a genre question

I’ve started reading Dorothy Sayers recently, and it made me reflect on something.

In the genre of romance, the vast majority of the writers, and especially the big-name ones, are women — to the point where (so I’ve heard) a man who decides to write romance will almost invariably do so under a female pseudonym. In fantasy and science fiction, the big names in genre history skew male instead, and we still have periodic slapfights about insufficient recognition for female writers.

In mystery, it seems to me that there’s something more like balance.

You still get splits along subgenre lines; noir is more associated with men, cozies with women. But in the genre as a whole, if you start lining up the big names both past and present, you’ve got Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Sayers, Elmore Leonard and Sue Grafton, and many, many more. There are a lot of acknowledged and admired female writers, without mystery/crime/detective fiction being viewed as inherently a “female” genre.

Or maybe not. I’ve taken occasional dips in the mystery pool, but it isn’t a genre I read extensively. So tell me if I’m wrong. But it really does seem like mystery, of all the genre categories out there, does the best job of balancing this factor. Does anybody else think the same?

0 Responses to “a genre question”

  1. coraa

    I wonder (but do not have the genre knowledge to say) whether mystery authors break down along gender lines more in subgenres. I’m fairly sure more ‘cozies’ are written by women than by men (although men do write them), but I’m not sure if that follows outside the cozy mystery subgenre.

    • Marie Brennan

      All the hard-boiled detective writers I can think of are men, at least in terms of the classic names, so I do think there’s still some amount of segregation — but not as intensely as there is in non-mystery genres.

      • querldox

        I can think of a couple of exceptions; I’d tend to put Patricia Cornwall as hard-boiled, and Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawski) is pretty definitely hard-boiled.

        • Marie Brennan

          I really don’t know past the classic names; it doesn’t surprise me to hear there are female examples from more recent decades.

        • nihilistic_kid

          Also, more recent male writers such as Joe Konrath have gone by presumably gender-neutral initials (J.A. Konrath) in order to sell their hard-boiled material to women.

          • Marie Brennan

            Interesting! There are so many tales of female writers doing that to pass muster with male readers, but not so many in the other direction — and it’s especially intriguing to know that happens in such a seemingly masculine genre as hard-boiled detective fiction.

          • nihilistic_kid

            It happens a lot. Tim, of course, was T.A. Pratt for the same exact reason.

          • Marie Brennan

            For urban fantasy, though, which (in its current incarnation) is viewed as being feminine. So that’s more along the lines of male romance authors using female pseudonyms.

  2. mrissa

    I think so. I think that work is as likely to be respected in the mystery genre from either sex of author, so even where there might be trends in sub-genre, nobody’s all “Oh, Dorothy Sayers, she’s a girly writer.”

    • Marie Brennan

      I imagine cozies might be thought of as girly, or series where the central theme/gimmick is something feminine (like sewing), but I don’t get the sense that a female byline carries the same weight (or rather, lack thereof) across the genre as it does, even now, in SF/F.

  3. la_marquise_de_

    The usual perception over here is that, at least in the early period, crime fiction in the UK was predominantly written by women — Christie, Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, even Georgette Heyer — while the US scene was predominantly male — Hammett, Chandler. There were men writing crime-ish stuff, but it was more in the thriller vein — people like Leslie Charteris, John Buchan and Dornford Yates. The first major UK male crime writer I can think of off the top of my head is probably Michael Innes, who I think started in the 60s, but there will be others, I’m sure. But our shelves were dominated by the women still and the new names that came through in the 70s and early 80s in the UK were also female — Ruth Rendell, P D James, Val McDiarmid. Most of the crime books I recall seeing by men then were still US — there were a few UK writers — Innes, Paul Raven — but the big names were people like Ed McBain. The UK men were still predominantly in the spy and thriller line back then (Dick Francis, AListair Maclean, Desmond Bagley, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth…) These days the shelves look to me to be roughly 40% female, 60% male, and the UK/US divide is far less marked (although most of the writers of historical crime I can think of are British).

