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When is ‘Prejudice’ Really Prejudice?

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.

ITW Co-Founder and Co-President Gayle Lynds, also a woman, says basically the same thing here, and adds a great deal of information about the selection process as well.

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?

3 Comments

  1. …One must ask whether all of the nominees are personally known to you and Ms. Viets? …if not, how do you know they are all men? Or, are you both assuming, since they have names like Jake and Bill and Rudolpho that they are, in actual fact, testicle toting homonids?

    Excellent question, Wil. The only assumption that I’m making here is that that Gayle Lynds’s response to the controversy lends the necessary credibility to Viets’s complaint.

    After all, if there were women “hidden” behind male-sounding psuedonyms, what better opportunity for Lynds to reveal this fact, thereby shattering the myth that the nominations were a blatant attempt to shut women out!

  2. I have no real interest in fanning the flames of controversy (so what’s with the can of napalm under your arm, buster?) but on a quick read of this, one must ask (must one?) whether all of the nominees are personally known to you and Ms. Viets? If so, I’ll just go home (after pouring a little gel here and over there and) but, if not, how do you know they are all men? Or, are you both assuming, since they have names like Jake and Bill and Rudolpho (Rudolph – go play your reindeer games someplace else — this be serious writer stuff) that they are, in actual fact, testicle toting homonids? After all, no publisher would allow a woman to use a man’s name as a nom d’ guerre, now would they… (they wouldn’t? Horsefeathers!)

  3. As it happens, I inserted myself into this controversy, going so far as to post my comments in the very blog entry that started it.

    I could probably post quite a few entries of my own as to why these accusations don’t appear valid. That said, I do think the selections made force one to ask questions… not about how these nominees were selected, but about the publishing industry in regards to thriller writers. I think the results make one look at the limited presence of women within this genre and wonder why we don’t see more women. I’ve my thoughts on this within the original controversial post, so I won’t rehash them in detail here.

    These criticisms are about as valid as me pitching a fit about the 2006 RITA Finalists being all women. Does this mean Romance Writers of America is nothing but some left-wing, women only, man-haters club? Of course not! The nominees reflect the industry, and if I suggested otherwise, I’d look as foolish as those complaining about the ITW Awards.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.