Monday, August 20, 2007

Pink vs Blue

I have admitted a great number of curiosities about what motivates people to write what they do. For the record, I think we all know now of certain characteristics it isn’t okay to wonder about, but limiting writers (and readers) to the influence of their gender, apparently, is just fine.

As much as I respect Ali, I found myself thinking that ”Clash of the Scottish Titans” was just keeping what should have by then been a dead issue alive. So I was glad I actually read the comments (which I often don't do, because my blood starts to boil), where he explains it was the discrimination against female writers he wanted to address, although my fear is that was sidetracked by all of the other stuff contained.

However, in the comments Ali posted a link to an old article, and a quick scroll down will bring you to the discussion of Tart Noir. As Ali quotes in the comments, this is a sample of the exchange between himself, Martina Cole and Stella Duffy:

Martina : I can tell you, that one of my readers (a man) actually puts a Stephen King cover on my books as he reads them on the train to work? Surely something's wrong?

Ali : That is a very sad indictment I must admit.

Stella : In fact what we really need to do is to encourage men to read more widely, and not women to change their writing style. Look everyone's talking about the lack of literacy in young men, so any encouragement in getting men to read more widely would certainly help. Look around you here (Stella points to the framed posters that adorn Waterstone's events room), there are 25 posters on these walls and only three and half of which are by women.

But that isn’t the reason I’m declaring gender fair game for discussion when it comes to what influences a writer. Rather, in the midst of an interesting piece Sarah Weinman wrote about Marilyn Stassio’s career there are comments that have their root with Stassio, but open the door to the smoldering topic of gender bias in the crime fiction community. (This quote is sourced via Sarah Weinman’s post on Stassio, and I’ll leave it as such so that anyone interested gets the benefit of her full post.) Check this out:

The publishing industry at this point is skeptical about the broader appeal of these women who are detectives and private investigators. Those in the industry hold that most readers of hard-boiled fiction are men, and the trade does not see them racing to buy books written by and featuring women. They are not so sure that women want to read them either.
''As a rule, women seem not to be as fascinated as men by the overtly violent action of such novels,'' says Joan Kahn, an editor at St. Martin's Press with 30 years' experience acquiring mystery fiction. ''The behavior in these books is too crude and simplistic for most women. 'I punched him, I shot him, I killed him, I dragged his body away.' I am sure that women could write that kind of bloodthirsty prose if they really wanted to. I'm just not convinced that they like to read it.''

Sound familiar? But that’s from 1985.

I have no doubt that there are very real prejudices women find themselves up against in this industry, but I have to say that I find some of the comments about what women prefer to read and write to be just as bad. We still clinging to the idea that women don’t have casual sex either? Man, I’ve known a few people I could fantasize about kicking, punching, shooting and dragging into an alley…

Maybe the reason I’m finding Joan Kahn’s comments harder to take than anything else is because they’re from a woman? Maybe I expect more? Maybe I feel like she's maintaining the gender conditioning and perpetuating that, saying what women are and are not interested in? Or maybe I just feel excluded because, eternal Tomboy that I am, as a child the books I was reading were Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and The Great Brain series and Gordon Korman’s Bruno and Boots books… and I never did read Anne of Green Gables. God, girls were so boring! The guys were out there, exploring the world, having adventures, doing things… That’s what I thought when I was a just a stupid little kid. (And rather hypocritical that I preferred to have my nose stuck in a book than actually go do something myself.)

But I can look back and see a certain amount of gender conditioning at play. I still remember begging to take karate, and being told that was for boys. (What I don’t remember is if my reason was because I was tired of getting beaten up – by girls! – at school. When I was assaulted when I was 14 it was by a group of girls, who incidentally had a reputation for starting street fights.)

What was that quote again? About the punching, kicking? Because it may be as simple for some of us to prefer a certain amount of realism in our fiction (another subject of debate we could have endlessly) and an understanding of the fact that people are violent.

Maybe the real reason I’m not a big fan of cozies is that the avoidance of physical pain and suffering seems so… girly?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t call myself a feminist. I’m a humanist. I believe in every person having the opportunity to do whatever they’re capable of, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, eye color or anything else. I’m not interested in putting men above women or women above men. (And I’m not saying all feminists do, it’s just that some do. In the same way that all rights movements run the risk of not being about equality and starting to be about superiority at some point, there are definitely anti-male feminists out there. I just like to distinguish myself from that.)

