2. Stephanie Meyer

    And if it wasn't Monday, I could probably come up with a few more.

    But is there gender bias? Do bears ____ in the woods?

    But how do you over come that bias is the sticky question. And I'm not sure you can. There are many theories stating that once you observe something, you change it. So the fact that you know there is a bias makes you likely to react to that bias in some way. And that, in turn, creates a bias. Sort of like affirmative action. You try to right a wrong but in turn create another wrong.

    Write good books and you'll find your readers - hopefully. It worked for an unemployed Scottish lass.....

  7. "I can think of two female authors that haven't done too bad:
    1. JK Rowling
    2. Stephanie Meyer"

    Mark, do you think it makes any difference that both these examples write fantasy rather than crime or mystery?

  8. I wasn't going to post a comment today because I was going to add more about this topic tomorrow, but what the heck. I've done a bit of research, and according to many studies, unconscious gender bias across the board, not just in literature. The research points to bias against women writers of medical papers, science papers, papers written by surgeons, you name it. Even when reviewers think they're "gender blind" they're actually not, according to the research. The studies also mentioned that some women use gender-neutral initials to avoid this subtle bias, but that by now, anyone who uses initials is assumed to be a woman.

    As supporting evidence of this type of bias, the SinC blog mentioned a judging for "a popular mystery anthology series, one that had, in previous years, featured primarily male authors. That year, the first to require blind submissions, the judges were gratified to discover that the stories we chose were roughly equal, male/female..."

    There's not very much we can do about unconscious bias--I'm sure very few people intend to be biased; I just hope we won't have to go the George Eliot route and adopt male pseudonyms. The fact that more and more women writers are becoming successful as thriller writers is an encouraging trend.

  9. Bear in mind, too, that J K Rowling writes under her initials-so initially, before the books made her so famous, first buyers could easily have assumed she was a man.

  10. Weigh on in there Kathryn! I also think it might make a difference that both JK Rowling and Stephenie Myer write in the fantasy YA/children genre. Also Stephenie has a strong romance component as well - always acceptable for the girls:) Mark - I also find the solution aspect the trickiest - and that's probably why I get so fed up. After all the battles that have been fought over gender equality we still can't seem to resolve this...

  11. I think it's like any other bias--ethnic, religious, cultural, etc. Sometimes we get to a point where we think we've stamped it out, but it just keeps coming back like Freddy Krueger.

  12. Hmm...

    Me solve prollum

    bang woman on hed with stik

    drag back to cav

    she rite storee

    me kill big antler to eat

    she cuk

    she cleen

    she rub my shoulders give hot bath and make Grunk feel like man aprisheyated

    me smash things to make her good plot modul for cuver grafik

    Her lituriree fyoocher good... like wumun writer...and her look varee hot in bearskin minidress ... Grunk feel primal urges now ... plees leev and clos dor after u.

  13. Topics like this make me uncomfortable--not because of the subject matter, per se, but because of the vocabulary that accompanies it. "Bias" is a loaded word; every bit as loaded as "racism." As an occupant of the presumed beneficiary class (male author), the loading of the word effectively renders a counter-argument moot. But I'm going to try.

    In its definition of "bias", lists "prejudice" as a synonym, and then defines "prejudice" as "an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason."

    That's pretty inflammatory stuff. Is it possible that the PW list is merely a statistical anomaly? Is it possible that the books truly were chosen on their merits, irrespective of the authors' sex, and in this particular year skewed the way it did?

    As one who currently serves as a judge for a major literary award, I can tell you that the only bias I bring to the table is my sense of what defines a "best" book in the appropriate category. It's all that judges can do, unless and until someone develops objective criteria for art. Without betraying confidences, I can testify that significant disagreements arise among the judges themselves. Does a really well-written but slower-paced book outrank a fairly well-written book that really rocks? Do sizzling characters trump sizzling plot? What does "sizzling" look like in the first place? More to the point, what the hell does "best" mean in the context of subjective judgment?

    At the end of the day, if we accept that the roots of our statistical anomaly truly lie in bias, then we're ethically bound to engineer a solution, right? And doesn't the solution raise the specter of quotas? Should the governing bodies of various award-issuers mandate that the nominees reflect the demographics of the writing community? Do we force judges to include X (but only X)male authors and Y African American authors? If we did, wouldn't that by definition deflate the value of the award?

    I think we all understand that "best" does not exist in an artistic setting. Having judged several contests, though, and having born the burden of bestowing that label upon my peers, I can tell you that every judge does his or her best. Certainly, I have. I plead guilty to being a slave to my personal tastes, but I bristle at any suggestion of bias.

    John Gilstrap

  14. Basil - as always thanks for the laugh:) I always welcome some light relief on topics such as these. John, I know that I too always strive to remain as fair as possible and accept that personal tastes differ. The PW list certainly could be an anomaly but I think, as Kathryn points out the evidence is still there that, as much as we wish it didn't, bias still exists (that doesn't mean however that you are in any way biased).