Sara Paretsky’s big black hat, red feather boa, and interesting footwear caused a lot of comment at Bouchercon last Friday, but as always, her words had the power to make you forget the visuals. Along with moderator Barbara Fister and writers Mary Saums, Kate Flora, and Liza Cody, Paretsky turned a panel with the deceptively dull title “Telling Women’s Stories” into a riveting dissection of women’s roles in fiction and real life.
Paretsky, who joined with other female mystery writers to found Sisters in Crime 24 years ago in response to “being slighted at conferences” and overlooked by reviewers, sounded as if she’s given up on feminism. She said she believes SinC has brought a lot of women readers to mystery by making them aware of books that will appeal to them, but she questions ”whether feminism has made much of an impact” on society. Joking that she was “raised in the woods by wolves” and has “never felt at home in civilized society,” Paretsky spoke in the past tense of being a feminist who was “angry all the time” about the unequal treatment of women. Now she’s more focused on general issues of power and justice – and her protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, has changed along with her.
Other women on the panel agreed that inequality remains rampant in society at large, in the publishing world, and on the pages of novels. Mary Saums said she’s weary of witnessing “everyday abuses of women’s rights.” For the first 45 years of her life, Saums said, she was a “nice” woman, but she finally reached a point when she’d had enough of conforming to expectations. “Women have a right to be who they are,” she declared to applause from the audience.
All of the panelists deplored the prevalence of women characters as victims of brutal crimes in fiction, but none seemed to find it surprising. Paretsky pointed out that “the notion of a woman taking up space in the world still offends some men at such a visceral level” that they want to strike out, “slash and destroy.” Both men and women, Liza Cody said, “are quite comfortable with the idea of women as victims,” but men don’t want to read about male victims.
Kate Flora said she finds it “deeply troubling” that female authors are “increasingly writing about women as victims” of graphic violence. In her own Thea Kozak series, Flora is “exploring what it means to be a modern woman.” In a new series, her male detective owes his sensibilities to his mother, who “taught him to see” the reality of men’s and women’s roles in society.
Mary Saums perceives “a new wave of anti-female feeling in the book business” and some of it is coming from women. Popular female thriller writers are treated as the equals of their male counterparts, but some of those women, according to Saums, are openly critical of Sisters in Crime and “talk down to us.”
In society, Liza Cody fears, too many young women are moving backward. Rather than claiming the right to be unique individuals, they’re “trying to compete with porn stars” in a bid for male attention. (I couldn’t help thinking of the young female cops on TV shows who teeter around crime scenes on five-inch heels and lean menacingly over interrogation room tables with their cleavage fully exposed, inches from the suspects’ faces. The porn star effect is everywhere these days.)
Paretsky observed that both male and female writers all seem to want their women characters to be “five-six and 118 pounds.” She believes publishers are “not thoughtful” about what they publish, but simply put out more of what’s already selling until it stops selling. If books in which women are savaged happen to be selling, publishers will put out more of them. Publishers follow trends instead of taking the lead and breaking new ground.
The mostly female audience responded to the panel with frequent applause, and when the floor was opened to questions, a couple of the women present seized the chance to make speeches of their own.
All this was in marked contrast to an earlier panel called “The Dark Side of the Fair Sex” that featured Megan Abbott as moderator with panelists Chelsea Cain, Sophie Littlefield, and the lone man, Derek Nikitas. Cain, who writes about a gorgeous female serial killer named Gretchen Lowell and the mentally unbalanced male cop who both desires Gretchen and wants to lock her up, seemed amused by readers’ reactions to her characters. (She reported that her grandmother’s comment after reading the first book was that “it’s nicely bound.”) All of the panelists write dark, gritty stories about women who don’t meet society’s expectations, but I didn’t sense the struggle and frustration that was palpable when Paretsky, Saums, Flora, and Cody spoke. Why the difference? That’s food for thought in itself.