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July 05, 2005

The Hot Spot "Girl Ghetto" Series: Laura Lippman

The Hot Spot Series on Crime Fiction's "Girl Ghetto"

What Laura Says

Never ones to shy away from controversy, the Book Tarts decided to bring together some of the brightest minds in the mystery world to talk about an issue that’s near and dear to Otto Penzler’s black heart:  do cats really solve crimes?  Ha, ha, just joking.  Instead, we’ll do a little “He Said, She Said,” with gutsy goddesses Laura Lippman and Sarah Weinman giving their take on whether the “girl ghetto” is a crime fiction myth or reality, while hot studs Harlan Coben and David Montgomery will alternately share their views on the subject.  We’ll start with Laura on Tuesday and Wednesday, let David speak his mind on Thursday, give Sarah the podium on Friday, and finish up with Harlan.  Then the Book Tarts will dish on everything that was said!

Without further ado, Ms. Laura Lippman, award winning author of stand-alones, TO THE POWER OF THREE and EVERY SECRET THING, and the fabulous Tess Monaghan series.

The Lipstick Chronicles: What’s your take on the “girl ghetto”—do hard-boiled books by men really garner more review attention and publisher push? 

Laura:  Let's start with the good news. When it comes to buying novels, women have an overwhelming majority among the buyers. We have real power. No one gets on the bestseller lists without attracting significant numbers of female readers. And if we look at commercial fiction very broadly, women are doing well—maybe too well. It's my theory that the term "chick fic" was invented, in part, to demean its success. It's a genre that's as broad as crime, especially in the quality of work produced. The knee-jerk need to dismiss it as all fuzzy-pink mind candy is pretty misogynistic. 

As for our genre—men's stories are seen as the universal template. Much of the crime genre centers on a man's need to define manhood, to find a code to live by, to decide how violence should figure into that code, if at all. Men and women have a stake in that outcome because women often are the first to suffer when masculinity is defined via violence. So that story is universal, absolutely. Yet when someone writes about a female PI—or cop, or, lord help us, an amateur sleuth—the story is seen as specific to that woman. Her struggle is a personal one, not a universal one.

Yet men have a stake in women's stories as surely as women have a stake in men's stories. (The hand that rocks the cradle…) And, anecdotally, I have found most male readers open to that idea. Put it this way—“The Lovely Bones" could not have been as huge as it was if men weren't buying it, too. Because while women are the primary fiction buyers, the big successes—from "Harry Potter" to Tom Clancy -- are made when male buyers join the pool.

TLC:  At the Virginia Festival of the Book in March, a man in the audience commented to your all-female panel, “If you want men to read your books, why don’t you write like a man?”  Want to talk about that?

Laura:  I'm still trying to figure out how to write like a man. Does it involve power tools? A remote control?  Submarines?

In answering that (very cranky) gentleman at the Virginia Festival, I talked a lot about that template I referenced above. But I also think we look to all writers as anthropologists, people who bring back-stories from places we aren't able/willing to go. Those places can be literal or figurative. Richard Price's success with his trilogy of Jersey novels—"Clockers," "Freedomland" and "Samaritan"—is based, in part, in the fact he took readers to neighborhoods and lives that they wouldn't dare explore on their own. George Pelecanos has done the same thing with D.C. 

But Margaret Maron has taken me inside a large and complicated Southern family—a place I have no fear of visiting, but also no opportunity of glimpsing from where I sit in Baltimore. And Elaine Viets, with her Dead-End Job books, has shown me a slice of life far outside my experience. Elaine may be writing light, funny mysteries, but she's also writing about the day-in, day-out reality of living on the socio-economic edge. Would her stories be any more universal if her character was a day laborer who stood on a corner, waiting for a lawn gig? I don't see how.

TLC:  Is Bouchercon turning into a “boys’ club” where women who don’t write hard-edged books are relegated to less optimal time slots?  (We're just asking, not accusing!)

