09 December 2016

Diversity in More Than One Direction

This week was the final week of classes at George Mason University—though not the final week of the semester, I should stress, since exams and final projects and lots of grading are still ahead.

This semester marks the first time I've taught a course in "Women of Mystery" and the last couple of classes brought some interesting discussions and left me with plenty to think about myself. The final book we studied was Sue Grafton's A Is For Alibi, a novel I've taught before in the context of hard-boiled detective fiction—how this novel builds out of that tradition and shifts its focus. This time, obviously, we were looking at the history of women crime writers and female detectives, which offered a different context. In one class discussion, for example, we charted the great diversity of female characters represented in the book: from young to old, from working class to upper class, from single women to married women to divorced women and with a mix of mistresses in between, and from the domestically minded to the fiercely independent; as students pointed out, while Kinsey Milhone is always jogging and keeping an eye on her health, we also have a character saying that "Fat is beautiful" and arguing for special rights for the "grossly overweight."

But amidst all the diversity of women's experiences catalogued in the book, there was a key bit of diversity missing: As my students pointed out, nearly all the characters here are white.

Throughout the semester, we've examined all our stories and novels as windows into their respective eras: whether as glimpses into the roles and responsibilities of women in those specific times or as challenges to any prevalent expectations. As Maureen Reddy, author of The Feminist Counter-Tradition in Crime, has pointed out, the debuts of Marcia Muller in 1977 (with Edwin of the Iron Shoes) and of Grafton and Sara Paretsky in 1982 (with A Is For Alibi and Indemnity Only, respectively) coincided with the mainstreaming of the feminist movement—and specifically second-wave feminism. But some of the criticism of second-wave feminism, and part of its distinction from third-wave feminism, arose from attention to diversity beyond gender issues. In Bustle's timeline of the feminist movement, the last item from the section on second-wave feminism is the 1983 publication of Angela Davis's Women, Race and Class—and the editors add this commentary:

In spite of its social success, the second wave broke in the late '70s. The racial division that plagued the first wave remained throughout the second, and expanded from a black/white divide to include divisions along economic lines, between various minorities, and between lesbians and straight women. The internal divisions fractured the larger movement into competing factions, which disillusioned many feminists and society as a whole.

On the heels of our study of A Is For Alibi, and for our final day of class, we all studied this year's Report for Change from Sisters in Crime, a "Publishing Summit Report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Mystery Community"—fascinating reading start to finish and glimpse for my students into the many factors the influence book publication and impact readers: from writers' goals and intentions, to the expectations of agents and editors, and even to the inclinations (or disinclinations) of readers to cross color lines, for example. In the report, Linda Rodriguez talks about the little voice inside her head that said, "Mysteries are written by white people. About white people." An unnamed Latina writer points out that "Romance is white people in love; sci-fi is white people in space; mystery is white people solving crime," but if a genre novel is focused on Latino characters, it's Latino literature first. And with specific attention on reader preferences, Rachel Howzell Hall explained that "black readers have been crossing color lines in their reading all of their lives and being able to put themselves into the fiction worlds. If black readers can do this, why can't white readers do that in reverse?"

I won't try to summarize or sample the whole report here, but would encourage folks to read it themselves (the link above) for some perceptive and occasionally provocative insights into these questions about diversity in the mystery genre—and both for some signs of hope about increasing diversity in the genre and for several lists of writers based on race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. 

Coincidentally, as I was prepping for class, this article popped up on the New York Times: Tony Tulathimutte's "Why There's No Millennial Novel." Here's a sample paragraph:

Where are the successors to This Side of Paradise, The Sun Also Rises, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Bright Lights, Big City, Generation X and Infinite Jest? Time’s Lev Grossman blames our increasingly “multicultural, transcontinental, hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives” for why any consensus about a single voice now seems impossible. I’d go even further and argue that the “voice of a generation” novel never existed to begin with. For starters, why did we ever pretend novels by straight white guys about straight white guys spoke for entire generations?
While we didn't read this one as a class (again, it wasn't published until just before our class meeting), I did bring in some of the column's observations and arguments to help amplify our discussion and our examination of how much has changed even since the early 1980s—and what those changes mean. 


  1. Sounds like a good course- your students are lucky!

  2. Thanks, Janice! Teaching can be tough (when grading looming stacks of essays) but I do so enjoy my students and our discussions. I'M the lucky one there! :-)

  3. Great post. I've struggled to create diverse characters in my novels. I'm always aware of it but I don't see it in a lot of authors I read.

  4. Thanks, Colleen. One of my students mentioned Shonda Rhimes as a model for how to make sure your characters are as diverse as the larger population--something that was references in the report as well. It's a good goal.

  5. Hi, Art!

    Thanks so much for writing this -- and discussing this with your students! It's a challenge but if any genre can overcome the lack of diversity, I'm convinced that it will crime and mystery writers.

    Rachel Howzell Hall

  6. Diversity - the on-going struggle. I know I certainly need to address this more in my writing. Thanks for the post, Art!

  7. Thank you, Rachel, for chiming in here--and for your contributions to the report itself! Next time I teach the class, I'm going to do more of this and swap up the texts as well some. Might be reaching out to you directly then, if possible! (I have authors skype into the class frequently...)

  8. I enjoyed your post, Art. I've been trying to make the characters in my mysteries more diverse, but I know I'm not the only writer held back by nervousness about getting something wrong and unintentionally offending someone. Still, it's important for us to keep trying. (By the way, it was fun to see you mention one of Maureen Reddy's books. Maureen and I went to graduate school together at Boston College--I was a bridesmaid at her wedding, in fact. She's written about race in crime fiction, as well as about feminism in crime fiction.)

  9. Bonnie, I know just how you feel. The character I'm writing now in the first person is a black man. Even if I don't get very much wrong in the story (unlikely), I'll still be subject to criticism just for writing it.

  10. Hi, Bonnie and Elizabeth --
    Thanks for the comments here--and for the concerns you're bringing up about nervousness and hesitation in writing about diverse characters. I'm sure this concern has been addressed elsewhere, and I'm curious about how writers have dealt with it, overcome it. Obviously, all of us are at times writing beyond ourselves and our own experiences (I hope, given our subject matter of killers and other kinds of criminals!) but the stakes do seem higher perhaps when trying to represent the experiences of someone of a different race or ethnicity or other background, trying to ensure accuracy and authenticity. That is, of course, part of our jobs as writers, I guess--to inhabit other voices, other experiences with realism and respect. I hate to think that too much fear of getting it wrong would circle back away from diversifying our fictional worlds..... (Feel like I'm circling around this myself without much to offer in terms of suggestions.)

    On another topic: Much fun, Bonnie, to hear about you and Maureen Reddy! I'll have to look up even more of her work.

  11. Sometimes an attempt to depict someone from another race/culture, etc, comes across as patronizing. Remember the problems "Famous All Over Town" caused for Daniel James? And how hoodwinked people felt to discover that "The Education of Little Tree" was written by Asa Earl Carter, a KKK member?

    You could include Barbara Neely's "Blanche on the Lam," which I believe won both an Agatha and an Anthony, in your reading list.

    While I do have characters in my stories who are specifically not white, and some who could be downtrodden people of any ethnic background,I don't have a "feel" for the life circumstances of people from some backgrounds, and I don't know that I could handle it reasonably.

  12. Hey, Kathleen --
    Missed responding to this—been out of town. I was actually thinking of Barbara Neely myself earlier, so appreciate that recommendation here! I don't actually know the controversies on the two piece you mentioned but will look them up. Thanks for sharing!


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