About James Patterson and Diversity in Crime Fiction ‹ CrimeReads
“Today, however, he fears it will be difficult for white men to get writing gigs in film, theater, television or publishing.
The problem is simply “another form of racism”. What is this all about?’ he thinks. ‘Can you find a job? Yes. Is it more difficult? Yes. It’s even harder for older writers. You don’t meet a lot of 52-year-old white men.
–James Patterson: White male writers face ‘racism’
The Sunday Times
Oh, the classics.
He has since apologized and the news cycle has stalled, but James Patterson’s comments were familiar to many of us. I’ve heard variations of this complaint from fellow novelists for years now, always from white males. It usually comes after they’ve confided in some kind of rejection, and I feel like marginalized people are familiar with the unsettling fear, that feeling that you’re about to be blamed for the lack of someone’s success. And then it happens.
Reluctantly, “The market just isn’t good for white men right now.”
This is usually quickly followed by a somewhat heartfelt, “But, I mean, it’s a good thing there’s more diversity these days and stuff.”
Demographic information in detective stories is hard to come by, but it seems marginalized writers have received more deserved recognition, especially since 2020, when the social protests following the murder of George Floyd galvanized the publishing industry to recognize – and, ideally, reconcile – the disparity of opportunities offered to people of color.
But this acknowledgment has – as is often the case, and exemplified by Patterson’s interview – sparked intense backlash and a desire for correction.
That said, despite all the worries and fearful worries about the welfare of white writers, publishing is still a sea of white male heads. These complaints are a reminder that marginalized crime novel writers still face a variety of nuanced challenges from an unhappy and resilient old guard. New ground is never given without a fight, and the rewards of professional achievement in publishing are fiercely defended, often unfairly. It is rooted in false worry, as Heather McGhee brilliantly explained in her famous study, The sum of usthat shared success for all means less success for one.
But I wonder if these complaints reflect character more than the authors who publish them think. And I’m not referring to the character of these aggrieved writers, but rather the characters they create.
missing girl was one of the most notable novels of the past twenty years, and its success helped propel the concept of the psychological thriller into the mainstream. missing girl is known for being a book of unexpected twists, but it’s also an eye-opening study of unsettling characters. Thrillers are known for surprisingly structured plots, so much so that it’s not uncommon for gender to be flouted to place the plot on people. It’s not a fair complaint, but it’s one that today’s psychological thriller writers have routinely dismantled, complex protagonist after complex protagonist.
This character study extends to writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, neurodiverse writers, and other writers from traditionally minority communities who are finally receiving critical and commercial recognition. And this accompanies, not by chance, the growing diversity of the country.
A new character roams the landscape of detective fiction and it’s almost, by definition, a new perspective.
And so it’s not that the editorial landscape of detective fiction is an obstacle for white men. On the contrary, the editorial landscape appeals to characters other than those who have traditionally populated the books of white male writers.
Let me explain.
I grew up an avid crime novel fan and remember that after years of eagerly flipping through the pages of thrillers, my pace slowed. I was bored. The books I read were generally written by men, and their protagonists corresponded to a certain archetype. These protagonists were usually quiet, brutally violent men who were probably socio/psychopaths… but also surprisingly generous. They were imperfect, but with love. Single and sexually active (still straight, of course), protective, intelligent. And violent. And haunted. But, you know, nicely. While his trauma has made the protagonist unable to have relationships, it certainly hasn’t stopped women from finding him desirable. That would have been a step too far.
And the more I read, the more I felt like I had read all the stories crime fiction had to offer.
And I left the genre.
It wasn’t until after college that I returned to detective fiction. A happy coincidence, with my own beginnings as a professional novelist, led me to the books of Sujata Massey and Laura Lippman, and I realized the wonderful breadth of voice that thrillers had the potential to offer. This marvel has not ceased. Today, I am drawn to the works of Kellye Garrett and Jennifer Hillier and Rachel Howzell Hall and Steph Cha and Katie Gutierrez and so many other writers who write gripping stories without sacrificing character. On the contrary, they make a compelling story because of their characters.
And, as this far from exhaustive list shows, it’s the new crime writers who give us these new voices, and they happen to be a wonderfully diverse group of writers who prove resolutely the business axiom that diversity makes an industry better. It is, as I said earlier, the old guard that opposes it, and a passionate generational divide naturally sets in. This happens a lot in literature (do yourself a favor and read The scathing dismantling of Mark Twain against James Fenimore Cooper). We are at a similar time now. A new literary movement is emerging, but it is defined less by how language is used, but rather by who uses it and for what purpose.
White male writers aren’t going away, of course, and that’s a good thing – there are some wonderful and needed books written by white men. Diversity often leads to an unwarranted worry of exclusion, but DEI concepts are meant to be understood. Just because someone is white doesn’t mean they don’t belong. When we talk about representation, we sometimes talk about skin color, but we also talk about more. Gender and sexuality go beyond color, as do the complexities of neurodiversity and religion. And it is this complexity of identities, which can perhaps be answered by a deeper search for a writer’s own identity, that is sought.
If writers continue to ignore that call – a necessary call that fits the demands of the market and the country – then James Patterson’s sentiment will prove prophetic, but not for the reasoning he gave. White male writers won’t find an audience, but not because of who they are. It will be because of the stories they have not told.