Laura:  I haven't seen the panel line-ups for this year's Bouchercon, so I have no idea what's going on. I'm on at 1 p.m. Friday and to paraphrase Sojourner Truth—Ain't I a non-hardboiled woman?

I think Bouchercon is programmed according to what the (hard-working, unpaid) volunteers believe will be popular. Throw in the complication of travel schedules, who commits when, competing events, overlapping requests…it makes my head hurt to think about programming Bouchercon. And there are a lot of popular boys in our crowd. Look, let's be honest about it. The guys have groupies. I do not have groupies. I may have a stalker or two, but that's a different story. Put me, Jan Burke, Margaret Maron, S.J. Rozan and Val McDermid in one room, singing, playing the banjo, doing magic tricks, and acrobatics. (I happen to know that Val and Jan can both sing beautifully.) Now have Barry Eisler, Jason Starr, Harlan Coben, John Connolly, Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen in a separate room, just sitting on stools and letting fans take digital photos of them. My hunch is the men will outdraw us. I'd probably leave my panel just to go to theirs, if only for some tips on hairstyling. Those men all have seriously nice hair. And, it should be noted, they're all fine writers to boot.

(Here's another thing that no one talks about—hetero men are totally homoerotic. They love, love, love each other because they love being men. The more hetero they are, the crazier they are about each other. It's really very touching and women could learn something from it. Because while those guys I named have female admirers, they have even more male admirers.)

If women are getting less-than-desirable panel slots—big "if," to reiterate, I haven't seen the program—it might be an unintended consequence of Malice Domestic's success. There could be a sense that people have had a chance to see many of their favorite female writers, but when else do you get to see some of the male writers I named above? Especially the ones from Ireland and the UK.

The larger problem, the real problem is—what, exactly, do any of us, male or female, have to say that's new and interesting? What do the fans want? Are the authors there to crack jokes, mull seriously about our genre, give pragmatic advice to newer or would-be writers? Those aren't rhetorical questions. I really want to know what the attendees want. Bouchercon is a fan convention. We shouldn't lose sight of that. True, we all pay the same fee to attend. But the writers get to deduct it from their taxes and we have the fun of hanging with our friends at day's end. If the fans are unhappy with the programming for ANY reason, they should make it known—and get involved with future Bouchercons.

STAY TUNEDTomorrow, Laura talks about whining women, transitioning from PBO to hard cover, "The Wire," and her controversial author photo!


My first mystery was my 20th novel and I well remember first meeting Black Otto. He passed me at a Bouchercon, waved his hand dismissively and said, "Midnight Louie, that's for girls."

My many male readers would be very surprised, but then they tend to be open-minded. Can cats really solve mysteries? No. But a walking, talking satire on the tired mysogynistic cliches of male hard-boiled fiction sure can, and that's what feline sleuth Midnight Louie is. He's a also a fantasy construction, and I've never been in a field as fearful of fantasy as mystery. (I've written several high fantasy novels.)

As someone who's battled women's work being regarded as second-class both for subject matter and approach since my journalism days, I've found humor and satire the most effective way of handling serious social issues. Hey, you don't use humor you get the additional label of "strident" or "shrill." And, with humor, you also stay sane longer.

Will the male/female debate ever end? Doubt it. What'll happen is what always does: discriminated-against minorities (or majorities) will create their own cultures, as black newspapers have served that community for decades. When "mainstream" papers finally opened their eyes and got a conscience (and probably needed more circulation) and solicited blacks for wedding news and obituaries, they didn't need us, thank you.

I like men very much and even married one. But in the working world, fiction or otherwise, too many otherwise able and likeable guys never notice that they are getting prime everything--speaking engagements, prime times, major roles at cons, interviews, etc.--and never notice that very able women are being left out and off. And never consider women writers able unless they "write like a man."

That's why Malice Domestic exists, and suddenly that little balancing of the scales is a reason for "remedial" male-driven programming at Bouchercon?

Hmm. I only see the split widening and also in other areas of the culture. The majority of small business starters now are women. Given reproductive technology nowadays, men are getting superfluous there.

