Where are the girls?

In her review of the Edgar nominations last week, the excellent Sarah Weinman bemoans the lack of women in the Best First category. Yeah, Sarah, I know: I was the chair. I also, a year ago when I was putting together the committee, took care to balance it: two men, two women (plus me); thrillers and cozies; Left Coast and Other. And when the ballot came down to it, that’s what we said, too: Where are the girls?

The women Sarah mentions (and do look at her web site, whose address is http://www.sarahweinman.com although I can’t get the Blogger software to create a link on my Mac, another form of discrimination that needs to be addresed) as I was saying, the women she singles out did indeed write appealing books, just not quite as appealing–TO THE FIVE OF US, let it be said–as the books that ended up on the list. And although I admit that affirmative action might work in academia, we couldn’t really feel justified in giving extra points to the women just because they were women. So we gulped, and voted, and that’s the list we came up with.

Now, I don’t want to make a big thing out of one Edgar list–next year it might be all women. But how long has it been since that happened? Just glancing over the last ten years of Best First nominees (see the MWA website–and I agree, this lack of linkability is a pain) I see none that have more than three of the (usual) five, and it’s generally one or two women among the boys.

I know that women can write as well if not better than men. And I know the mystery world is one place where women have been given free rein since the Thirties. Women write about half the mysteries out there, give or take a percentage point or five. So why don’t we win half the awards?

We can’t even blame the publishers for not submitting books, since our committee actively asked booksellers for their recommendations and were alert for any positive review for a purported first novel, hunting it down and ripping it from its publisher’s reluctant hands. A thing that not all the committees did, I agree, hence the number of Law and Order nominations.

Women have the skill and the heart to write on a par with men. But there’s also the undeniable fact that we women in general spend our energies in a lot more directions then men do. I’ve been a professional writer since 1993. During that time I’ve also done the bulk of work when it comes to raising kids, keeping a house together, organizing a family’s lives, and all the rest–I’m even the household handyman. I can’t help wondering if my books might have been just a bit better, more focussed, more intense, if I’d been able to concentrate on nothing but the writing stuff during that time. As, I’m afraid, a lot more boy writers do than girls.

All of which seems to come around to the topic that I worked on with my very first novel, Why are there no female Rembrandts?

Maybe we’re just not big enough bastards to tell the world that our time and our needs are more important than theirs.

What do you think?

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  1. Anonymous on February 11, 2005 at 3:05 am


    That was to indicate my glee that you have a blog, and are taking comments. I can’t tell you how pleased I am.

    My name is Brittany Harrison. (Haven’t made a blogger account yet.) I wrote to you over the summer of 2003 while you were in England, and received first a reply from your mother and then one from you, around Christmas of that year. Hi again!

    As to your post, I don’t know the politics of the mystery publishing world, and I don’t know if the dearth of women has anything to do with that, or if it simply has to do with the lack of women to choose from. From my limited 23 year old female perspective though I can say that writing is the only career I’ve ever wanted and I have tremendous difficulty prying my attention away from it to do other things. Like work at jobs that pay me money. My perspective might alter if I ever find someone I want to marry and decide I want to raise a family. But I have always felt the passion for writing was a genderless thing.

    I can’t tell you with what furor I am anticipating Locked Rooms. 🙂 Do post often!

  2. Jenny D on February 11, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    Yes, I too am delighted that you have a blog–I’m a big fan of your fiction, and I appreciate your very thoughtful post on the gender question. It’s tricky, isn’t it? Surely part of it really is the way that more men are readier at a younger age to assert their right to be read by other people and (more generally) their authority as writers and speakers. Women writers must continue to get more foolhardy and assertive! That’s what I’m trying for these days… I am often dismayed, given the effort I make to read widely, the preponderance of male writers on my TBR pile or my list of Xmas presents for people–I often end up giving books by men to men and women alike and only 1 or 2 books by women, almost always to other women. Not sure what to do about this.

  3. Dichroic on February 11, 2005 at 7:33 pm

    Not sure I agree; sometimes it’s easier to be creative within a rigid framework than if you can do whatever you want. (Otherwise known as, why are there more great sonnets than great epics.)

    But there’s a song by the folk duo Reilly and Maloney that deserves to be a lot better known:

    Did Beethoven do the dishes?
    Dis Mozart sweep the floors?
    Did all those great musicians
    Have to do their chores?

    It goes on for a few verses and gets even funnier.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster on February 11, 2005 at 7:51 pm

    Snarky comment: There are more men nominated because when they’re creative we’re impressed; with women they do it all the time so we expect Superwomen feats and who can be Superwoman all the time. End snarky comment.
    I don’t know why it is true. I know that when I read women writers I enjoy the story and the experience more and with men I read more critically (?).
    I look forward to others’ thoughts.

  5. Lee on February 11, 2005 at 9:25 pm

    I’ve been reading more mysteries in the past few years and have often wondered about the lack of “seriousness” among female writers. Often, the books are “light” (i.e. Evanovich, Robb, and Albert) with very few showing any real research or, I’m afraid, thought.

    I like your novels due to the obvious research put into them. It adds more texture and flavor to the mystery mix and I equate them with the Elizabeth George and Elizabeth Peters novels: great characterization, well thought-out mystery, and excellent writing/research.

    One of my thoughts on the lack of female writers at the Edgars concerns the lack of “grit” from most female authors writings. Men tend to make their books more crime driven with terse prose wheras women have more characterization and descriptive passages. You are one of the few female writers that I know who can mix characterization, description and grit. A few other women can do the same (Karin Slaughter comes to mind easily), but they seem to be in the minority.

