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Opinion | Clea Simon

He wrote/she wrote. On gender in mystery writing

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Most mystery authors have never killed anyone, nor personally solved any crimes. That doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it. In crime fiction, “write what you know” is not always the best advice. However, a controversy over a new crime fiction imprint has blown up into an uproar over who can — or should — write what, specifically in terms of gender.

The outcry began with the unveiling in January of Scarlet, a new imprint of Pegasus Books to publish psychological suspense novels, ostensibly aimed at female readers. “Psychological suspense that features complex women is one of the most dynamic categories in popular fiction right now,” said Pegasus publisher Claiborne Hancock, in the Publishers Weekly announcement. This was a smart move, since numerous surveys report that women buy more books than men, especially when it comes to fiction (a 2007 NPR roundup of surveys reported that women make up approximately 80 percent of all fiction readers).

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Among the other names credited with cofounding the new imprint, one of the biggest was Otto Penzler, whose crime fiction imprint Penzler Publishing is, like Pegasus, distributed by W.W. Norton. Penzler has long been a heavyweight in the crime fiction community. In addition to his imprint and New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop, which he owns, he has been the editor of the annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology series, published by Houghton Mifflin, since 1997.

Despite his prominence, however, there was an immediate backlash to Penzler’s involvement in the new women-oriented venture because of the 76-year-old editor’s long history of sexist comments. Speaking about Sisters in Crime, an organization that was founded in 1986 to address disparities in publicity and publisher support for female mystery authors, he told the Chicago Tribune, “It’s a negative, flawed concept.’’ In the same 1991 article, he also called the group (which is open to all) “sexist” and some of its members “strident,” a dog whistle often used by misogynists to discredit feminists.

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Penzler is also known for dismissing traditionally female-oriented mystery subgenres, such as “cozies” — traditional amateur sleuth books — as lesser or unworthy. In addition to the numerous anecdotal accounts shared among authors, writing in the New York Sun in 2005, Penzler explained why he would never consider cozies, with their humor and tea-drinking sleuths, for major crime fiction prizes. “They may be fun, they may have their charm,” he wrote, “but they are not serious literature.”

While these quotes are all decades old, they resurfaced this month when rumors began spreading that the first two books to be published by Scarlet were actually by men writing under female pseudonyms. The social media clamor grew to the point that Pegasus responded, divulging on Twitter that the first book will be by a real honest-to-God presumably cis-woman — one Stephanie Buelens — working with an unnamed established male coauthor. The second book, a Slate article revealed, will be by an as-yet-unnamed “well-established” male author writing under the pseudonym Sophia Prentiss.

Now, at no point have the publishers of Scarlet said that the imprint would be focused on books by women. Rather, its books will feature women protagonists and, thus, the implication is, be marketed to women. In addition, many writers use pseudonyms, though it goes against common sales sense to hide the identity of authors the publisher touts as “well established.” It is also worth noting that authors since long before Gustave Flaubert have written outside their gender identities. In crime fiction, the great Robert Parker and, more recently, James Ziskin are among those who have created strong female protagonists under their own, decidedly male, names. Fiction is just that — creative invention, the product of imagination. But it is disingenuous, at least, to ignore the sexism in the industry, particularly for a female-oriented imprint. Between its lack of transparency and odd inaugural choices, Scarlet has brewed up this tempest in its own decidedly un-cozy teapot.

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Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “A Spell of Murder.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.