what’s the matter with Men of Mystery? or why we still need Sisters in Crime

A controversy has erupted over a decision a long-running mystery fan convention, Bouchercon, has made to host another  long-running mystery fan event, Men of Mystery. Though Bouchercon often sponsors panels that focus on gender or ethnicity, setting aside a two-hour block of time to focus on men not because they write about men but simply because they are men pushed some buttons. Both the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime have made official statements. (Edited to add: the Sisters in Crime site now includes the SinC statement and a response from the chair of Bouchercon 2014.) Now we’re hearing the inevitable backlash. I thought I’d put together some of my personal thoughts. I currently coordinate the monitoring project for Sisters in Crime, and that makes me a board member of the organization, but I am not speaking for the organization or as a board member, just as a person who finds these questions interesting and important. For some reason, it came out in the form of dialogue.

What do you have against men?

Nothing. I know many of the writers featured at this event. I like them, and I like the books they write. That’s not the issue.

Then what is the issue?

Male privilege.

Privilege? What in the name of political correctness are you talking about?

Chances are you have it but can’t see it. A weird property of privilege it’s often invisible – unless you don’t have it. There’s a good explanation of how this works at Feminism 101. I also recommend  A Male Privilege Checklist, Peggy McIntosh’s classic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and, while I’m at it, Square 8’s Checklist of Neurotypical Privilege. The short version is that it’s a set of advantages individuals have because they are in a group on which society confers certain benefits. For people in that group, these benefits seem to be the norm, so it’s puzzling or upsetting when someone points out they are not equally available to everyone. When I grew up in Wisconsin I was convinced everybody who came from another state had an accent, but I didn’t because the way I said things was normal. I didn’t know I had an accent until I moved to a southern state and suddenly I was the one who talked funny.

You do talk funny.

Thank you. I moved to Minnesota and now talk even funnier.

Look, fine, but I worked hard to get where I am.

I know. I’m not saying you had it easy. I am saying that men as a class have benefits that women don’t have. Whites as a class have benefits people of color don’t have. And so forth. We live in a society that would prefer to keep things simple by saying what we get is what we deserve: if we do well, it’s because we worked hard and are good at our work. If we fail, we must have done something wrong or didn’t work hard enough. That’s not the whole story. One things writers do is see the world through other people’s eyes, and that’s why reading fiction promotes empathy. We can take into account all the strands that go into how someone got from Chapter One to The End. We get how complicated it is.

Okay, fine. But if we can’t have panels for men of mystery, then how can you justify having panels for women writers?  Or Latino writers or . . .

Or how male writers represent masculinity in crime fiction? I would totally go to that panel, especially if George Pelecanos was on it. His writing seems to be all about how young disenfranchised men are seeking their male identity in a culture where so much of what defines masculinity is either off-limits for socio-economic-reasons or criminalized for a large part of our male population. Where is that panel? I want to go to that panel!

Oh, wait. We were talking about Men of Mystery. This isn’t a panel about men in crime fiction. It’s a well-intentioned celebration of writers that just happens to exclude half of the population simply because they aren’t men. I’m sure there was no malice intended. The plan wasn’t “let’s put women in their place – in the audience or at the margins.” But that’s why it’s so important to recognize and understand privilege. If you don’t, it will be invisible to you and you will  normalize discrimination without even noticing.

I understand that the plan has been changed, that Men of Mystery has been shortened to an hour-long session to be followed by Women of Mystery. I appreciate that the statements of concern sent by the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime were received and that people are scrambling to fix it. I’m just not sure at this point what message was received other than that Some People Are Upset and there are bound to be hurt feelings all around.

Bouchercon is a volunteer-led event that takes a lot of work and every year fields complaints from every quarter and it’s horrible when you work so hard on something for love and have so much unanticipated drama erupt. For everyone who has put untold hours into making this event that has so many moving parts happen, thank you. And I’m sorry that something you are doing for love has become so controversial. The patch is going to be awkward and while I hope it will afford an opportunity for productive conversation I’m sure it might also produce a certain polarization. For those who anticipate engaging in difficult discussions, may I also recommend Derailing for Dummies? It does a great job of outlining a variety of ways that a conversation can go wrong. Snark included at no extra charge.

Crime fiction is a genre we love in part because it engages difficult issues of right and wrong, of the choices we make and their consequences, of problems in society and how they affect people’s lives. But it also gives us a sense that we can be brave enough to approach these issues for a closer look. In the end, these stories about broken things can make us whole by giving us greater empathy, some kind of narrative coherence to the anxieties we feel, and a sense that justice might sometimes prevail. Okay, in the case of noir justice might not prevail, but it’s going to be a beautiful ride. And that’s resolution enough.