    Whether our society likes it or not, mystery often brings to mind the old noirish mysteries of Perry Mason and Dashiell Hammett. Many have trouble recognizing the more popular JD Robb or Janet Evanovich as serious mystery contenders.

    This isn’t an unique position: how many times in the past has the Academy Award gone to a movie that few have seen? Of the five recent nominees, none of them are blockbusters and three are more suited to arthouses than cineplexes.

    The Edgar Awards isn’t alone in wanting to reward the more intense, artistic works than what the mass prefers.

    Just my two cents.

  6. Katherine on February 12, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    My first reaction is that a book is either qualified as a finalist based on its merits or it isn’t. Whether a man or woman wrote it shouldn’t matter and isn’t that the essence of feminism (aka women’s lib movement to old timers like myself) – to be judged on ability not gender.

    That being said your point about the multiple and incessant demands on women is something that female writers have struggled with for eans. Several years ago I read an essay/article written by Dorothy Sayers wherein she outlined her day trying to produce an article which went something like “sat down at desk to write, cook came in with inquiry about dinner menu, went back to work, spouse came in with question, went back to work, spouse came in with post, etc.” I find it astonishing that Sayers managed to produce any work let alone her superb mysteries in this atmosphere. Or that she didn’t commit what in my view would have been multiple justified homicides.

    Domestic responsibilites are also a constant theme in both volumes of Vera Brittain’s memoirs (Testament of Youth and Testament of Experience), and in her biography of Winifred Holtby (the author of South Riding) she describes how Winifred while living at her parent’s house wanders like a gypsy from room to room trying to find a quiet place to work only to be continually interrupted by either domestic questions or another member of the household wandering in to disturb her peace.

    J.K. Rowling in response to an interview question said that she definitely was not Superwoman and that when her daughter was a baby and she was working on the first Harry Potter book the only way that she was able to do it was to live in squalor – dirty dishes, piles of laundry and mess everywhere. Which is certainly a refreshing attitude but how many people read that article and thought that her first responsibility should have been to keep a clean house for her child?

    Somewhere along the line women have been ingrained to believe that they are only allowed to have a fulfilling professional life if they can maintain primary responsibity for their family.

    Is the problem that we are too sensitive to being labelled selfish and slovenly? That we care too much about what others think than about fulfilling our personal needs? Yet I also know that when selecting a book to read, especially mysteries, I always pick up those written by women first and often find that those books are much more satisfying than those written by a man. Is it because being immersed in the world of the living with all of its demands women are better able to write a story that engrosses the reader? Or that as a woman I naturally gravitate to those stories?

  7. andi f on February 15, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    I’m a bit late to this but I want to comment on lee’s comments.

    First, I’d really be interested in Laurie King’s comments on why books have to be ‘grim’ and ‘heavy’ to be award-worthy.

    Second, here is my off-the-top-of-my-head list of women authors who might be suprised to find out that they lack seriousness.

    denise mina
    nevada barr
    sara paretsky
    sarah andrew
    sue ann grafton
    laura lippman
    deborah crombie
    zoe sharp
    nicci french
    carol goodman
    elizabeth george
    martha grimes
    erin hart
    susanna jones
    natsuo kirino
    janice law
    karin slaughter
    s.j. rozan
    laura wilson
    alice padgett
    nicola griffith
    manda scott
    sarah smith
    sarah steward taylor
    minette waters
    val mcdermid
    jacqueline winspear
    cara black
    margaret murphy
    sarah dunant
    helen dunmore
    denise hamilton
    julia spencer-fleming
    betty webb
    jan burke
    pj tracy
    maggie estep
    sylvia warsh
    kate flora

  8. Anonymous on March 18, 2005 at 1:36 am

    My notion of how to approach this topic would be: 1) Read “A Room of One’s Own”, 2) Re-read it 3) begin thinking.

  9. WDI on April 13, 2005 at 10:56 pm

    Apologies for a long-delayed response to an early post 🙂 I suspect you’ve correctly identified a big part of the problem. We see the same thing in science; I suspect it’s common in other academic disciplines as well. It was certainly the same story when I was in graduate school (where, be it known, I was expected to give up half of my teaching assistantship so I could take only 2 courses while caring for a newborn, while two years later, a *male* student was given a reduction in his teaching load at a full-time salary so he could spend more time with his newborn!).

    A colleague and I were discussing this just the other day. It isn’t only that women with families have to make more compromises with their time than men do. Single women must do for themselves what many of our male colleagues have wives do for them.

    In the “for what it’s worth” category, I read precious few books by men any more. It’s not a conscious decision to thwart the oppressors :). Rather,I find that most male authors just don’t speak to my heart and mind as well as my favorite female authors do.

  10. Anonymous on May 12, 2005 at 9:05 pm

    I actually find very few male writers who I don’t think are dull or unimaginative.

    I believe this is because women are trained from girlhood to observe others emotions, social niceties and psychological undercurrents at the dinnertable. In my opinion this makes for more intelligent prose than that of many men who instead seem overwhelmed by their own seriousness and all to eager to constantly strike intellectual poses throughout their work.

    I would therefore like to claim that women make the better novelists, not in spite of but because of their involvment of the affairs of other people.


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  14. Now we are six : Laurie R. King: Mystery Writer on February 13, 2011 at 7:56 am

    […] I went looking, I found that last Thursday, Mutterings turned ten.  Interestingly, my first post (here) was about the lack of women in book awards (based on an Edgars committee I had chaired, that came […]

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