Friday, January 15, 2010

The Gender Question

by Michelle Gagnon

Shane asks:

Gayle Lynds, Alex Kava, and other female novelists found it difficult to gain acceptance in the crime-writing business because they weren’t men and therefore “wouldn’t know what it’s like in the mean streets,” etc. But they entered the field years ago. Since you’re relatively new in the business, has that changed? Are you being accepted as a female crime writer?

I know there's considerable disagreement about this issue, but here's my stance. More books written by men are reviewed than women's- across the board, according to a study conducted by Sisters in Crime last year. Many female crime fiction writers still go by initials to mask their gender. And I believe that there are men who, consciously or subconsciously, are more likely to pick up a book by a male author than a female one.

I think that with thrillers, this effect is particularly pronounced (although the balance is slowly shifting). There are some amazing female crime fiction writers gaining prominence, among them Chelsea Cain, Tana French, and Gillian Flynn. But it remains a struggle. I was recently told by one editor that my books were a bit too "testosterone-driven," too much like Lee Child's work (and that's a bad thing?!)

I've also discovered that the same bias applies to female characters. I wrote a book featuring a kind of female James Bond. The response from editors was universal: she was too perfect, she needed a flaw. And yet if you look at the work of Clive Cussler, Lee Child, and others, their male characters are practically supermen: smart, attractive, almost unbelievably strong and skilled. And no one says, "Oh, that's so unrealistic. At least give him a drinking problem."

Another irony: of the writers I mentioned earlier, most of their work features a male protagonist (at least with their first book). Chelsea Cain has Archie Sheridan. Tana French kicked off her series by focusing on Rob Ryan. Only Gillian Flynn featured a female protagonist- and a terribly flawed one at that.
(As an aside, going back to our cover discussion, each of these writers was also graced with some of the best cover art I've ever seen).

So the more things change, the more they remain they same, sadly.


Kelli Stanley said...

Wow--that's sobering news, Michelle. I sometimes think sexism is the last frontier ...

The good news is that you are writing, you are successful, and the more books you write and sell--along with other successful female writers--the more that barrier gets whittled away.

Here's to the walls coming down, right? :)


Shane Gericke said...

Sheesh. That's a real shame this day and age, though I guess not surprising. I mean, who the hell cares which gender wrote the book if you like it? Males and females both write great books. Sucky books too; I've read many examples of both, from both genders. And that too-testosterony comment is ... well, how do you describe it? I continue to shake my head at the silliness in this business sometimes.

Shane Gericke said...

Come to think of it, I got an e-mail from a (male) reader after my debut came out in 2006. He was furious that I was writing an action thriller about women cops. (Main protag and some secondary protags are female police detectives.) He read me the riot act about how he'd bought my book cause I was a guy and he therefore assumed my characters were he-men ass-kickers, and so maybe I was a sissy, and I should grow a pair, etc. etc. etc. It made me spit coffee through my nose laughing so much.

So yeah, the sexism is out there. But as Kel says, with luck the attitude is slowly dying away.

Michelle Gagnon said...

I certainly hope so- but we'll see. In some ways it strikes me that pop culture at least is headed in the opposite direction. Saw and ad for a talk show the other day featuring teenage girls whose aspired to become strippers when they grew up. That's right, aspired to. It was horribly depressing.

Shane Gericke said...

I've felt for awhile that our entertainment/advertising/information culture has been dragged back to "when wimmen were wimmen and men were damn glad of it." Traditional gender roles, in other words, supported by the growing (at least in the media spotlight, if not in reality) right-wing demands to "give me back my America." It certainly is reflected in advertising, along the lines you cite, Michelle--women not worthy even of being a sex object, but as brainless, giggling trailer trash" jus' desirin' to get fucked by a real man who'll tell me what to do." Britney is a great example of that, and she's far from the only.

It's no wonder women writers can't seem to catch a break.

But it slowly, slowly is changing. A lot of high school kids hang out at the restaurant where I have breakfast and read the paper. The genders seem completely at ease with each other and un-stereotypically all right. Even though they fit in jeans about as big around as my ankle.

But till they're reading our stuff in droves, you guys might be stuck with the alphabet for names.

And that's entirely too much blathering for one guy, so I'll sign off with ...

Love your books. Even if you're a chick :-)

Michelle Gagnon said...

Thanks, Shane.