    • Marie Brennan

      Interesting! I hadn’t thought about it breaking down along national lines in the way you describe. Most of the people you name off aren’t familiar to me, but then again, I’ve already admitted I’m not a big mystery reader; this was basically sparked by me thinking about Christie and Sayers, and their prominence as compared to early women SF/F writers.

      Do you think the mystery readership in the UK early on skewed female, or that the genre was viewed as “girly”? Or did it get more cross-gender respect?

      • la_marquise_de_

        I think mysteries were perceived as a suitable genre for women to write for some reason, but all the early reader-references I can think of to their books come from men. (Tolkien was very scathing about Lord Peter, but had clearly read many of them anyway.) Writers like Tey and Sayers were known as literary critics and playwrights as well as crime novelists and this gained them respect and an audience. It was somehow seen as more suitable for them to plot murder in a cerebral way than to write in the more active thriller mode. Allingham, however, wrote most of her books as pastiches on the various genres of the time, and her books are very well crafted: she’s my favourite of the golden age writers, but they are very British in a very specific way. (If you haven’t read Tey’s The Daughter of Time, btw, I recommend it — it’s dated somewhat, but it’s still one of the classic studies of Richard III.It’s framed as a investigation conducted by a police officer who is stuck in hospital with a broken leg and needing a distraction.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Neat! Thanks for the rec.

        • shui_long

          You’ve beaten me to it… and we seem to have remarkably similar tastes! I would agree with your analysis supra that female writers dominated “crime” in the golden age of the 30s to the 50s, whereas male writers were better known for “thrillers”. You might add John Dickson Carr on the other side of that balance (American, but lived in England and his best books are firmly in the English mould), Edmund Crispin, Nicholas Freeling, and Michael Gilbert (though he has written both “crime” and “thrillers”).
          Relatively few current writers of “crime” find a permanent place on my shelves, but I am not parting with my collection of Allingham, Carr, Crispin, Innes, Marsh, Sayers and Tey. PD James is there on the strength of her earlier books; the more recent ones would not justify a place. I feel rather the same way about John Le Carre. Colin Dexter is on the “keeper” list, though I’m a bit more ambivalent about Reginald Hill. Anthony Price on the cerebral thriller end of the spectrum; Lindsey Davis for her historical (Roman) crime series.
          Any suggestions for current crime writers that I should at least try?

          • la_marquise_de_

            I knew there was someone I’d forgotten — than k you for reminding me of Crispin!. You’re right, we have very similar tastes — I agree 100% on James, Le Carre and Dexter — the thing I really love about the latter is how clean and well-structured they are.
            In more recent writers, I like Michelle Spring, who sets her books in Cambridge, where I live and Janet Neel (who seemed to have vanished). And then there was the late Kate Ross, who was terrific but only wrote 4 books. Who else — Chaz Brenchley’s early thrillers — spooky and scary and elegant; Susan Hill’s Simon Seraillier books, which are really literary fiction but brood nicely; Henning Mankell; Karin Fossum; Miyuki Miyabe.

          • shui_long

            Thank you for the suggestions – much appreciated. Cambridge doesn’t seem to have attracted the crime-writers to the same extent as Oxford (proverbially the home of lost corpses…), so I shall certainly look out for Michelle Spring for a start. Janet Neel could have made it onto my list: nothing since 2005, so perhaps she is too busy as Baroness Cohen in the House of Lords (where I hope her considerable skills in fiction are not being applied to expense claims). I could also have included the late Sarah Caudwell, who published only four books – great fun (unless you’re allegic to lawyers).

          • la_marquise_de_

            Oh, yes — Sarah Caudwell was amazing. She’s another who died too soon.

