Thursday, June 22, 2006

Gender Specific

This could be a powder keg, but I can't ignore it.

Yesterday, Elaine Viets over at The Lipstick Chronicles wrote a post accusing the International Thriller Writers organization of blatant sexism and bias in the fact that the nominees for their three major awards (Best Novel, Best First Novel, and Best Paperback Original) were all male. This sparked a heated debate with pundits appearing on both sides of the issue. I made my thoughts very clear, (noting that no Jews or African Americans were nominated either) and was consequently told to "shut up" and informed that ITW was in trouble if someone like me had to defend it. And I was HAPPY to be roasted like this, because in my opinion the roasts were as thoughtless as the accusations themselves.

All they did was prove my point, that these were rash comments made without any intelligent thought, and did more to harm the dialogue than help it. I can understand why women would be upset at these results. I honestly can. But there's a large gap between being upset about something, and spewing such venom.

Now ITW and their awards must be put in context. This is ITW's very first year in existance, and has not even had their inaugural conference yet. ITW is made up of approximately 227 men and 137 women (I counted off the website, apologies if I'm off a couple in either direction). They include Harley Jane Kozak, who blogs at The Lipstick Chronicles. The membership is open to all authors--male and female--who have published (or will be publishing) work by a mainstream press than can be defined by ITW as a "Thriller." So right off the bat, 62.4% of the membership is male. In total, 290 books were submitted for the awards (available on the public record here). Approximately 68% of the submissions were books written by men.

Now, the fact that 15 out of 15 nominees were male is noteworthy, and perhaps upsetting, but only if you argue personal taste. The fact is over 50% of the ITW judges are female. It's fair to assume that because the majority of books considered were written by men, the majority of books nominated would be written by men (but I guarantee you if the best 15 books were written by women as agreed upon by the judges, the results would reflect that).

If 68% of the books submitted were written by men, the odds state that 10 or 11 of the 15 nominees would be men. 15 out of 15 is an outcome that's interesting, but isn't that much of a statistical leap. There are many wonderful female thriller writers, but the fact is both female and male judges voted for those they felt were most deserving. If you want to argue Writer X deserved the award more than Writer Y, that's fine. I do that all the time. Awards at their heart are subjective, the judges voting for who they think are deserving. There has never been unanimous agreement over an award, and there never will be.

Gayle Lynds, a master of the genre and one of ITW's judges (and yes, a female), made these comments on Backspace:

"You'll note that at least half of the judges were women. I suspect that the fact that only men were nominated was a statistical anomalie. As an author (not as a woman who has spent her life battling sexism), I could complain that some women weren't nominated. At the same time, I could also complain that no people of color were. I'm not sure about whether any Muslims or religions other than Christian or Jewish were nominated, but I think they weren't either. There also might be a preponderance of nominees from one section of the United States, which could be taken as a prejudice favoring that area. As long as awards are given in whatever field, there are always going to be those who say, "I wish it were otherwise. And because it isn't, it's prejudice." The only time there's really an institutional problem, at least in my mind, is when there is a history of one group of people being obviously ignored. Since this is ITW's first year, we have no track record. We have done our very best to create a level playing field for all authors in which it is impossible for anyone to bribe, threaten, or somehow influence our judges.My hat is off to our judges, who worked very hard, read many books, and basically had to create their own systems from scratch, since they were the first. All are excellent authors. None has any prejudices that any of us know about. They did a sincere and worthy job, and I respect them for it."

I say shame on the Lipstick Chronicle bloggers and commentors who threw such a heinous label at an organization that seeks, at its very heart, to promote books and reading. They didn't try to learn about the issue or put it in context, they didn't bother to explore ITW as a whole or even consider who the judges were, what books were considered, or how long the organization had been in existence. They merely saw a chance to get up on their high horse and claim moral superiority, despite the fact that the horse was lame.

To me this irresponsible dialogue is far more damaging to the cause than anything ITW has done. Bias is never something that should be taken lightly, and if clear should be dealt with as severly as possible. But to slander with such impunity is reckless and merely weakens the point you're trying to make. I'd like to thank other authors and ITW members for making their points known in the posting, and I'd very much like to hear more from the other Lipstick Chronicle members who have remained suspiciously silent on the issue.

I can't begin to imagine what it's like to deal with sexism, and I truly sympathize with anyone who has had to overcome hardships imposed by it. But I will not stand for baseless accusations, where name-calling is used in lieu of rational thought, where venom seeks to counteract intelligence, and a self-serving agenda is argued despite all evidence that contradicts it.

UPDATE: Sandra Ruttan has a response directly from ITW co-founder and co-president Gayle Lynds on her blog.

14 Comments:

Blogger JT Ellison said...

A very well reasoned post, Jason. Jumping to conclusions is never a good idea. ITW has done wonders in its first year. 8 of the 32 contributing writers of the short story anthology THRILLER were women. The head of the organization is... a woman. The lead marketing contact is... a woman. The coordinator of the ITW event ThrillerFest is ...a woman.
If I thought for a minute that ITW was truly discriminating against women, I would have pulled my membership. I don't, and I won't. I'm proud to be a member.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Jason, fantastic job. I'm sure someone will smack me for saying this, if not to my face then behind my back, but when women rush off and make accusations without even putting the question to the peoplw behind ITW and giving them a chance to respond, they give weight to the idea that women are irrational and fly off the handle, depending on which way their mood is swinging at the moment.