Of course there's always a market for an engaging, smart guy who sees the "magic carpet" of the old boys club lifting his oblivious fellows and fights for women's rights as well as his own.

He will be welcomed as a prince. My candidate for prince of the mystery world: Ed Gorman.

I'm going to tiptoe on MOST of these issues and let the authors speak but I did want to comment on what I DO know well - convention programming. I won't make suggestions about the sort of man who gets up and deliberately provokes people with comments like "why don't you write like a man" because it's 2005 and I'm SO SO very tired of hearing that...ahem, that, um what's the word? Ok, I won't - this is a polite bunch.
Laura talks about men's stories as the "universal template" (great phrase) by the way and I have encountered this idea before, large and small. Years ago, I read that some local lawmakers (women, of course) wanted to know why THEIR dry-cleaning cost more than that of men - when it was just SHIRTS, darn it. Yep, because the form used to iron the shirt is a male form and to hand iron the woman's apparel took more time. You wanna see it discussed large, read Carol Tavris' The Mismeasure of Woman (published in '92).
And Laura is spot on about that whole "defining thing" it seems to me. From the first Spenser I read (I read a lot, then stopped) he was often working out his definition, his "code", what it meant to be a man. I cannot recall a single private eye or hard-boiled book by a woman where the concept is discussed, the"what is a woman" the "code". Never thought about it til now.
Now about programming - I've done it 2 times for conventions and advised/assisted on a 3d. There is NO difference in most programmers' minds, no desire to show off 1 gender; most program people - in fact, most convention volunteers I've worked with have been women - those women READERS Laura talks about. We program FOR the attendees, trying to come up with what people will want to know, and who we've got who can tell them. And not repeat. And have some new ideas. And ensure that the panels aren't over in 5 minutes. And ensure they're not "hi, I' m so and so and I'm here to read my book to you". And that we have the world's best moderators on every panel. I've never seen, in any of the program planning I've been part of, ANY gender bias in either direction. I don't even recall seeing it at cons I've been to but didn't help with program. Yep, it's all done by volunteers, but determined, committed and usually well-read volunteers who want to offer the best they can to the hundreds of attendees. Who might joke about the cute guys but well ok, I'd go to that panel Laura was on. In fact, I'd fight to be there. That's one serious hot line-up. And I don't need hair tips (I know, she's not serious) but of the 2? Those are women I READ (and I'm available for back-up do wops). I don't read many of those guys - though I've tried 'em all. She may be right though; I dunno, but I like hearing people TALK about interesting things. They can pose later, in the bar.
We make mistakes in programming yes. but believe it, it IS as difficult to get right as you think it is. And I'm grateful to the 3M company for post-it notes.

I find this interesting because my subgenre of choice is the cozy. Which is a female dominated subgenre. So 90% or more of the authors I read are female becamse the men feel they have to have more graphic violence or sex or some other such thing that doesn't need to be in a story at all. But as soon as it is, it's a cozy and those can't be taken seriously.

Of course, the believability of a cozy series falls apart after a while. Just how many bodies did Jessica Fletcher find again? But then again, I just saw the new Herbie movie this weekend and loved it, so I don't always have to have the most believable set up imaginable.

Some years ago after having just finished teaching a continuing education course on American Women's Detective Fiction, I had an adult male student come up to me to suggest that I simply hadn't read enough male writers. If I really knew the genre, I wouldn't teach a class on women writers. Rather than argue with him, I asked him what male writer he would suggest that I start with. He said J.A. Jance. He explained that J.P. Beaumont was one of his favorite detectives. Imagine his surprise when I told him that I had read all of J. A. Jance and that J stood for Judith.
Apparently, Jance "writes like a man." Or at least this male reader thought so.

I think one of the hard things is figuring out how much of this falls along the broader cultural divide between serious/comic, whether it's the Oscars (r) or the Edgars (r).

And I hope it's clear that I really enjoy amateur sleuth mysteries, because I do.

I won't chime in yet, since my thoughts are running later this week. I found Laura's comments very interesting, though.

