Friday, April 29, 2011

Whatever Happened to Women's Fiction?

by Sheila Connolly

When this blog posts, I expect to be at the Malice Domestic convention in Maryland. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s an annual event that brings together several hundred writers and fans to celebrate traditional mysteries. It’s a lot of fun.

If you scan the crowd there, you will quickly see that the majority of attendees are women, both writers and readers. Since women make up a large of percentage of the readers of this genre, that’s not surprising. However, it’s not true of other mystery conferences such as Bouchercon, where you will see a better gender balance in the crowd. Of course, the definition of mystery there is much broader, encompassing thrillers, procedurals, suspense, etc.

The national organization Sisters in Crime, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, in 2010 commissioned a survey evaluating who buys and reads mysteries and why. The analysis showed that 65% of mystery readers are female. Why, then, do male mystery writers make more money and get more reviews? One simple (simplistic?) explanation is that women will read across the spectrum of mystery writers and subgenres, but men read books by women much less frequently than do women (and they’re also less likely to read traditional mysteries).

An article in the Southern Review of Books this month adds to the mix the fact that the publishing world is increasingly dominated by women as editors and publishers, but for all of that, in the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement, reviews of books (all genres) written by men far, far outweigh those of books written by women, sometimes by as much as three to one.

All right, perhaps I’m ranting. Many of us female writers know this, and have known it all along. I started thinking about it again recently because I’ve been reading Meg Wolitzer’s new book, The Uncoupling, published last month. In the story the women of a small New Jersey town all stop sleeping with the men in their lives—and yes, the Greek play Lysistrata plays a role in the book). It’s not a Mystery (although it may be a mystery)—there’s no crime, no blood, no officers of the law poking around. But it felt familiar, and I realized that was because it reminded me of a crop of books that came out in the 1970s—books by Alison Lurie, Gail Godwin, Fay Weldon, Marilyn French and their peers. These were books about relationships and characters—mainly women. Women as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends (not necessarily in that order). The books were labeled “women’s fiction.”

Somewhere along the line the term acquired negative connotations, although I’m not sure why. But to come full circle, I think I write the kind of mystery I do—call it traditional or cozy or amateur sleuth—because of these books, many of which are still on my bookshelf. In all my books my protagonists are women who happen to solve crimes. They’re smart, they’re independent, and they understand people, and that’s how they unravel murders. At least, that’s what I’m aiming for. And that’s why it’s such a pleasure to go to Malice Domestic, which gathers together lots of intelligent, interesting women who enjoy that kind of book.

One final note: just this week Harvard history professor and author Jill Lepore wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “Poor Jane’s Almanac.” It’s about one of Benjamin Franklin’s many sisters, one who wrote to him regularly, and the one to which he wrote most often—and their letters have survived. A woman who could read in Jane’s 18th-century world was a rarity. Jane Franklin did not lead an easy or happy life, and yet she never stopped reading or writing. Nor do women now, with or without accolades or reviews or recognition. That’s why I wouldn’t miss attending Malice.

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