Friday, June 23, 2006

A Conversation with Elaine Viets

Note: These are unedited emails exchanged between Elaine Viets and I on 6/23/06

From: Jason Pinter

To: EViets

Hi Elaine -

I thought I'd send an actual email since pretty much anything said now gets lost in the cacophony on the comment board.

First, I'm not and never have been belittling anything regarding the issue of sexism or gender-bias. It is a very serious issue, and I can't begin to imagine the hardships many women face because of it. I utterly sympathize with anyone who's had to overcome it, and don't pretend to be able to understand the emotions involved.

But in all honesty, I think your remarks on The Lipstick Chronicles are doing more harm than good. I agree that having all 15 nominees as men is noteworthy and upsetting, but to level charges of bias and say they don't care about works by women is incredibly presumptuous, and after seeing the fact and the remarks from the judges, irrational. If you've read the other comments, as well as the remarks by ITW co-president and co-founder Gayle Lynds, not only were half of the judges women, but only 29% of the works submitted were written by women. That, to me, is far more distressing.

But that is an issue that lies with the authors and publishers, not with ITW, since as Gayle says they made every effort to get publishers and authors to send their books. No doubt some fantastic works written by women were not submitted, and to me that's incredibly unfortunate and distressing.

ITW has only been in existence one year, and as Gayle says if you take such a small sampling from nearly any group, you can find groups (whether it be gender, race, or ethnicity) that were left out. But over time things do even out. Knowing several ITW members, both male and female, I sincerely believe they voted for the books they thought merited nominations. The fact that they were all written by men is certainly eye-opening, but I think leveling such claims and then defending them in the face of such overwhelming facts hurts the point you're trying to make. Forgive me for the vulgar comparison, but to me it's like a politician defending a policy long after it's been proven to be ineffective.

If you disagree with some of the nominees, that's perfectly fair. Nobody will ever unianimously agree on award nominations. I've had heated arguments about nominees and award-winners, but unless there's a long-term pattern of indisputable bias (like the Oscars leaving African Americans off the ballot) I would never think the judges voted because they had evil intentions in their hearts.

I'm all for having intelligent, rational discussions on this matter, and I'm fully in support of making an effort to have more books written by women submitted for the 2007 ITW awards. But bias is a very, very serious charge, and these are good people who love books. I truly believe they voted when their hearts told them to, not when their head put a gender or ethnic qualifier on it.

I think there are much more proactive measures that can be taken to right any wrongs, but saying ITW does not care about women is simply flippant mud-slinging, and undermines a very serious issue that deserves intelligent discussion.

I appreciate your taking the time to read this, and if there's a way to take these proactive measures or have a more involved discussion, I would be more than happy to take part and encourage others to do so as well.
Jason Pinter

From: EViets
To: Jason Pinter

Dear Jason:
First of all, thank you for your personal note. I really appreciate you taking the time to write. I think that both of us are focused on improving the mystery field. It's just that we are looking at it from different viewpoints -- and I am quite convinced mine is correct.
The ITW contest was ill-conceived and hastily put together, and ITW is reaping the consequences.

The organization was unable to come up with a viable definition of a thriller, and so could not judge the books properly. Its Website embraced a wide range. Its judges did not.

The judging process was further flawed by using reviewers, whom many news organizations, including the NY Times and Chicago Tribune company, consider unethical, and most organizations, including MWA, ban.
I was a reporter for many years. I can't tell you how many companies, when accused of sexism, said, "We can't find good candidates." I can tell you this. No judge in a court of law ever accepted that excuse.

Some 29 percent of the ITW entries are women, and many of those women are topflight writers with a string of nominations and awards from other groups. Yet the ITW judges still couldn't nominate one woman out of 15.

Don't blame me. Don't blame the authors and publishers for not submitting the books.

ITW has a problem. It needs to quit defending the indefensible, and fix it so it never happens again. That's when the mystery community will quit talking about this issue.
From: Jason Pinter
To: EViets
I completely agree that many of the women not nominated are topflight writers, and some of my favorite crime writers of all time as well. I think you raise some good points here, and perhaps some of the processes need to be reconsidered. I'm a member of ITW but not on the board or judging panel, but do know many who are and will be happy to discuss issues that can be remedied.

But I do think it's wrong to think the judges purposefully left females out of the nominations. We have every right to have our own opinions about who and who should not be nominated, but bias and sexism are very strong words, legally punishable if proven, and I think it was unfair to label the judges as such without a track record of discrimination, based on a sample from their very first year in existence.

I think everyone's heart is in the right place and desires the same thing--a completely fair and balanced system that rewards authors based purely on merit, male or female, black or white, etc... I believe the judges were acting in that regard, and I hope as much as you do that terrific female writers will be recognized in the future, and more importantly that the best works are recognized without any biases whatsoever.
From: EViets
To: Jason Pinter

Sorry, Jason, on this subject we must agree to disagree. Sexism is serious -- but so is eliminating an entire gender.
From: Jason Pinter
To: EViets
I'm sorry you feel this is something we "disagree" on. The judges did not "eliminate" an entire gender. This was not a conspiracy to leave women off of the nominations. Why would any organization, especially one made up of intelligent people who make their living via writing, an art form based on integrity, do such a thing?

I agree with you that sexism is a serious issue, one that should be dealt with severely. I do not believe the ITW judges--half of them being female--are biased towards women. There is a very poignant and heartfelt response on the blog by Ali Karim, an ITW judge who has experienced bigotry and prejudice, and is also a member of the Mystery Women group in the UK which promotes female crime writers. Ali took your post, which accused him of the very despicable acts he has been a victim of, quite personally as you can imagine.

I would like to share this conversation, as I think people on both sides of the issue would appreciate hearing more from the post's originator, and hopefully this can add intelligent discussion to both sides and result in an amicable resolution.
I appreciate your responses very much.
All best,


Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm not sure what to think about not using reviewers as judges.

You use other authors? Publishers? Editors? Don't authors, publishers and editors have a greater risk of ethical conflict because they could potentially stand to profit from a win by a certain book, if that author blurbed their book, or if it's a book they published?

I honestly don't know what to think of that.

But I appreciate you posting this, Jason. Certainly by now, half the world knows where I stand on the subject.

3:07 PM  
Blogger JT Ellison said...

I'm starting to think we've reached an impass. Kind of like a political arena -- you'll never get a Democrat to support Bush, and you'll never get a Bush Supporter to vote Democrat.
A shame, really. Because ITW has done such amazing work to make ThrillerFest and the awards actually mean something, rather than just being a big party.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

Just one point:

The New York Film critics nominate and award a list of best movies, best actors, best directors every year, as I'm sure do many other critics organizations.

The Golden Globes is completely fueled by the foreign press.

So the argument that reviewers don't make news is silly and using the fact that reviewers were judges is equally silly.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

Rob, that is an excellent point. There is also the Los Angeles Film Critics awards. Plus critic routinely write columns listing the best - according to them - movies, books, plays, tv shows, whatever...all the time.

5:05 PM  
Blogger Stacia said...

Gee...I love when people like that think I need them to stand up for me.

Remind me never to buy one of her books. I have a feeling I wouldn't enjoy it.

5:30 AM  
Blogger JD Rhoades said...

Remind me never to buy one of her books. I have a feeling I wouldn't enjoy it.

You know, I disagreed with Elaine Viets on this issue, but this comment bugs the shit out of me.

Read them or don't read them, but not because you have a gripe with a position the author has taken. Posting stuff like this is mean, petty, and about as personal as you can get with a writer.

8:02 AM  

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