Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Woman's Place

Half a dozen blog post ideas are yammering at me this week. I could have blogged about last week's lively, successful Ottawa launch of my latest Inspector Green novel, THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS. For those of you closer to the southern part of Ontario (or upstate New York) the Toronto launch is May 9, 6:30 - 8 pm at Sleuth of Baker Street, one of the last independent mystery bookstores left standing in Canada. If you're within spitting distance, please come! It's only a fun party if people come.

I could have blogged about all the exciting preparations for my upcoming northern book tour with Vicki Delany in early June, and all the hair pulling that entails! That will likely be another blog or two closer to the day.

And I could have blogged about the recently announced shortlists for the 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. As Rick mentioned, both Vicki and I are shortlisted in the inaugural Best Novella category, and because we will both be in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, when the winners are announced, it should be a lively evening in the hotel bar!

However (I'm getting to it), I decided that a sidebar from these Arthur Ellis award shortlists was perhaps the most important topic to address at this time. The Best Novel shortlist had five men and no women on it.  I want to say at the outset that this is no reflection on the quality of the judges nor of this year's nominees; they are all fine novels. Nor is this a case of sour grapes. I have no stake in this diatribe, because I have actually won this award twice and have no book in contention this year. But as a woman, I had an immediate, knee-jerk reaction of annoyance. If you're a woman, you'll understand these things. Where is the diversity, not only in gender but in style?

I calmed myself down, and being a social scientist who likes my theories to be based on evidence, I started to explore a few ideas. Was this a fluke year? Well, in the past ten years, exactly three Best Novel awards had gone to women (two to me, one to Louise Penny) and seven to men. In the 29 years since the award's inception, there have been nine female winners and 20 men. So the pattern holds. Not overwhelming odds but odd nonetheless. And the shortlist almost always had a ratio of 1 woman to 4 men. Best First Novel doesn't fare much better.

Gender discrepancies in awards, reviews and other measures of success has been the raison d'ĂȘtre of Sisters in Crime since its founding, but within the Canadian context I don't think it's been studied. As Canadians we are too busy worrying about our own insignificance relative to the US and the UK. Again wearing my scientist hat, I decided to do a quick analysis of underlying factors. First question. Of all 79 books submitted for the award, what was the proportion of male authors to female. The answer surprised me: 45 men and 34 women (57% to 43%). Furthermore, this ratio is already biased, because some women I know didn't even have their books submitted, possibly because their publishers thought they hadn't a hope (and the submission process costs).

Even with this suspect ratio, however, in a completely random, unbiased universe, at least two of the five authors on any shortlist should be female. So I asked my second question: what books were being published by whom? My analysis is not perfect, because I don't know every publisher, but when  I divided the books into big publishers vs. small to medium traditional publishers, an even more alarming statistic emerged. Of those books published by the "big houses" - i.e. Doubleday, Random House, Harper Collins, Penguin, etc - 20 were written by men and only 5 by women. Of the small to medium traditional publishers, 20 were men and 13 were women.

The other books on the list were either US-published or self-published, and the gender ratio in both cases favoured women about 7 to 4.

So it appears that in the Canadian publishing scene, there is a marked bias in favour of male authors relative to female (at least in the crime fiction world), and that this bias is most acute in the big houses. This was not a simple matter of awards favouring men. This was a matter of traditional publishing in Canada favouring men. Especially the big guys. And this matters, because the big houses have more editorial and marketing staff to spruce up books, more access to reviews, more literary festival invitations... in short all the tools to help a book gain credibility and profile within the marketplace.

Grumble, grumble.

Why? I asked myself. Do men write "better" books? Are agents more eager to sign them (which gives them access to the bigger houses)? Do men write more "big sales books" likely to make agents and publishers more money? Conventional wisdom has it that women will read across the spectrum but men will only read books by men. I think this is an insult to men, but never mind. Is this an example of "only men's tastes matter"?

A couple of other explanations come to mind. Perhaps the themes that men stereotypically choose (drugs, mean streets, international conspiracies, turf wars) are viewed as weightier and more worthy than so-called women's themes of family, relationships and community. Perhaps men aim higher and are more confident that their work is brilliant and deserves the biggest house. Perhaps men demand more respect.

I don't know the explanation, and I am enough of a scientist to ask the questions without jumping to conclusions. But I believe the question is worth asking, if only to give us pause. And now that I have stirred the pot, I'd love your thoughts on what I have put on the table.


Vicki Delany said...

If you and Louise are the only women ever to win an AE for best novel, I have to ask: has a book featuring a female protagonist ever won? Probably not. Maybe that says something.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Not the only women, but the only ones in the last ten years. But yes, we both do have male police officers.

Charlotte Hinger said...

My oldest daughter is a social psychologist and works with statistics. This is all very interesting, Barbara. I think more men lean toward "mean streets" and more women write "cozies" Maybe that has something to do with it.

S. C. Gates said...

Perhaps it would be appropriate for Sisters in Crime to ask agents and publishing houses these questions. Publically. And report their responses. Publically. Open letters vis major newspapers & trade publications perhapsÉ

Toe Hallock said...

Ms. Fradkin: Is it okay for a male "writer" to step in here? I put writer in quotes because of my unsucessful attempts to be published. In fact my wife Brenda cannot figure out what's wrong with those guys. Not whining. That would be unmanly. (Chuckle!) I, too, am a social scientist with a degree in anthropology. Anyway, based on everything I've come across lately, most of the best crime fiction is being produced by women. And believe me, not all of it is the least bit "cozy." I just happen to believe there's a false perception among some critics that women are light and men are heavy. Maybe it's a gravity thing. Yours truly, Toe.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Toe, it's absolutely okay for a male writer to weigh in. Thanks for your observations! In reality there is crap written by both sexes and brilliance written by both, and it's really a matter of giving everyone the equal opportunity to soar. BTW I took your quotations marks out, because anyone who is driven to sit down and finish a piece of work is a writer. Maybe not published yet, but with perseverance you will be.

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