An opportunity gone begging for women?

Craig Sisterson from Crime Watch reports that Auckland University is planning to run a Continuing Education course entitled “Women Writing Contemporary Crime Fiction”. The course will ponder

Why are women such prolific writers – and readers – of crime fiction? Historically and in modern-day crime writing the woman writer, it could be argued, dominates the genre. This course aims to explore why, with reference to six major female crime authors currently writing, such as P.D. James, Elizabeth George and Kathy Reichs.

While I think it’s terrific that crime fiction is getting this kind of treatment I have to say I am underwhelmed by the selection of writers for study. In full the list consists of

  • Week 1 PD James
  • Week 2 Ruth Rendell
  • Week 3 Sara Paretsky
  • Week 4 Elizabeth George
  • Week 5 Linda Fairstein
  • Week 6 Kathy Reichs

I don’t think studying those particular authors is going to go far towards achieving the course’s first stated learning outcome of students being able to “Demonstrate a wider knowledge of crime fiction, particularly that written by women”. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a more homogeneous, narrow selection of female crime writers. All the authors are either American or English as are their dominant settings and 5 of the 6 are best known for producing a long running police/legal procedural (Paretsky’s main character is a female private investigator and Rendell also writes psychological suspense in addition to her procedurals).

Where’s the geographical diversity? There are so many fantastic modern female crime writers based all over the globe including these:

  • Australia – Kathryn Fox, Leah Giarratano,
  • France – Dominique Mannotti
  • Iceland – Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Ireland – Alex Barclay, Tana French
  • Norway – Karin Fossum, Anne Holt
  • Scotland – Karen Campbell, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina
  • Spain – Teresa Solana
  • South Africa – Sarah Lotz, Margie Orford,
  • Sweden – Karen Alvtegen, Liza Marklund, Mari Jungstedt

At the very least you’d have thought they’d take a look at New Zealand’s own crop of new crime writers like Vanda Symon.

There’s not much sub-genre diversity here either. Modern crime fiction is about more than solid old British and American police procedurals isn’t it? How about taking a look at Megan Abbott’s noir or the highly popular capers from Janet Evanovich or Lisa Lutz?

I realise none of the authors I’ve mentioned have the vast body of work of a Ruth Rendell but surely such a course should be about quality. In a cynical moment I wonder whether a course this bland is just a grab for some extra dollars by the always cash-strapped university sector or whether it’s been cobbled together by people who aren’t really fans of crime fiction. But even if neither of those things is true and the intentions are entirely pure I’m still saddened. A course such as this would have been a fine opportunity to expose people to a broader range of crime fiction than the ubiquitous titles stocked by my local K-Mart.

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12 Responses to An opportunity gone begging for women?

  1. JoV says:

    Totally, totally agree with you Bernadette. I think the ubiquitous titles stocked by the supermarkets are beginning to look the same year after year and I’m tired of it.


  2. Bernadette – Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. You make a really strong case that getting a wider knowledge of crime fiction means a lot more than reading a book by a woman if you’ve read mostly books by men (although of course, everyone has to start somewhere). You’ve offered some very talented names as alternatives, and some compelling arguments.


  3. farmwifetwo says:

    I have read most of them and don’t consider them the “best” out there. As you said there are many more, from many other parts of the world. How do you compare them culturally, socially, place/time, mood, writing style?? They write for the US market… they blend.


  4. Dorte H says:

    Great rant!

    I think it is fair enough to look for women who have written more than one or two novels, but still, your point about a homogenous group is perfectly valid (though I don´t know Fairstein and have not read any Kathy Reichs yet). They may not have considered translated fiction at all, but even so, Val McDermid would be a must on my list, and probably also Ann Cleeves.


  5. kathy durkin says:

    Good list: I’d add Fred Vargas (love her books), unless a man has to be the main character–for France, definitely Malla Nunn for South Africa or Australia; Claudia Piniero for South America; Val McDermid for Scotland/England; and, of course, Maj Sjowall for being a grandparent of Swedish crime writing from 1965-75.


  6. Maxine says:

    Totally agree, Bernadette, including your examples. For example, Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow, the author is a high court judge in Botswana, is a stunningly harrowing novel with a strong political and social message – as well as being crime fiction.

    I wonder who put together the programme and whether they are keen readers of crime fiction, or if it is essentially a publicity exercise. In science, for example, once one person wins a major prize, he (usually it is a he) goes on to win all the other major prizes. I wonder if this example you highlight is more of the same kind of thing?


  7. Joanne says:

    Good points. The course is run for six weeks, one day a week for a couple of hours. If people are interested and the short course is a success, hopefully, they’ll pick a broader selection of books for a more comprehensive course.