"I cannot recall a single private eye or hard-boiled book by a woman where the concept is discussed, the"what is a woman" the 'code'."

Oddly enough, this is discussed explicitly in the Sunny Randall series, written by the same guy who did it in the Spenser series.

Laura, I think you just hit the nail on the head with the comic/serious paradox. And I only brought up cozies because it's what I read.

All I know is this: I try to write books that my wife will read. More to the point: I try to write books that my wife will read and not say: "Hey, pal, you're really off base here and can stand to lose the macho bluster."

If the first draft makes it past her, then I'm a happy man...

I can't wait until we start trying to define what a universal women's story is. I've been wrestling with it in each of my Blackbird books and would love some discussion here. Screw what Otto thinks. Millions of women want to read that story.

If we can agree on what's a Universal Women's Story, let me know and I'll write it and make a fortune.

Whew, Laura! Glad you cleared that up - liking cozies that is. I was ready to cry.

With respect to conference programming and panels, I have spoken to a number of people about the male/female issue. It was interesting to me to hear from people who admit that they would always chose an all-male panel over an all-female panel because of expectations. The expectation is that the male-only panels will be more exciting, more lively. There certainly couldn't be any dullards writing thrillers and hardboiled novels, right? ;) Even some who know better still can't completely shake themselves of the idea that male=thriller or hard-boiled and female=cozy or funny.

The good news is that there are more and more females writing hard-edge novels (woohoo!), but I think the expectation about these authors (and to some extent, the expectation about the quality of the books) will sadly take a while to change. This change in stereotypes and expectations needs to be encouraged by all involved: authors, publishers, reviewers, and readers/fans.

Great stuff. I'm awed by the level of intelligence and depth of thought displayed by Laura and by the commenters too.

Totally cool converstation with a dozen fascinating points. Thanks TLC for doing this. Can't wait for tomorrow.

One of the universal women's stories is the search for self -- as a young woman or as a middle-aged woman starting over, due to divorce of the death of a spouse. Combing this with the crime genre is tricky, although Harley is one (of many) who has done it well. These stories are the reason that chick fic and romance do so well. But it's hard to draw that story over over many, many installments.

Again, I think men feel they don't have much at stake in these stories, which sometimes present them as the problem and/or the quarry. Or -- gasp! -- present them as not the central issue, as in Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes.

(I bring up Jennifer for a specific reason: She's joining our ranks. Here's a writer who sells in the millions and she has decided to cross-pollinate, writing a crime novel that will be out this fall. And she's coming to Bouchercon!)

One gender-neutral crime motif? The ordinary guy/gal thrust into amazing circumstances, what I think of as the North by Northwest genre. Or, increasingly, the Harlan Coben genre.

Sorry for the typos above. "Or" a spouse. "Combining" not combing.

Although it is difficult to comb with the crime genre, not to mention comb-over.

I think, Keith, that one reason I can't read those Sunny Randall books is that she doesn't come across as believable. And this is NOT one of those "men can't write women" arguments - they can, they have, and they do - but most likely my lack or loss of interest in that author's writing. Sunny wasn't real enough, interesting enough or believable enough - I'm not sure which, but she didn't grab me and maybe it was because she was too "Spenserian".

My kneejerk (stop that, knee!) reaction to Tania's friends is "hmph, you haven't been to a convention have you?" and I apologize but the idea that an all-male panel would be more exciting than an all-female? Aiyiyi! Of course it depends on which men/women/topic but boy, is that an odd statement to me. I've been to very FEW single-gender panels, though they happen (heck I moderated one, full of reviewers a year or so ago and it wasn't for lack of trying for balance) (and it was a kickass panel, hmph), but it strikes me that those folks who assume that simply have NOT been reading in the genre recently if they carry those assumptions. Sheesh.

Andi, I had the same problem with the first Sunny Randall book. I thought she was much more believable in subsequent books, to the point where I'd really like to know what changed.

Just wanted to say that as a reader from the other side of the Atlantic I have never heard of any of those men but I have read several of the female authors. I'd definitely go for the singing!

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