However, I’ve also made no secret of the fact that I’ve had a tendency to read more books written by men. To, uh, be honest with you, I find guys fascinating. And part of the reason was that I’d tried some books by women that really didn’t work for me. It took a while for me to come up with a system to find the female authors that would appeal to me.

I have been thinking about gender issues a lot lately, in part because what I’m working on has three protagonists – two men and a woman. And while the catalyst character was a guy, the woman runs the risk of overshadowing both of the guys at times. I find her a fascinating character to write. Well, I enjoy writing them all, but as a cop, with Ashlyn I find myself walking the gender lines more. She is, in many respects, harder to write because I want her to have credit for her strengths as a person, while also being a woman.

I think part of the problem with discussing these issues is that it makes it seem like this is pervasive. As though this is ongoing discrimination that women come up against at every single turn. Now, that may be. I’m not saying that isn’t the case. What I am saying is I don’t know if that’s the case. One or two old comments come up, tacked on to a fresh one, and suddenly it’s as though women are getting letters from publishers telling them to stay home and get a new apron. Martina Cole is one of the top sellers in the UK, as is Val McDermid. Despite whatever prejudices women are coming up against, women are still succeeding in this business. And maybe – with problems getting reviews and with purchasers who won’t read books by women in the equation – that means we have to be twice as good as the guys to get there.

I think there are serious, legitimate issues that have to be addressed. Apparently, that’s why Sisters in Crime was started. Perhaps we need to sweep aside the other attention-getting aspects of recent “arguments” and get to the point where we focus on what’s really important here. An analysis of how the industry has (or has not) changed with regards to its attitude to women could be very interesting.

I’m certainly in the camp of lobbying for a change in attitude about what women like to read, though. Shania Twain’s Any Man of Mine is enough to send me over the edge – I hate that kind of attitude, and for some reason that editor’s comments have the same impact on me. In order for women to be fully accepted as equals we can’t have our own double standards, and that’s what it is about Twain’s song that pisses me off.

And that one line in bold sums up Ashlyn’s philosophy to a T.

But there are things I find myself wondering. Lately, I was having a terrible time, dealing with requesting something from other writers. I realized that, in the few times I’ve had to do this, the only people to completely ignore me were all women. I can look back at the blurbs for SC and see that men outnumber the women in terms of the five cover blurbs, and also I had more reviews from men than women… It would be horrendously unfair of me to go on a tirade about women not getting reviews, based on my own experience anyway.

Maybe instead of complaining that we’re discriminated against in the business we need to start putting our money where our mouth is, and showing more support for other women in the industry?

Maybe what we need to do is open a forum of discussion about the very real issues women are currently facing, at every level of the industry. And maybe instead of just talking we need to start finding our own solutions. The worst thing of all about this is that it seems as though, in twenty years, little has changed.


mai wen said...

I find this topic very interesting. Sometimes it feels that people assume women fall into two categories: girly and tomboy. I in fact read Both Jack London's great "The Call of the Wild" and every single "Anne of Green Gables" book, and loved both equally. I read both The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I've never found myself to have a preference for male or female protagonists either way. Though I did really like the Narnia Chronicles because it had both.

To make such blanketed statements about women's tastes is sexist either way you put it and just silly. Why can't I love blood and gore and also get teary eyed about a girl getting the perfect dress for her school dance? I love action but I also love romance, and I'm pretty sure I'm not a freak of nature here... or am I?

Oh, and if you want to read about a kick ass female protagonist in a young adult book, check out the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, Lyra is totally kick ass!

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm with you Mai Wen. While I call myself a Tomboy, I must admit I get teary-eyed at sappy Christmas commercials and do enjoy the odd "girl" film, if that's what you want to call them. Fried Green Tomatoes, Pride & Prejudice.

The one thing about those generic comments from the editor that really bothers me, though, is that I don't understand how women can point fingers at men for gender discrimination when we're just as good at doing it to ourselves. The conditioning is extensive, generation to generation, and still comes from various venues of society (church, for example).