If we want to be treated like serious professionals, we have to act like them. I've posted my 2 cents over at my own blog as well, defending the ITW, and I've corresponded with the people who participated in the judging. I'm hoping to have a comment to post on it directly from them.

You really did a superb job with this post.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Brett Battles said...

Ahem, brother. Dead on right. Sexism and prejudice are evil things that should not be tolerated. But to toss those accusations around without looking at everything, without any historical record, without thinking it through is just as untolerable.

I'm linking this. Anything I might say would only be repeating you.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

Face it, Jason, they were upset because the authors THEY love were not nominated.

Remember when Lipmann wasn't nominated for an Edgar? People freaked.

It's all pretty silly.

As I said over at LC, the judges read a boatload of books, chose the ones they liked best, and the chips fell where they fell.

If this were to happen over a ten year span, you might have something to complain about.

2:53 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

On the Lipstick blog, I mentioned that in the 78 year history of the Academy Awards, out of 780 nominees only 17 African Americans have been nominated for either "Best Actor" or "Best Actress." That's pretty unmistakable bias.

But charging an organization of it after one year because, like Brett says, YOUR favorite authors didn't make the cut is plain ignorant.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Whoops, meant what ROB said, not Brett.

Guess I'm biased towards guys named Rob.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Bill Cameron said...

I wrote for about a mile over there, and I danced around some of your own points, but I think you've nicely crystallized the key issues here. Well said.

3:16 PM  
Blogger December Quinn said...

Oooh, this kind of thing is a big pet peeve of mine. Who cares what gender or whatever the writers are? Should the judges pass over works of merit just so they can be sure they have x number of minorities nominated?

In fact, I'm too irritated (and currently surrounded by punchy, yelling children) to continue.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Linda Adams said...

I also think everyone is overreacting, and they're not thinking about other causes as to why women didn't make it on the list.

The thriller (and suspense) genre still doesn't have a good genre definition. There are no good books on how to write it and what the genre requirements are. Plus many people think it's a subgenre of mystery. How can the genre be judged if no one understands what it is?

Worse still is that most of the women writers are clustered in the area we have the most problems with genre ambiguity--crime fiction. Is it a mystery, a suspense, or a thriller?

But ... here's the kicker. There's, by my count, at least a doezen subgenres of thriller--most having nothing to do with crime. Three of the best book entries are in those subgenres; two in crime. Few women write in the other subgenres, like political thriller, action-adventure, legal thriller, etc. If ITW is trying to do a good representation of the different kinds of thrillers, we end up with a lopsided balance because the women are only writing a tiny percentage of the subgenres.

I would love to read more thrillers by women--especially in the subgenre I'm writing in (action-adventure), but I'm simply not seeing it.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Bill Cameron said...

Linda, I think you bring up an excellent point, one which Bill The Wildcat has made in a slightly different way in other blogs today. I suspect that had the original post taken a different, less confrontational, accusatory tack, the discussion could have been both more civil and more fruitful.

The question of why the first shortlist for the ITW awards was all men is a valid one. That question wasn't actually addressed in the original post, unfortunately. Things just got heated from there.

Frankly, I can understand frustration, and sometimes frustration gets the better of you. But a little investigation might have resulted a different post, one more productive, one that could have led more easily to a reasoned discussion of your point and others.

7:01 PM  
Blogger SAND STORM said...

I think they went off on a tangent without checking the facts, this unfortunately happens a little to often in the blogosphere. The good thing is that enough people who do have the facts can offer their rebuttle and we as readers hopefully get the truth through the process.

3:25 AM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

I mentioned that in the 78 year history of the Academy Awards, out of 780 nominees only 17 African Americans have been nominated for either "Best Actor" or "Best Actress." That's pretty unmistakable bias.

Is it really bias?

Best actor nods often go hand in hand with bets picture nods. How many best picture nominees had an African American lead?

If there were equal numbers of black and white leading men in nominated films, and the whites always won, that would be bias.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I agree with Linda. What is the next logical step? Quotas? Separate contests by gender?

What a sad world we would live in if book awards were split into categories by gender. It makes some sense in sports - women and men are built differently and have different hormones defining their body chemistry, so it stands to reason they would throw differently, run differently, swim differently, and therefore be judged separately.

But writing? I'd rather jump off a tall building than win an award because my entry fulfilled a gender quota, or because I was judged separately from male authors.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

J.A. -

Considering that barely 2% of best actor/actress awards have gone to African Americans, and less than three percent of overall acting awards (45 out of 1560), it seems a little shady to me.

Granted many of these awards were handed out in the 1930's and 40's when racism was much more overt. It's certainly gotten better recently, with wins by Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx et al. But you have a point in that most Best Picture nominees don't have black leads, or black directors or screenwriters. Hopefully that's something that will be remedied soon.

Though I'm still shocked Morgan Freeman wasn't nominated for "Seven."

12:01 PM  

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