      • shui_long

        There used to be a view in the UK that “detective fiction” was an acceptable form of light relief for university dons, clergy, lawyers and other members of the .. err ..”educated classes”. Who were, until the last 30 years, predominantly male. It was said that you would find a shelf of green-back Penguins in most vicarages. I suppose detective fiction was regarded as sufficiently intellectual for such company, and remaining thoroughly respectable, without any of the negative overtones of the “thriller” or “SF” – and quite safe to share that taste with the vicar’s wife, or housekeeper, or parishioners.

  4. kurayami_hime

    For what it’s worth

    Miyuki Miyabe is Japan’s #1 bestselling mystery writer (at least according to the front of a book on my shelf). She’s won two national literary prizes and writes across genres (most people in the US are probably familiar with Brave Story).

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: For what it’s worth

      I don’t suppose you have any sense of women’s positions in other Japanese genres? Female SF writers, or non-shoujo mangaka, or whatever?

      • kurayami_hime

        Re: For what it’s worth

        Not a clue. I’d point out that Japan’s literary tradition is traced back to Murasaki Shikibu, and direct you to this list of Kodansha Award winners. The Twelve Kingdoms is by a woman (Fuyumi Ono) and is a giant fantasy epic; I already mentioned Brave Story. There is a Japanese Science Fiction Award, but the website hasn’t been updates since 2008. The above is very disjointed and lacking in transitions, but I don’t care.


      • pentane

        Re: For what it’s worth

        Tvtropes has a lot of interesting reading on manga subgenres and how they track to audiences. I’m not sure it gets so much into the gender of the writer, but it’s probably pretty easy to figure out too.

  5. toddalcott

    On a recent long drive, my wife put in The 39 Clues book-on-CD to entertain the kids, and it worked like gangbusters — both my son and daughter, 8 and 7, went berserk for it. My girl doesn’t like scary, but she loves mystery, and it occurred to me for the first time that Mystery is a gender-neutral genre.

    I’ll also point out that Horror movies, I was surprised to learn, are a market driven by teenage girls, the opposite of what I thought to be the case.

    • Marie Brennan

      I loved mysteries as a kid — read Nancy Drew all through elementary school. I remember a lot of Plucky Girl Detective types for me to admire and/or identify with, growing up.

      I’ll also point out that Horror movies, I was surprised to learn, are a market driven by teenage girls, the opposite of what I thought to be the case.

      Interesting. Care to expand on this? I’d love to know more.

      • toddalcott

        Around the time the remake of Prom Night came out, there was a piece in one of the trades about how this kind of genre picture, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and My Bloody Valentine, etc, slasher pictures I suppose, cater not to an audience of anti-social teenage boys but to an audience of teenage girls. And then it clicked for me — they’re movies about women in danger, and often the main character is a woman (which goes back to Halloween. I had always understood the genre to be inherently misogynist, with the scantily-clad teen girls paying a steep price for their promiscuity, but apparently the teen girls don’t see it that way. Or rather, for whatever reason, a slasher movie makes for a good “teen girl night out” kind of movie in the same way that Sex and the City is supposed to be. The audience likes to be scared, likes to feel that thrill, likes to do so in packs, and if the studio keeps the budget low enough, they can’t actually lose money on the thing.

        • Marie Brennan

          My guess was that it had to do with the Final Girl trope — but I’d be interested to see this broken down by types of horror, and what happens when you get the torture-porn end of things.

  6. auriaephiala

    IMHO the balance only really existed in the U.S. starting in the 1980s, post-Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Sisters in Crime. Before then, crime fiction was a lot more male-dominated. Certainly pre-Muller there were effectively no women PI’s.

    I know that Sisters in Crime spent many years promoting women authors, and initially it wasn’t easy.

    In the UK, the situation was better: see this list of Detection Club members, for example: http://hem.passagen.se/orange/deteclub.htm .

    • Marie Brennan

      Good point. And it’s worth asking, how did Sisters in Crime succeed? I don’t actually know, but I’d be curious to hear details.