I've never liked getting on the bandwagon, being all "rah rah sisterhood" and all that, because my own mentality is if you want something, go after it, don't just talk about how hard it is for you to get it. So I join things with gender focus rather selectively, because while it's 100% true that women still face discrimination at times, it's also true that sometimes, people are looking for offense and therefore find it.

I suppose our problem is, we don't just need to change the thinking of some men, but also some women.

I always loved male protagonists, and it surprised me to enjoy writing from a female pov as much as I do. But then, I can give her my thinking on some things, and throw her up against some situations that I find interesting to work from both male and female povs.

Oh, and as for writers with kick ass female protagonists, just wait for Christa Faust's Money Shot. What Christa does with the book is fantastic. One of the more memorable female protags I've seen in a long time.

kris said...

I'm in two minds on this subject. Part of me agrees that blanket statements on gender-related tastes are ill-founded - perhaps because they don't apply to me. I'm a bit of a 'blokey bloke' in most things, but I've read and enjoyed Jane Austen's books, as well as Anne of Green Gables, Heidi and a local Australian author, Liane Moriarty, who writes chick lit.

That said, I think I'm more of an exception to the rule. It seems to me that men and women probably do read true to type most of the time. Certain authors, such as Stephen King, bridge the sex divide, but when I observe what people are reading on the train ... women are reading 'books for women' and men are reading 'books for men'. Is it conditioning, or just - gasp! - that men and women have different tastes?

Sandra Ruttan said...

I honestly think it's both, Kris. There's nothing wrong with a woman liking things that are traditionally considered more feminine, or a man prefering "guy" stuff. But I do think that there is a fair amount of conditioning that still goes on, from the subtle to the overt.

I've worked with kids for years. Boys are still told not to cry. When was the last time you saw a girl told to "Be a woman and quit your crying!" But insert man in that phrase and I've heard it more times than I can count. It's a delicate balance. On the one hand, we should celebrate the genders. But exactly where that crosses the line to be unhealthy or to define how we view gender roles is a tricky subject.

In reality, I think girls have had it easier than boys. A girl can be classed as a tomboy but if a boy is a bit "sissy", well, it isn't like there's an acceptable phrase for that. Girls can play with cars and build forts but we still balk at the idea of boys playing with dolls. Early on the conditioning begins, that boys shouldn't be interested in girl things and vice versa. I don't see how we can raise kids with this kind of thinking permeating their formative years and expect it to be any different when people grow up.

norby said...

Anne of Green Gables? Who's she?

I couldn't even begin to tell you where that book was in the library, but I remember exactly where the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books were kept.

My mom told me the other day that she was finding it more difficult to read more and more of the mysteries written by women, she was getting tired of all of the recipes in them. Being hungry when she finished a book was getting old. At first she said the books I recommended were a little too intense, now she likes them because she doesn't need a snack afterwards.

Not to overdo the food thing, but there should be a range of books, because of course not everyone is going to want the same thing-and not every woman is going to want to read the same thing and not every man is either. It would be nice if publishing companies would clue into that fact and if the media would stop trying to tell us what we're supposed to be writing and reading and why.

John McF said...

"I suppose our problem is, we don't just need to change the thinking of some men, but also some women."

Wow. Aim high, I admire you Sandra. I can't imagine changing one person's thinking (it's hard enough for me to change my own).

I do have a personal connection to Anne of Green Gables, though. My mother-in-law was a member of the congregation where Lucy Montgomery's husband was the minister (Norval, Ontario) and she bought a bedside table at a "rummage sale," as we called them. Lucy told my mother-in-law that sometimes when she couldn't sleep she'd get up and write some of the Anne stories at that table.

Now I tell people I also get up and write at that table.

It's funny, I think, if you've read Anne and my books.

Brian said...

For some odd reason this didn't post yesterday. So FWIW

As ususal there is a lot to absorb in this post still but it did remind me of an essay (at least in part) written by Neil Gaiman called All Books Have Genders. It really is focused on his work up until that time as opposed to the wider issue of gender and fiction.

