Q&A with Sisters in Crime
Catriona McPherson, immediate past president of Sisters in Crime and Report for Change team leader, talks about the changes needed in the field of mystery writing.
First, we’d love to hear a little about the annual publishing summit report that was just released. This year’s focus was diversity in publishing. If you had to sum it up in two or three choice soundbites, what would you say?
It’s a head count, a snapshot and a signpost. That is, a reckoning of the diverse mystery authors at work today in the genre as a whole and inside Sisters in Crime; an exercise in listening to LGBTQ writers, writers of color and writers with disability as they talk of their experiences; and a rolling up of sleeves and spitting on hands to try to help make things better.
How did you go about surveying your members?
It was a classic Sisters process – collegiate and collaborative – with lots of laughter and no egos. There was a team of seven working on what we needed to know and how we could best tease out the information. Some things were very straightforward – Do you identify as having a disability? – and some were much trickier – What *is* a mainstream, traditional publisher? We got a good rate for an online survey – over 30% – and the responses were pure gold, As well as the numbers and the stats they showed us, we got many members giving detailed comments and some broke anonymity to let us follow up with interviews.
Why is a study like this so important?
Sara Paretsky first said “enough is enough” about the short shrift women writers were getting in the 80s, with regard to reviews, nominations, advances and invitations to speak. Hence SinC was born. We haven’t achieved parity yet but things are better for women crime writers as a class. We had a strong sense that life for writers of color, writers with disability and LGBT writers today was a lot like life in the 80s for women writers. And we wanted to find out. The big surprise early on in the study was that we weren’t going to be wagging our fingers at “the publishers”; we needed to look closer to home too, at how SinC itself is doing.
What kind of reaction is the study receiving so far?
We’re feeling a lot of warmth. Emails and online comments have said “makes me proud to be a member” and “this will make me join SinC again”, for instance. The reception from writers in the groups we studied has brought tears to eyes, if I’m honest. “I’m not crazy then!” was one comment that spoke volumes.
We found this statistic particularly disheartening: While White, non-Hispanics make up 62% of the US population, they make up 93% of Sisters in Crime members, with the remaining 7% divided between African American (3%), Native American (1.5%), Asian (1.5%) and Hispanic (1%) authors. It seems like mainstream publishing is quite disconnected from the real world…and we know authors are turning to indie or small presses instead. Is there anything editors, agents and publishers can do to stop this tide?
Right? This is the crux. If writers are freely choosing indie and small presses – absolutely fine. But as long as the Big 5 New York publishers constitute the prestige path then it’s essential to open that path to all. How to do that? JDI. Just do it! Hire black people. Hire Latina/o people. Make it easy for a minority writer to find an editor who recognizes her stories. But it’s more than numbers in the publishing houses. Publishing is pretty gay, but LGBT writers struggle. People play the “no market” card and retreat into timidity. One of the quotes from the study that is being retweeted and shared more than any other is “We can all get with vampires and werewolves, but black women are not ‘like us’? Come on!” Instead of seeing otherness, we can all choose to see commonality. No story is any more or less universal or relevant than every other story. Jack Reacher is no more like me than Mas Harai (but I love both of them).
Sisters in Crime is dedicated to (and amazing at!) supporting female mystery writers. Do you do anything different to support diverse female writers?
This report is a first step. Recognizing that we don’t “support women” until we fight for gay and trans women in the face of homo/transphobia; we don’t “support women” until we fight for women of color in the face of racism; and we don’t “support women” until we ensure access and accommodation for women with disability. The last section of the report – Where We Go Now – offers practical ways everyone can make the much-needed changes: everything from walking through a venue to check on access for wheelchair users to making sure panels and signings are inclusive.
One thing we have done, on a very practical level, is offer the Eleanor Taylor Bland grant for emerging writers of color (named after the author of the first African American female protagonist in a series of police procedurals). See here for details.
We’re also going to carry on Frankie’s List – a database of writers of color and LGBT writers – where event organizers (SinC included) can look for authors, teachers can find role models to talk to students, librarians can build more reflective collections and everyone can find exciting new authors to read.
Finally, for now, we’re making diversity the focus of our yearly workshop on writing craft, SinC into great Writing. It’s in New Orleans on September 14th. Register here. One of the challenges that came out very clearly from the report was how to mentor young writers more effectively. With that in mind we’re offering a deep student discount to this workshop. It’s a start.
What can readers do to encourage publishing diverse writers?
Leslie Budewitz, SinC’s current president calls it the new three Rs – read, review and recommend. One of the best things any reader can do these days is post an online review. If you loved a book- tell Goodreads and Amazon. Ask your local library to buy up the backlist of earlier titles. Or buy them yourself and donate them to the collection. Ask your local bookshop to order a book; they might just order two and whoever buys the other one might tell a third party, who goes into a local bookshop and orders one and the bookseller decides to order two and . . .
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