@SheKilda SheSays - We Live in Interesting Times by P.M. Newton
We live in Interesting Times Sisters. It’s been ten years since the inaugural SheKilda Women’s Crime Convention, twenty years since the establishment of Sisters In Crime in Australia, twenty five years since the creation of Sisters in Crime in America, and in 2011 discussion about women’s writing has dominated the literary landscape – to a greater degree than discussion of the actual writing done by women.
In the early months of 2011 VIDA, an America lobby group for women in the arts released a set of statistics. The numbers, and what they represented, ricocheted around the English speaking reading and writing community, galvanizing women writers in a way that would have reminded sisters with long memories of the late 1980s and the birth of the American branch of Sisters in Crime.
So what were the VIDA statistics, and why did they get so many women so very angry?
VIDA had conducted a year’s research into the exposure women’s writing received in newspapers, journals and literary magazines. The Count, as they called it, counted how many books written by women were reviewed and how many women wrote the reviews or essays in these publications. The results, across the board, confirmed statistically the niggling sense many women writers already had – the literary landscape is still predominantly a male one. When the local numbers were crunched, the situation in Australia was found to reflect the international findings.
The tipping point occurred when, for the second time in three years, Australia’s premiere literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, found not one work written by a woman worthy of shortlisting. A group of influential and respected women decided they’d had enough. If it was good enough for the British to have the Orange Prize, then Australia could have something similar. And so, The Stella Prize was born, named appropriately after Stella Marie Miles Franklin, who’d had to pretend she was a man to get published.
At this point I think, Stella, it’s time I introduced you to Ellen, Ellen Davitt.
I reckon Ellen would be wishing Stella and her sisters well, just as she would no doubt recognise much of the flack they are attracting. Looking back from 2011 to the late 1980s when Sara Paretsky mobilized women crime writers to form Sisters in Crime, it’s possible to feel two conflicting emotions; despair that we still seem to be having the same conversations about women writing being under-represented in reviews, awards and respect; and great pride in the prescience and courage of those women in realising that if the sisters wanted to raise their profiles, then they’d have to do it themselves.
Lack of access to review pages and to awards marginalizes and denigrates women’s writing. This is not a new phenomena or one only recently noticed. It was a catalyst for Phyllis Whitney’s letter to the Mystery Writers of America pointing out their apparent reluctance to nominate women writers for awards.
In Australia this lack was addressed in 1994 with the establishment of the Scarlet Stiletto for short stories in 1994, and the Davitt Awards in 2001. The rising numbers of entries into both these awards speaks to the success of the Sisters in Crime in achieving their goal of nurturing the professional development of women crime writers.
It can’t be ignored, however, that this success has taken place within a wider world – one in which as the VIDA stats so brutally exposed, women’s writing in general, and women’s genre writing in particular, still struggles to find space in the books pages. It’s a world in which a new writer, such as myself, can identify with women who write under the name of Miles, or Henry, or George, when I make a strategic decision to use initials on my book cover.
My reasons were multiple, I wanted to preserve a level of anonymity (having worked as a cop), and I most certainly wanted the book to appeal to the widest range of possible readers. Whilst I can rely on women readers of crime to read across genders, male readers of crime – well, they’re another story.
An illuminating conversation with a male friend on this topic revealed that he was conscious of sitting on a train or a bus or a plane with a book that had a woman’s name on the cover, but that he hadn’t really been aware of it until we spoke.
An androgynous name on the cover would, I hoped, mean that the busy bloke on the run through the airport bookshop would not hesitate to pick up the crime book with the gritty cover and the blurbs naming "The Wire" and "Underbelly". As a new writer, an Australian writer, up against the heavy hitters from the USA, the UK and Scandinavia I know my career will live, or die, on sales. I want to write more books. That means I need to do what I can to sell enough to be given the opportunity to do so.
I now have anecdotal evidence to back up my gut feeling that initials were the way to go. Blokes who “don’t read women” have unwittingly read my book; picked it up in the airport, picked it up from their wife, enjoyed it, only to then be told by gleeful spouses that they’d just read a women writer - these stories are passed on to me by women.
We’ve come a long way sisters but it must be said the landscape Stella is looking out on would look familiar to Ellen, and the need for an advocacy group, such as Sisters in Crime, is as vital today as it was back in 1986.
So Stella Marie, I’d like you to meet Ellen, I think you two gals should get a drink, sit down and have a good long chat.
P.M. Newton is the author of The Old School, published by Penguin in 2010. The Old School was shortlisted for The Indie Awards Debut Fiction, The Ned Kelly Award First Fiction and was joint winner of The Asher Literary Award.