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