  7. doriscrockford2

    I was wondering about the comment that in the US detection novels were written by men, and in the UK they were written by women, which prompted me to look up the original members of The Detection Club formed here in the UK in 1930. Of the original 14 members, only 5 were women (Agatha Christie, DLS, Jessie Rickard, Baroness Orczy and Margaret Cole). The men included some names still familiar today and considered classic authors in the genre: Freman Wills Crofts, G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, R. Austin Freeman and Anthony Berkeley, among others. And looking at the list of presidents of the club, with the exception of Agatha and DLS, they’ve all been men.

    I have been known to dip into “cozies” when I need some comfort reading, and I know that some of the so-called female authors are either men writing under a pseudonym or husband and wife teams writing under a female name. It’s probably just a marketing thing: the publishers think the gender of the author is important, whereas most readers think the quality of the writing is important. 🙂

    • shui_long

      I would most definitely agree that readers don’t particularly care about the gender of the author (this one certainly doesn’t). I would, however, argue that of the “golden age” detective story authors, some of the women seem to have lasted much better than many of their male contemporaries. Maybe that is partly a function of television adaptations (Christie, of course, but also DLS and Margery Allingham)? The Lord Peter Wimsey novels are very firmly of their time and cultural setting, but still stand up to re-reading. GK Chesterton is absolutely classic, but some of the authors you listed now seem horribly dated.

    • Marie Brennan

      As says, what’s interesting is who’s lasted. I’m actually thinking much more about current perception of the genre than historical reality — but even the historical reality includes a lot higher percentage of women (more than a third!) than any comparable poll of SF/F in the 30s would. (And way lower of a percentage than romance would show, I suspect.)

      • shui_long

        To respond to the original question, then, at least in the UK there doesn’t seem to be any particular view of crime writing as biased by gender. Some of the best known writers, now as well as in the past, are women but it seems a pretty open field.
        Unlike urban fantasy, which now seems to be marketed in the same bracket as “paranormal romance” and prejudiced towards female authors (and presumably mainly female readers?), with cover designs to suit.

  8. kattahj

    I think it’s probably a pretty good balance. Admittedly, I’ve mostly been reading cozies myself, but when I, for instance, think of famous Swedish mystery writers, the names that come to mind are Maria Lang (f), Sjöwall/Wahlöö (a m/f team), Henning Mankell (m), Liza Marklund (f), Stieg Larsson (m) and Camilla Läckberg (f). Though I haven’t read all of those, so I don’t know if there’s any difference in genre.

  9. Anonymous

    These observations about apparent auctorial+ gender are sort of the flip side of CoverFail last summer (the controversy over the caucasian-featured illustration of noncaucasian female character in Justine Larbalestier’s Liar). What they really point out is this:
    * Some figures within the publishing industry — relying upon untested received wisdom — believe x about some external aspect of a work (e.g., “authors of romance novels must have feminine, or at least not overtly masculine, names”)
    * Those figures within the publishing industry project their own preferences on the received wisdom onto the actual buying public… and, due to the magic of the industry’s culture of secrecy, ignore all inconsistent evidence
    * Meanwhile, the actual buying public doesn’t give a {disgusting creature}’s {disgusting anatomical designation} about that external aspect of the work… or, at least, does so at such a low correlation that it wouldn’t be statistically significant
    * And even more meanwhile, the industry resists every attempt to scientifically test that received wisdom

    The ghost of Mary Ann Evans is laughing all the way to the English 214 syllabus.

    + Yeah, it’s pretentious, but there really is a difference for this purpose between “authorial” (relates to the natural person) and “auctorial” (relates to the apparent public persona). Some good had to come out of auteur theory…

    • Marie Brennan

      The distinction between “authorial” and “auctorial” is actually useful — I don’t think I’d ever seen that laid out clearly before. As for the rest of it . . . the publishing ship, she is verrrrrrrrrrry slow to turn. <sight>

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