Thursday, September 08, 2011

My History with Sisters in Crime

(Editor’s note: The following anniversary tribute comes from Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Paul, Minnesota, who also reviews books and is the author of several mystery novels, including In the Wind (2010). She blogs at Barbara Fister’s Place and Scandinavian Crime Fiction.)

I’ve been having a bit of fun lately with the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers’ Challenge, a kind of birthday present for an organization that’s 25 years old this year--though the organization may well be 30 years old before I actually complete my participation in this challenge. Sisters in Crime is the only writers’ organization I’ve ever joined (other than the National Book Critics Circle). I figured when I got a book contract I should probably start acting a little more professional about this writing thing. The problem is, though, I have an allergy to acting professional. Fortunately, Sisters in Crime is a highly tolerant and welcoming group, so I didn’t feel a case of hives coming on when I signed up.

I was drawn to two things about the organization. One, anybody can join. You don’t have to prove anything, you just have to love the genre and want to hang out with people who feel the same way. Established writers, aspiring writers, and avid readers are all members. Two, I believe in its mission--to advance equity for women in the crime-fiction genre. This aspect of the organization is not a top priority for everyone. When I conducted a survey of the membership earlier this year (for a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association conference), more members said they had joined because they wanted to belong to a community devoted to the genre (89 percent) than to support equality for women crime writers (61 percent). But to me, anything that advances equality is A Good Thing. And only 6 percent of survey respondents said they thought equality had been achieved, so the mission was no longer relevant.

In 1986 two things combined that ignited an urge for women writers to organize. One was a widely circulated letter that Phyllis A. Whitney wrote to the Mystery Writers of America, protesting the fact that only seven women had won an Edgar Award for Best Novel in the previous 41 years. Another was a lively talk that Sara Paretsky gave at the first conference on women mystery writers, organized by B.J. Rahn and held at Hunter College in March of that year. Although I haven’t been able to track down a copy of that talk--I’m not sure one exists--Paretsky was reportedly critical of the trend toward increasingly graphic sexual violence as entertainment. (This was the decade when serial killers became dominant antagonists in crime fiction. If you don’t mind a bit of egg-headishness, Philip Jenkin’s book Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide is a fascinating exploration of why serial killers became so popular at that moment in our history.)

It’s hard to imagine two writers more different than Paretsky and Whitney, but they found common ground in wanting a fair shake for women authors and in urging the crime-fiction community to recognize that there even was an issue.

At the 1986 Bouchercon in Baltimore, Paretsky convened a meeting of people interested in organizing for change, and though it took some time for bylaws to be written and the first newsletters to be created and distributed, the group had come together. One of its first projects, discussed in an early meeting held at author Sandra Scoppetone’s SoHo loft, was to track book-review coverage by gender. That year, of all crime-fiction reviewed by The New York Times, only 6 percent was written by women. After the group sent a letter of protest, the percentage rose--even though the letter was never acknowledged.

Fewer reviews are published now in the mainstream press (though reviewing itself is not a lost art), but the coverage of women writers in reviews still lags. The percentage of women being published in this genre has risen from an estimated 38 percent in 1985 to approximately 50 percent today; but a recent survey found the percentage of people who buy crime fiction is around 70 percent female. This is consistent with a number of studies of fiction-reading, generally: women buy and read more fiction than men. So the work isn’t done yet.

But even if Sisters in Crime’s mission ever becomes irrelevant, I’d still want to be a member--if only for the camaraderie, the research and professional development opportunities, and the egalitarian ethos of the group. Besides, we’d have an excuse for one heck of a party.

1 comment:

Beth Groundwater said...

..and if there's one thing that members of Sisters in Crime know how to do well, it's party! :)