Women writers fight crime-fiction stereotypes of women

In books, as in film, violence is up. And the targets are often women. ``There's been a sharp increase in the amount of really graphic and violent sadism directed toward women in books getting mainstream review attention,'' says Sara Paretsky, author of the recently released ``Blood Knot.''

Paretsky is founder and first president of Sisters in Crime, an organization of women crime fiction writers that aims to counter this violence and change the stereotype of women as bimbos or victims.

While some of the best writers in the field have been British women - witness P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ruth Rendel - there's a whole new breed of American women who emerged in the early '80s. Many write about women sleuths. Tough cookies, for the most part, who talk smart and bring in their man (or woman), the characters are also multidimensional people, not victims.

Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski ferrets out white-collar crime in South Chicago. Carolyn Wheat writes about Cassandra Jameson, a Brooklyn lawyer. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone stalks crime in California. There's a computer analyst, several art gallery owners, a librarian, and a foundation executive.

The group also wants to give these writers a better shake in the publishing industry. It all started, Paretsky says, when Phyllis Whitney, a mystery writer, wrote the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) pointing out that it had been 15 years since a woman had won an award for best novel, and asking if the group felt they were really free from discrimination.

``I think a lot of us younger women who were not that active in MWA thought that if this 82-year-old woman could raise the issue, then we ought to give her some support,'' says Paretsky.

Today, Sisters in Crime has 355 members, most of them from the United States and Canada, but a few from as far away as Japan. And there's a strong market for their work. Women readers will line up outside bookstores when their favorite authors' books are due, says Priscilla Ridgeway, executive secretary of MWA.

Although women publish 30 to 40 percent of crime fiction, Sisters in Crime has found that they are reviewed only 6 to 20 percent of the time. Reviews in such national publications as Publishers Weekly, the New York Times Book Review, and Kirkus are crucial.

``Libraries make their buying decision based on reviews in national publications,'' she says. ``If it hadn't been for libraries wanting to buy my book, I would have disappeared off the face of the earth,'' she says.

Sisters in Crime has been monitoring these publications for two years. ``We don't expect every book by every woman to be reviewed, but we would like to see proportionally the same access to reviews. The impact on writing careers and on sales can be quite dramatic.''

The group does not intend a hamfisted approach in promoting its goals, says Paretsky. ``I think what we might do is take the data and go to our editors and publishers and say, `You should be aware of this,' because it can be their job then to go to the publications and say, `We'd really like you to look at this book,' as opposed to just sending them out and letting them live or die.''

Ms. Whitney's letter, in fact, spurred the MWA to restructure the awards committee so that it's ``more representative of the actual membership.''

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