May 1, 2015 Booklist 11 www.booklistonline.com May 1, 2015 Booklist 11 #mysterymonth
African Americans face a hurdle similar to African writers.
Gangs, drugs, housing projects, school dropouts, pregnant
teens, that’s the face of black America that white America
stereotypically knows. The contempt with which a sizable
white minority—in Congress and around the country—views
the president bears witness to these enduring stereotypes.
Fox News vilely referred to the First Lady as “Obama’s Baby
Mama,” not once, but many times.
Stereotypes and contempt come from many sources, but popular culture–books, movies, video games—is a potent part of the mix.
These media often give us the “savage entertain-
ment”—the black rapist, the female victim—that feeds the
Shortly before Walter Mosley published Devil in a Blue
Dress, I was working with an African American writer in
Chicago. Andrea Smith was creating what didn’t exist then—
a black female cop. I loved this character. Andrea opened a
window for me onto black urban life I didn’t know, a world
where aunts owned beauty shops, and mothers worried about
their daughters getting close to 30 without a husband, a
world of camaraderie, with childhood friendships that lasted
By the time we had a polished piece of writing, Walter
Mosley, Grace Edwards, and Eleanor Taylor Bland had all
published their first novels. My friend’s work was at least as
good as theirs, but I couldn’t generate interest in it in the editors I knew.
One St. Martin’s editor told Andrea that they liked her
work, but they were already publishing Eleanor Taylor Bland:
we have our black writer—like medical and law schools used
to tell women applicants: “We have our woman student.” An
agent’s claim that Andrea’s detective wasn’t believable because
she didn’t use street slang shows what white readers expect
from black characters.
Many recent, well-conducted studies have shown that
university students, scientists, and managers penalize job ap-
plicants or professors who are thought to be female or black.
By sending out identical résumés or offering identical online
classes but changing the names to be male or female, stereotypically black (Lakisha) versus WASP (John) names cost
professors over 20 percent in their approval ratings and cut
job applicants’ success rate in half. (New York Times, February
22, 2015). It does not beggar belief to think that publishers
share these visceral reactions.
In 1986, in response to numerous complaints from women
about our marginalized status in the crime fiction world, I
started an organization that grew into Sisters in Crime. One
of the first things Sisters did was a study of book reviews.
We found that a crime novel by a man was seven times more
likely to be reviewed than one by a woman, and that women’s
careers were derailed by this fact. Libraries, then and now, are
the biggest buyers of new and midlist writers’ work, and they
“MWA wants to advocate for all crime writers in today’s harsh pub-
rely on prepublication reviews to make their buy decisions. If
lishing climate, but we especially want writers who’ve been pushed
completely off the margins to move back onto the page.”
“Popular fiction is a great place for opening minds—it’s the soft-
est of all pills to swallow. MWA can’t solve the DOLLUS problem
alone. We can’t force publishers to look beyond gangbangers,
‘Baby Mamas,’ and drugs in books with black characters, but we
a whole group is missing, libraries don’t buy the books. Ca-
Sisters developed several strategies to respond to the problem. We began to monitor review outlets and educate them
on who was MIA. We compiled a “Books in Print” that went
directly to libraries and bookstores. These strategies increased
sales of women’s mysteries, and inspired New York to increase
the number of women writers on their lists. And slowly but
surely, men who had shied away from books by women began
reading them—if women were successful, they must be worth
Thanks to our work, and to other social changes, the situation for women writers is better, but it is better for the
most part for white, non-Latina writers. And even for white
women, the situation is by no means halcyon. Women still
struggle to get heard. The annual VIDA report, which shows
the depressingly small number of women writers and reviewers featured in 20 leading publications, is only one measure
of our continued marginalization. We are more likely to be
punted into e-only publishing or to lose publishers altogether,
to lose publicity dollars and speaking opportunities. For
women writers of color, the situation is worse.
We need to go back to the drawing board, or drawing
MWA can’t solve the DOLLUS problem alone.
software, go back to good old-fashioned consciousness rais-
ing. A distressing piece of the Ferguson fallout is the police
e-mail and text correspondence, heavily filled with noxious
stereotypes. As FBI director James Comey said in his Febru-
ary 12 speech, we can ignore the realities of racial conflict
in our society, or “we can choose to have an open and hon-
est discussion about [what] our relationship
[could be] if we took time to better understand
Popular fiction is a great place for opening
minds—it’s the softest of all pills to swallow.
We can’t force publishers to look beyond gang-
To paraphrase President Kennedy’s inaugural address, this
bangers, “Baby Mamas,” and drugs in books
with black characters, but we can help. We are
establishing mentorship programs, where established writers
will help aspiring writers navigate the publishing maze. We’re
looking at ways to use the web for helping members with
publicity and ways to emulate Sisters in Crime by introduc-
ing writers directly to readers. MWA wants to advocate for
all crime writers in today’s harsh publishing climate, but we
especially want writers who’ve been pushed completely off the
margins to move back onto the page.
change won’t happen in the life of my administration, but I
hope to see it happen during my life on this planet. And at
least, as JFK also said, we can let it begin.
SARA PARETSKY, author of the best-selling V. I. Warshawski series and a
tireless advocate for books, reading, and libraries, last appeared in Booklist
in our May 1, 2012, Mystery Showcase issue, with her essay, “The Written
Word.” Her latest Warshawski novel, Brush Back, will be published by Putnam
on July 28.