Sisters in Crime promotes and supports under-represented voices in crime fiction. As current vice-president and award-winning crime novelist Lori Rader-Day explains via email, “[The organization’s] focus started entirely on gender parity, but, really Sisters in Crime is interested in representation of the diversity of the entire mystery community—LGBTQIA writers, disabled writers, and younger mystery writers and readers, so that the mystery genre has a long and rich life. But I don’t want diversity to sound like a prescription—we all win as readers when we have access to stories we ourselves couldn’t have written.”
That’s a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more. As a fundamentally popular genre (according to The Guardian, it recently became the bestselling genre in the United Kingdom, overtaking general and literary fiction in 2017) with the flexibility to tackle a whole range of themes, crime fiction can and should attract and retain a broad spectrum of writers and readers of all backgrounds and ages. That is not always the case, however. To that end, Sisters in Crime (SinC, of which I have been a member) has expanded its mission to do more to include authors of color, emphasized education through grants and scholarships, and through its many programs and advocacy efforts, remains committed to encouraging all writers to find a seat at the table “not by unseating someone else but by building a bigger table,” according to a statement on the organization’s website.
One of the organization’s longest running initiatives is the Monitoring Project, which began in the mid 1980s when a founding SinC member noticed that The New York Times Book Review hadn’t reviewed a book written by a woman “in months,” and volunteers determined that the books by women accounted for 6-15 percent of their total reviews. SinC’s most recent findings show that much has changed, and that despite decreases or stagnation over the past two years—for reasons that it would take a different type of study to determine: was there a different group of books or different editorial approach? Did SinC’s monitoring project or other studies have an impact?—reviews of crime novels by women have ticked back up.
Last year, national publications such as the Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the Washington Post devoted 43 percent of their crime fiction reviews to books by women; local newspapers, 45 percent; prepublication sources like Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal, 54 percent; and genre-focused magazines, 42 percent. Since the percentages aren’t linked to the percentage of published crime novels written by women each year, it’s hard to tell at what rate women authors might be under- or over-represented in reviews; nor was the organization able to obtain enough data to analyze the numbers by author diversity. However, the fact that prepublication sources review women crime writers at a much higher rate than both national publications and genre magazines raises some interesting questions.
It would be interesting to find out, for instance, whether the kinds of crime novels being reviewed by national publications and genre magazines skew differently to those reviewed by prepublication sources. One of the conclusions of the Monitoring Project is that genre-related publications (with the exception of Mystery Scene) “bundled works together under topic headings or in manners that excluded books written by females.” This suggests that women writers may be more prevalent in certain subgenres of crime fiction—such as cozies for instance—that are less reviewed by particular types of publications, and highlights how implicit preferences for certain types of writing influence who gets exposure.
In 2016, SinC published its fascinating Report for Change, which found that amongst those members who responded to its survey, writers of color, LGBT writers and writers with disabilities were roughly “30 percent less likely” to be published by the “Big 5” publishers. The report charts the experiences of its members who have been told that their stories were “too black” or “not urban enough,” who have been asked to “dump the gay content” or found that their experiences with disability were not considered noteworthy. It analyzes reasons for the lack of diversity in publishing houses (low starting pay, lack of connections) and includes suggestions that could be adopted by the wider mystery community.
Criminal justice professor at the University of Albany, mystery writer, and SinC’s first African-American president, Frankie Y. Bailey has built on the work of Eleanor Taylor Bland—author of the first series featuring an African-American female detective—to develop a list of Diverse Authors that includes women of color and LGBT writers. (Full disclosure: I am on that list.) Recognizing the difficulties faced by male writers in those groups, they have also been included on the growing list—which can be accessed through SinC’s website and used as a resource by librarians, teachers, event organizers, other writers, and, of course, readers.
What is so valuable about SinC’s approach is that it aims to be broadly inclusive, to “build a bigger table” and keep pushing the boundaries while bringing specificity to our understanding of the field of crime writing: the Monitoring Project puts numbers on information that might otherwise remain anecdotal; the Diversity Report documents the experiences of marginalized writers; and other initiatives like “Frankie’s List” give names to what might otherwise remain a nebulous group of “diverse writers.”
Mystery correspondent Radha Vatsal is the author of A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines.