The International Thriller Writers became embroiled in controversy just before its first convention.
If you read the list of nominees for the inaugural edition of Thriller Awards, (and if you’re looking for it), you’ll notice that all of the nominees are men. At this point, you might come to the conclusion that author Elaine Viets has:
“It’s tough to define an award-winning thriller, but the new International Thriller Writers has succeeded: It’s anything written by a man.”
If I had looked at the nominees list prior to reading about the controversy, I would have recognized some names, recognized some titles, likely agreed with some of the nominations and disagreed with others. But I doubt I would have taken any notice of the gender of each nominee.
Those of you who happen to be females may say to yourselves, “Well sure you wouldn’t notice: you’re a man, so it would seem natural to you to see only men.”
If you look through that list, you can also try to analyze the religions of all of the nominees. Or their geographical location. Or their sexual orientation. Or what kind of thrillers they’ve written. In other words, if you look hard enough for a missing statistic, you’ll probably find one sooner or later. And then will that be more evidence of prejudice?
If I did notice that all of the nominees were men, I still wouldn’t have automatically assumed that it had to be a conspiracy. But you can bet that others who noticed aren’t as quick to rule out that possibility, and they have concluded that the ITW is a “men-only” club that completely ignores female writers.
But here’s another snag in this theory: in certain categories, three out of five judges were female. This means that in some categories, women were in the majority. Yet they still came up with a nominees list of men only. What does this mean? That these women must also be prejudiced against women? Or that the two men somehow managed to convince the women to vote against “their own?”
Could it not mean that these women also just happened to believe that this year’s noteworthy thrillers deserving of an award in the specific categories just happen to have been written by men, with no further message intended that women produce generally inferior work?
I have a hard time believing that there are so many people who really focus on this kind of thing. I’ve read thrillers written by men and by women. When I browse the book store aisles, I look first for authors I’ve heard of. After that, I look for covers that catch my eye. If your book catches my eye, and if the jacket copy and first chapter looks like it’s a story I’d be interested in, I don’t care about the gender of the author. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. A good writer is a good writer: male or female, Jewish or Protestant, Southern or “Yankee,” gay or straight, and on and on. I buy plenty of books that don’t even feature an author’s photo, so in some cases, I literally no next to nothing about the author, and I’m fine with that. If he or she can hold my attention, I’ll appreciate their work, and that’s why I would buy the book in the first place.
It would be one thing if this were a situation like the charges of racism in the publishing industry that Millenia Black has blogged about. (I’ve written about them here, here and here, just to get you started.) Black points to a long-held pattern in publishing that has gone on forever. The evidence she and others provide leaves little doubt that there is an attitude in the publishing industry that forces black authors into niche markets regardless of the content of their stories.
But there’s a difference here: when it comes to the ITW, there’s no pattern: the ITW is a relatively new organization and this is its first awards list. Perhaps it’s not too unreasonable to suggest that it’s a little early to dismiss them as being a bunch of chauvenists.
But regardless of whether you accept as gospel the notion that the ITW intentionally shut out female writers intentionally, it comes down to this: let’s assume that this list of winners is the result of some kind of gender prejudice. Let’s say you’re in charge of making sure it doesn’t happen again. What do you do?
How many women must be included on the list before the ITW is “cleared” of sexism? If each category has at least one female writer, is that enough, or is that just creating “token girls?” What about a category with five nominees? The world population is more than 50% women, so does this mean that each category of five should feature at least three women to match the demographics?
Must we stop and look at the statistics of the number of female thriller authors published the previous year versus male authors and have the gender makeup of each category mirror that statistic? Or, to be fair, should the second year of nominees be exclusively women just to balance everything out?
Once you’ve decided that the ITW is a bunch of sexist pigs, what — if anything — does it take to change your mind?