SheKilda and women’s crime writing in Australia

It’s when someone asks you to contribute a blog post on the state of female crime writing in Australia from the point of someone watching the industry, that you realise you just don’t read enough.

Not nearly enough.

That said, in my view, female crime writing in this country looks in rude health.

Exhibit A is SheKilda this weekend, the women’s crime writing conference I’ve been asked to write this blog post to coincide with. There’ll be 60 speakers spanning fiction, true crime, young adult, ‘crimance’ and screenwriting. With the exception of the Crime and Justice Festival, there’s nothing else like it.

The 53 books by local female writers entered in the current Davitt awards for female crime writing, is Exhibit B.

It’s when you make statements like these that you come up against claims female crime writers are discriminated in reviewing and awards. Certainly, studies overseas have shown that female writers are vastly underrepresented in the review sections of newspapers. I presume the same is true here.

Awards? Let’s look at the top categories for the last ten years of the Ned Kelly Awards, 2002 – 2011.

The results are fairly split in the category of true crime. Five women have won it (it was tied between two women in 2007) and five men (with the result being tied between two men in 2002).

Seven men have won best first book and three women, although for two years it was tied between two men, so that effectively makes it nine men to three women.

One woman has won best book, Gabrielle Lord for Death Delights in 2002. In 2009 and 2006 it was tied between two men, so that makes it eleven to one in favour of men in the best book category.

I don’t want these figures to be seen as a cheap shot at the Ned Kelly organisers who undertake what must be a hard and largely thankless task each year.

But they lend some weight to claims it’s not a level playing field in terms of awards for male and female crime writers. They are also an interesting contrast to the generally accepted wisdom that women make up the majority of the crime reading public.

But what does this tell us about the state of female crime writing in Australia? Here it gets hard for me to disentangle the state of Australian women’s crime writing from crime writing and the publishing industry more broadly.

Earlier this year, I attended a panel of mainstream and alternative experts on the state of the Australian publishing industry. Looking over my notes from the session, the words ‘flux’ and ‘panic’ got used a bit. There was also a fair bit of talk about ‘static sales’ and what this meant: smaller advances, shorter, fewer authors so that publishing houses can put more effort into getting a smaller number of books exposure.

And everyone is finding it hard to come to grips with e-books and what this means for the industry.

The best quote from the session was this: “What’s working? We don’t really know. If we did we’d do it.”

In terms of general trends, historical crime fiction (think Kerry Greenwood, Malla Nunn and Carolyn Morwood) has always been big and shows every sign of staying that way. No surprises there.

Rural/urban fringe crime seems to be emerging as an increasingly popular sub-genre. One very successful crime book in the US at the moment is a collection of short stories called Crimes in Southern Indianna by a factory worker called Frank Bill. It’s put out by a small indie publisher but has crossed over into mainstream audiences.

The parallel in Australia is the success of the dark rural/outer suburban tales written by Honey Brown, one of which, The Good Daughter, was long listed for the Miles Franklin.

A trend that emerged from the recent Bouchercon, the annual US crime literature festival, is the increasing popularity of books with real people with real problems.

I’m not sure I buy this. First, because isn’t that what crime fiction has always been doing? Second, how does it match up with the seemingly endless appetite on the part of crime readers (women included) for books featuring serial killers and forensic specialists, many of who are anything but ordinary people?

That said, indications are this trend is happening here. Two prominent examples include the recently released Watch Out for Me by Sylvia Johnson (which is on my to-read list) and Yvette Erskine’s The Brotherhood. I’m sure there are many more.

What’s not happening here as markedly as in the US is the emergence of smaller niche publishers focusing on crime or with crime as one of a several genres they specialize in; an exception is Clan Destine Press, established by founder and convener of Sisters in Crime, Lindy Cameron.

The US has many of these. Some only do e-books. Others combine hard copy books and e-books. Crucial to their success has been the savvy use of social media, not only as a marketing tool but to build on-line crime communities around specific genres, such as noir, hard-boiled and historical crime fiction.

I can’t help but think one of the reasons this has not yet happened here is the absence of the vibrant network of crime fiction web zines and blogs.

In the US, these are seen as prestigious forums to place fiction in and are often read by literary agents, publishers and film production houses. These sights enable emerging crime writers to cut their teeth on short fiction and have also acted as a launching pad for many of them into publication.

Obviously our smaller population and the fact that e-books have not penetrated the Australian market to the degree that they have in the US, account for some of these differences. And even in the US, where e-books have taken more of the market share of hard copy sales, there remain fierce debates about appropriate pricing and distribution, just to name a few issues.

The upshot, in my opinion, is that Australian crime fiction, by both women and men, remains fairly narrowly defined in a few key sub-genres, like cozies, the accidental PI, police procedurals and the forensic specialist. That’s not to criticism the validity of these genres or the skill of the authors who write in them, many of whom I enjoy.

But think of how many more readers established authors could reach and how many interesting female crime writers are not being published, how many great stories are not seeing them light of day, not because they are no good but because the work is considered too ‘genre’ or out there by mainstream publishing companies.

Which takes me back to the literary panel I cited earlier. One of the participants (I didn’t write his name down) observed that the publishing industry in Australia is divided between corporatization, and with that a degree of contraction, at the top, and ‘productive anarchy’ at the bottom. Part of this anarchy at the bottom is the growing importance of blogs and on-line commentators in shaping book and e-book buying tastes.

Just over 29 per cent of people who took part in a recent survey by the e-book publishing and distribution platform, Smashwords, said they sourced the majority of their e-book buys from blogs and online forums and only three per cent from reviews in traditional hard copy media.

It’s kind of terrifying and liberating at the same time and the opportunities are enormous.

This post was written for the website of the SheKilda women’s crime writing convention, which takes place this weekend in Melbourne. Details of the conference are available here.

2 Responses

  1. Great post Andrew and I’ll have to mull over some of this before too much in the way of comment. I’ve been following up on some of the research about gender bias in literary circles that Sophie Cunningham cited when she launched the Stella awards earlier this year and it has made me ponder these issues of women’s writing getting a ‘fair go’ more than I once did. I’m not entirely sure what the answers are though I’m sure the democratisation of both publishing and reviewing will have an impact…though we women can be our own worst enemies so it’s not a foregone conclusion :)

  2. Yeah, I agree the issues can be complicated. One argument I did not want to push too hard in the SheKilda piece, because I’m still thinking it through, is the way that affirmative action arguments have been conflated with notions of what is ‘quality’ writing.

    What I mean is, it’s one thing to say there needs to be more female reviewers and more books by women reviewed, etc. I’m down with that. But it’s when people talk about women’s writing being of the same quality as men’s that I start to have my doubts. That’s not because I think women and men’s writing is not the same quality, per se, but because the notion of quality is so subjective. What does it mean? Does quality equal mainstream success/acceptance? God, I hope not.

    What about all the stories and writers who don’t get a look in because mainstream publishing houses view them as too ‘out there’ or whatever. That’s one of the reasons I think the short story/blog culture in the US is such a positive thing, because it has allowed all sorts of crime authors – male and female – to circumvent what publishing houses think is quality and get their work out there.

    Anyway, it’s a debate I’m sure will be continued.

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