By Elaine Viets
It’s tough to define an award-winning thriller, but the new International Thriller Writers has succeeded:
It’s anything written by a man.
That’s not what it says on the ITW Website. That tells us, "Thrillers provide a rich literary feast – the legal thriller, the spy thriller, the action-adventure thriller, the medical thriller, the police thriller, the romantic thriller, the historical thriller, the political thriller, the religious thriller, the high-tech thriller, the supernatural thriller. The list goes on and on, with new variations being invented constantly. This openness to creation and expansion is one of the field’s characteristics."
Unfortunately, the plums at this literary feast are served to men only. For the first ITW Thriller Awards, every single novel nominee is a man.
Best Novel – five men.
Best First Novel – five men.
Best Paperback Original – five men.
And the winners of these Thriller Awards?
No surprise there: They’re all going to be men.
So is the recipient of the first ITW Life-Time Achievement Award.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of the men nominated wrote first-rate, critically acclaimed novels. Other male nominees made you wonder where the judges stored their craniums.
That’s typical of almost any award nominee list.
What isn’t typical is that the ITW nominees were exclusively male. Even the Mystery Writers of America, an organization justly criticized for male bias in its Edgar Awards, is moving past that. Ironically, this year it nominated a thriller by Tess Gerritsen for an Edgar.
The ITW makes MWA look like a NOW meeting.
Consider a few of the women who submitted novels for the ITW Awards and weren’t nominated:
Elizabeth Becka, Sallie Bissell, Alice Blanchard, Linda Fairstein, Alison Gaylin, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Denise Hamilton, Kay Hooper, Val McDermid, Perri O’Shaughnessy, Sara Paretsky, Theresa Schwegel, Lisa Scottoline, Julie Smith, and the mother-daughter team of P.J. Tracy.
These women are the literary equals of any male ITW nominee. Alison Gaylin and Theresa Schwegel were both nominated for Edgar Awards this year, and Theresa won. The other rejected women have enough honors to fill this page.
I’m not friends with any of the above women. Most wouldn’t know me if I sat down beside them. I don’t write thrillers. But I like to read them. And I know women write some fine ones. So why weren’t any female authors nominated for their novels?
One ITW judge was "dismayed" over the absence of women authors on the nominee list, but wonders "if the problem wasn’t sexism so much as the definition – or lack of it – of a thriller."
The MWA has a short, sweet definition of a mystery for its Edgar judges: "A work of fiction in which a crime is the central element."
On its Website, ITW co-presidents David Morrell and Gayle Lynds spent more than 500 words struggling with: "What is a thriller?"
"What gives thrillers common ground is the intensity of the emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness," they wrote. "By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job."
But we all get our thrills in different ways. Apparently, women writers did not thrill enough ITW judges.
Co-president David Morrell’s list of 70 "Must-Read Thrillers" on the ITW Website includes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ "Tarzan of the Apes" and Oscar Wilde’s "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
If Oscar Wilde wrote a thriller, so did every woman on the ITW reject list.
The dismayed judge said, "Maybe the judges, when faced with trying to figure out just what a thriller was, were too quick to rely on the dick-lit cliches that have always dominated the genre – car chases, boy-banter, phallic guns and exploding stuff. Maybe instead of narrowing their focus, they should have been broadening it to reflect the rich diversity of what is called a thriller today."
There’s another problem with the ITW contest. Board members such as Tess Gerritsen cannot submit their own books, and that’s commendable. But ITW does permit reviewers to serve as judges. Many media companies ban their reviewers from judging, because the press should not create the news.
Many organizations, including MWA, do not permit reviewers to be judges. Reviewers have already judged the novels in the media. Besides, why submit a book to a committee when the judge has publically panned it?
Consider something else co-president Morrell said about his "Must-Read Thrillers" list:
"You’ll note that there are far more male than female authors on the list. This imbalance is due to a publishing prejudice that for many years was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Editors felt that women couldn’t convincingly dramatize sensational plots . . . In turn, women avoided writing in the field because they couldn’t overcome the bigotry."
Uh, Mr. Co-President, bigotry is alive and well. And this time, you can’t blame the publishers.
Why didn’t the ITW see any problem with The Thriller Awards?
I could ask the organization for an explanation. But the nominee list speaks for itself.
This isn’t the International Thriller Awards. It’s the International Men’s Thriller Awards.
Skip the rubber-chicken banquet, boys, and make it a real guy event.
Cigars, beer and burgers in the bar – served by the ITW Ladies’ Auxiliary.