But he basically believes that books and story lines have genders. One of the many reasons attributed to the insane popularity of his Sandman series of comics (which are just sheer brilliance) is that they attracted an unprecedented number of female readers. Gaiman asserts that he tried to alternate "male" story lines with "female" storylines.

FWIW here is the link

I loved The Great Brain!!!!!!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby, well said. Very well said. And hilarious about the recipes. I think your Mom might like Laura Lippman, and you should try her with Val McDermid's A PLACE OF EXECUTION. I also think she might like Peter Robinson.

John, first, I know enough about Anne of Green Gables to find that incredibly amusing. And, in a moment of making a real confession, I have read some Montgomery - The Blue Castle, which is essentially a romance, and I love that book. Laugh out loud funny.

As to the line you quoted, well... I'm not ambitious enough to think I'll change anyone's thinking. But before people start talking about the need to change how men think they have to consider that it isn't just some men, and not acknowledging that some women have the same biases is just as discriminatory against men as we accuse them of being against us. Wordy? I'm sure. Sorry - I've been up half the night sick. This is the longest I've sat up in hours.

Brian, when I can sit up longer I'll have to check that out. I loved The Great Brain too.

Oh, and you know, the majority of fan mail I've received has been from men. I think that's part of the reason I start feeling uncomfortable when people throw around the general "men don't read women". Some men don't, and I bet their are some women who don't read men. We just have to be very careful about those generalizations.

norby said...

Let's face it, the Great Brain was brilliant (no pun intended!).

I think my mom would like Laura Lippman and Peter Robinson, Val I would definitely have to suggest certain books, but A Place of Execution would be good.

You know I'm pretty certain I've recommended Laura to her before actually. I'll have to check with her on that. I'm constantly recommending authors to my parents, sometimes they listen, sometimes not so much.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I do think Val's standalones are more suited to your Mom's tastes, Norby. The Tony/Carol books would probably be a bit much for her. THE DISTANT ECHO is one of my favourites. Very character driven.

Peter said...

I am told that before Yasmina Khadra revealed to the world that he was a man and that "Yasmina Khadra" was a nom de plume he chose to avoid Algerian military censors, the French press was full of rhapsodies about this searing, genuine voice of an Arab woman.

The introduction to a French paperback edition of his novel Morituri, written several years before Khadra unmasked himself, is deliciously comic in retrospect. Yet that same introduction tells us that:

Though the strongest echoes of the struggle for democracy in Algeria come to us from the voices of Algerian women, another among them writes as if she is deaf (to these voices).

It also speaks of Khadra's denial of "her" sex. Sex is an interesting thing. So is gender, that word so often misused for sex, though it is arguably appropriate here.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Sandra Ruttan said...

I can see the author's gender being significant in situations where women are oppressed in society. It's an interesting example - I wonder what Algerian men thought of him?

Peter said...

I wonder how big ياسمينة خضراء's readership is in Algeria. He has lived in France for years, and he writes in French. He attributed this to a brilliant, stron-spoken and nurturing French teacher he had when he was a child who encouraged him to write. His Arabic teacher, on the other hand, discouraged creativity.

I don't know the size of the Algerian reading public.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

I think the publishing industry understimates the rage we women carry and the way that we enjoy reading books with violence and gore as a way of expressing emotions. I know that's why I love certain authors.

Eileen said...

One thing I fing interesting is it is more common to imply that a woman liking "girly" things is somehow less desirable as if traditional girly things were bad, but this rarely is the same for men. They don't imply a guy liking guy things is bad. (although if he's too interested in the girly that may be slammed). I don't think it's wrong to be a tomboy- but I don't understand the "ooh ick I would never read a romance" with the hint that they are above such things. We seem to have a hard time with the idea of different strokes for different folks. As always Sandra- great post. You always get me thinking.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hmm, Eileen, now you have me thinking. Maybe because the common ground between the genders has always been 'less girl' and 'more boy'. But I do think it goes to conditioning. Boys who take home ec will be teased. Girls will still get grief taking shop but not nearly to the same degree.

I don't think there's anything wrong with being girl... I just don't like people assuming because I'm a woman I'm in to all the girlie things. That's a form of prejudice in itself. When people put that on you, from a young age ('And why don't you want to read about princesses, dear?') you get this subconscious message, that there's something wrong with you.