What I hope to see come of this issue is not just hurt feelings but a greater understanding of why privilege matters even when – especially when – it’s invisible.

From time to time I hear people ask why we still need an organization like Sisters in crime. This is why. We have work to do.


Edited to add – at Femmes Fatales Dana Cameron has written a recap and an update on the situtation. It looks as if people are coming together to make something very postiive happen at Bouchercon. It’s a smart analysis and a very encouraging report on how people are coming together to address it. As she writes in “This is How Things Change”:

Good people make mistakes without intending to. Good people can respond to those mistakes while still valuing the effort that went into the process. Working together, they can address concerns and find solutions. That’s what’s happening now.

We Can Do It

poster by J. Howard Miller, 1943, courtesy of Wikimedia


34 Responses to what’s the matter with Men of Mystery? or why we still need Sisters in Crime

  1. pegbrantley says:

    Well thought out. Considered. Balanced. With direction. Good work.

  2. Steve Oelrich says:

    I’m always looking at the other side of questions, so, when you say “men as a class have benefits that women don’t have,” I wonder whether it might not be possible, even probable, that women as a class have benefits that men don’t have?

  3. Jane Gorman says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Barbara. You do an excellent job of deconstructing some difficult topics in a way that makes sense and is compelling. I appreciate you taking the time to write this out.

  4. That was amazing. You have clearly spent time doing good thinking about this issue. Thank you for your eloquence.

    • Barbara says:

      thanks, Rosemary. I had a lot of opportunity to hear smart people voice different thoughts as the SinC board discussed it. It was a valuable discussion.

  5. I’ve been so out of the loop the past few months with oone crisis or another that I have entirely missed the controversy but I am fascinated by your description of it and the reactions to it. The issue of privilege – and who has it and who doesn’t – is a complicated one and in my experience raising the subject often makes it rain abuse. I guess people not only don’t recognise privilege when they have it but even when it is pointed out to them they are uncomfortable with the suggestion they’ve gotten something they didn’t earn. I work in the public social services sector – the organisation has to actively strive to avoid what we call the Healthy White Guy’s point of view – not that we have anything against healthy white blokes but they certainly have a different experience of many aspects of life and things they find easy may be impossible for some people – but our organisation is still run primarily by healthy white blokes so it is difficult sometimes for the organisation to put forward a position that doesn’t reek of privilege.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Bernadette. I find something very similar in library work. It’s very hard to realize something that seems just, well, the way it is and obviously fine can be defeating or mysterious or off-putting to people with different life experiences.

  6. Kate Flora says:

    I rarely click through, but knowing it was going to be your thoughtful take, Barbara, I did. Thank you for addressing this. Personally, I am tired of anyone questioning something being met with a storm of abuse rather than questions opening a dialogue. One of my expressions is that the default mode is still to the male paradigm, which is why I still count lists and keep score, and celebrate when a few more women’s names appear in the yearly Best Mystery Stories. I also appreciate the reminder to be mindful of our privileges, whether they are male status or wealth or education. Even more, I’m copying your paragraph about what we mystery writers do–we write stories about broken things.

    • Barbara says:

      Thank you, Kate. It doesn’t surprise me at all that so many writers are feeling deep outrage. What surprises me is that nobody involved apparently saw this coming. What? But, but … we had no idea you’d be upset. We aren’t prejudiced. Why, look at all the panels women are on.” After all these years, the narrative that we live in a meritocracy and CEOs must work three hundred times as hard as their employees (or are so smart they are 300 times more worthy) and all entrepreneurs line up at the same starting line has done a lot to erase the work done since the mid-1960s (just as voter legislation has done to re-disenfranchise whole communities deliberately).

      Sometimes, working at a college, I get discouraged because I have to keep doing the same things over and over and the kind of learning you want to see doesn’t move at the pace you want and then I remember that we get a whole crop of new students every September. We just have to keep making the invisible visible because it’s hard for people to understand and the “Everything I have, I earned” narrative (exacerbated by the “I’m secretly terrified that I’ll lose it or already have lost what I had”) is so dominant right now. I appreciate your willingness to stick with the fight and I am fed up with the abuse, too.

      Please do feel to use, remix, whatever – that’s why I put this blog under a Creative Commons license.

      • mystiberry says:

        Because southern California. They’re a bit tone deaf to these things–still call groups of adult women “girls” for example. And there’s some deep sentiment for the lady who started the group. It’s not likely that any other Bouchercon organizers will ignore the issue in future :)

  7. Excellent piece, Barbara. You did such a good job of breaking it down for people with links to further resources, and yet, of course, there are some who will not get it. Mainly because they don’t want to get it for fear of becoming uncomfortable or actually losing some of their privilege (which they refuse to call privilege). I’ll be sharing this blog post.