  8. Craig says:

    In defence of the course (and I agree that they could have picked a better six authors in terms of looking at contemporary crime fiction), this is one of the first-ever crime fiction themed ‘literature’ courses the University has run. So of course they’re going to have to feature some quite well-known authors, as it is something of an introduction to the genre, for casual fans more than just highly-specialised readers and reviewers. And that’s a good thing – we want to get more people reading, talking about, and appreciating crime fiction – not just all of us specialised blogger types.

    As such, it would be somewhat pointless to use a whole lot of authors that most of the public had never heard of, in terms of trying to get people to take the course – for me the best option is to have some big names, and maybe put in one or two more ‘niche’, up-and-coming, or lesser-knowns in terms of ‘stretching’ the class and introducing them to new things.

    Only six authors is tough. I think you have to have at least one of PD James/Ruth Rendell – both probably deserve to be there, but if you want more diversity in the course, you could use one, as they are both of the same type/sub-genre, somewhat. I’d go with PD James.

    I think you have to have Paretsky too – she was hugely important and influential in the genre, both in terms of female writers and female heroine (the way they’re written, issues faced etc).

    Then you could pick four others to try to flesh out other locations/sub-genres etc. I’d probably pick Cornwall (esp her early stuff) over Reichs – even though I’ve preferred Reichs to read lately, because she kind of led the way for the popularity of forensic-focused crime/thrillers, which is an important/large part of the genre (both in books and on TV/film) over the past couple of decades.

    You’d want at least one Scandinavian/continental European in translation, as that’s become a growing and important part of the genre, and would be interesting for the students to study and compare. So Karin Fossum, Camilla Lackberg, Karin Alvetgen, Liza Marklund, Ann Holt, Fred Vargas etc.

    For me, as a NZ-based course, they should try to get at least one Kiwi contemporary female crime writer in there – both in terms of appreciating our own fiction, but also from a study point of view it could be very interesting for the students to see how female crime writers deal with the local issues/characters/geography etc. So Vanda Symon, Paddy Richardson, Alix Bosco (if she is a female), Dorothy Fowler, Joan Druett (although her novels are historical), Andrea Jutson, etc. I’d probably go with Vanda Symon (four very good books, with an interesting continuing character).

    Then, with one left, you’d need to choose between having another important ‘name’ from the genre – eg Val McDermid, Sue Grafton etc – who has been influential/led the way/been important etc; or perhaps trying to broaden the list with something of a different style (the incredibly popular lighter adventures of a Janet Evanovich type, perhaps?) or geography (Asia/South Africa etc).

    As others have said, six is far too few, and I’m sure we could all come up with completely different lists that had a lot of merit. But I agree, a little bit of a missed opportunity (Fairstein, really? – I guess she is popular, has written a lot of books, and gives a modern NYC/legal + crime thing, but still….)


  9. I do agree Craig that you couldn’t get rid of all the six – I’d go with Rendell (in preference to James because she has more variety and her current stuff is better than James’ IMHO) and Paretsky for the ‘contemporary classics’. If you need another ‘name’ then Fairstein’s books make sense due to the subject matter – her main character is a female DA for the New York Sexual Assault Unit so the books are very much about women and the issues that impact them. She also has a mix of legal and forensic threads in the books so you could get all of that out of the way without having to trawl through Reichs and Cornwell – both of whom have lost whatever originality they once had.

    Then I’d have three lesser known authors as well – off the top of my head I’d choose Denise Mina (range of series, fantastic female characters), Karen Alvtegen or Liza Marklund (I’ve not read Marklund myself but from what I hear she would suit this kind of theme with her very strong female character, Alvtegen would provide a contrast as her books are all standalone psychological suspense) and then a New Zelanand writer (the only one I’ve read more than one book from is Vanda Symon and she would be fine but if there is someone else that could be recommended then that would be fine too).


  10. Rob says:

    Craig, the course writers start with the line – “Why are women such prolific writers – and readers – of crime fiction?” If women are such prolific readers I’m assuming that they read more than the mainstream, limited shelf stock titles (as actually the crime fiction blogs prove – and they are no means unique). Therefore the argument that the course will only appeal if it is big name authors simply doesn’t wash. There could be a mix. 2 big names and then a sample. To not include any NZ writers seems bizarre. I would think people would be interested in the course if they felt it would introduce them to new writers, places, styles, etc. Good that they’re putting on the course, but so conservative as to suggest they are not really big crime fiction fans with a wide knowledge of the genre.


  11. Craig says:

    From what I understand Rob, the lecturer is in fact quite a fan of crime fiction – in terms of being an English literature university scholar who talks about and researches crime fiction (not just literary fiction). She has spoken at conferences in the UK etc. Not that means she reads super-widely in the genre, just that at least she appreciates the genre and spends time on it, rather than ignoring it like many of the literati of the academic ivory-tower world.


  12. You have some fantastic alternatives here! Maybe for an International Women’s Crime Fiction course??


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