    • Barbara says:

      thanks. Agreed that there’s a lot of willful choice to ignore inequality or keep it in small boxes that are someone else’s responsibility. And a lot of complacency – oh, we fixed that in the sixties. I wish I could say this is a year of painful awakening – Ferguson, gamer gate, and on and on. But it’s discouraging when people are astonished at the reaction or simply hostile. Or think women should avoid speaking because it’s their fault that we can’t have nice things (and if you get rape and death threats, it must be how you’re dressed online; just be nice and don’t feed the trolls.)

  8. Thanks, Barbara, for writing this. I wrote a whole thesis on discrimination. People with privilege, even those who don’t think they are discriminating, often do so because they tend to gravitate toward other people who are like them. This, however, seems to go beyond that. I’m not sure why an organization or event like Mystery of Men is even needed, really.

    • Barbara says:

      The organizer apparently started this event long ago along with a women writers event (non-genre-related). I’m not sure how they started but she has been awarded a Raven for support of the genre. I’m sure this been a surprising and hurtful turn of events for her. I had not heard of it until it got combined with Bcon for a variety of seemingly practical reasons. This is why (for me) it is most productive to think about invisible privilege and think about how we can keep trying to reveal it.

  9. Thank you, Barbara, for putting it all so succinctly and with such sensitivity. Interesting how I have found the defenders and offenders parted down gender lines. We have a lot more work to do on empathy in this society. I have also found the mystery community to be the most welcoming I have ever belonged to and I’m happy to be counted among them. And it’s also interesting to me to note that male authors who are also members of Sisters in Crime (our “misters” in crime) seem to be more on the side of empathy. Correlation and causation? Hmm.

  10. Barbara, this is a terrific piece. Thank you for writing it. Once we see, we can’t unsee. But it is difficult to get people to be able to see.

  11. Beautifully said and very thoughtful. Thanks for saying it and posting it.

  12. Thanks, Barbara, for a really terrific analysis.

  13. mystiberry says:

    Another great resource, one that takes it out of the gender equation and uses some great (if small study) statistics to back it up is Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. Eye opening.

  14. Thank you, Barbara, for this thoughtful discussion. When I took a White People Against Racism course a few years ago (which my best friend created for Cambridge Adult Education many years ago and it’s still being offered), it was eye-opening and shocking. to realize the kind of privilege someone with my skin color has. Glad the Bouchercon organizers saw their way clear to changing the format.

  15. harleyjanekozak says:

    Barbara, thank you. I love listening to the conversation between you and you, and I’m going to click on every link you provided. You illuminated something for me and expressed what I’ve been feeling for a few days now and couldn’t quite put into words.

  16. Marlyn says:

    Thank you, Barbara. You have a link to the MWA’s statement on the issue, but I’m unable to find SinC’s response. Could you post a link, please?

  17. Barbara says:

    Thank you all for the comments – I’m usually noodling ideas here for myself as much as anything, so it’s gratifying to learn that I’m not alone in my thinking about this issue. “Once we see, we can’t unsee” – oh, I hope so!

  18. Jess Lourey says:

    Brilliant, Barbara. Thank you for writing this. And you don’t talk funny.

  19. Lori L. Lake says:

    Hi Barbara,
    That’s an excellent analysis – very good questions and answers. In particular, I liked this part: “Crime fiction is a genre we love in part because it engages difficult issues of right and wrong, of the choices we make and their consequences, of problems in society and how they affect people’s lives. But it also gives us a sense that we can be brave enough to approach these issues for a closer look. In the end, these stories about broken things can make us whole by giving us greater empathy, some kind of narrative coherence to the anxieties we feel, and a sense that justice might sometimes prevail.”

    You totally hit the nail on the head!
    ;-) Lori

  20. Hanley Kanar says:

    Thank you for providing such clarity here, and in all of your subsequent responses. I work on a much smaller conference, Love is Murder, but all of this has given us a lot to think about. We have, of course, discussed gender issues as we have planned for years, but the nuanced discussion all of tis is encouraging is fantastic.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for the kind words and for ALL the work you do. My hat’s off to all con organizers. It’s like planning a wedding times 1,000. And then doing it all again next year. All lovers of the genre, perhaps authors especially, owe you and your fellow-organizers a great deal.

  21. Dana Cameron says:

    This is such a wonderful piece, Barbara; thank you. And thank you for mentioning my post (and your kind words about it). Really looking forward to seeing everyone at Bouchercon!

    P.S. I’m pretty sure you and Jessica L don’t talk as funny as I do. :)

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