Saturday, April 30, 2011

The 2011 Edgar Awards Banquet & Grand Master Sara Paretsky

On Thursday, April 28, Mystery Writers of America presented its Grand Master Award to Sisters in Crime founding sister Sara Paretsky at the annual Edgar Awards banquet.

SinC President and MWA board member Cathy Pickens introduced Sara at the ceremony.

Pictured at left are Sara Paretsky (l) and Cathy Pickens (r) at the banquet. (Photo by Matt Peyton Photography.)

According to SinC immediate past president Marcia Talley, the room was filled with an array of positive feminine energy generated by Paretsky, Pickens, outgoing MWA president Laura Lippman and incoming MWA president Lisa Scottoline.

The complete text of Cathy Pickens' introduction to Sara Paretsky, 2011 MWA Grand Master, appears below:

"In 1980, with the visionary thinking we know to expect in publishing, 13 publishers rejected Indemnity Only. The first V. I. Warshawski novel "does not meet our needs at this time," they said. Visionary indeed.

Fortunately, V. I. hit the streets of Chicago and bookshelves in 1982, breaking the barriers that said women in mysteries could be only victims or vamps.

That would've been enough, creating a body of work that does what the best of fiction should do in keeping the genre alive and relevant.

But social justice can't always be sought only on the pages of a novel. In the mid-1980s, Sara Paretsky saw that, while women wrote one-third of the mystery novels published, they were receiving less than 10% of the review space. So she gathered a group of like-minded women mystery writers and began monitoring reviews and educating reviewers.

Today, women write roughly half of the mysteries published. The gap in review coverage still exists, but it is much smaller than it was. And it is significantly smaller for mysteries than the recently publicized and debated gap that exists in the reviews of literary fiction.

And that would've been enough. But Sara and this band of Sisters in Crime didn't think it was enough. They set about educating writers about what it means to be a professional in this business, and they encouraged and mentored and shared their wisdom.

I remember poring over my copy of Shameless Promotion for Brazen Hussies (you've got to buy a book with a title like that! It's now available in its third edition). And I've learned much from countless Sisters who have become my mentors and friends.

Sisters in Crime has grown to 3,000 members, an inclusive group of writers and readers, booksellers and librarians, women and men, who continue to encourage the professional development of writers.

So, as a reader, I thank you for V. I. Warshawski, who has shown us how tough women can be and how we all should be, fighting for things that matter.

As a writer, I thank you for the mentoring, education and support.

And, as the 24th president of Sisters in Crime and on behalf of MWA, it is with delight that I present to Sara Paretsky this much-deserved Grand Master Award."

The following are Sara Paretsky's acceptance remarks for the Grand Master Award at the 2011 Edgar Allen Poe Dinner:

"I went to my first Edgar dinner in 1982. I watched the icons of my reading life talking and joking, but I was painfully shy and didn’t try to introduce myself to anyone. I was seated at a table at the outermost reach of the Sheraton ballroom, and the high point of the meal was when a waiter slugged one of my tablemates for not relinquishing his salad plate on schedule.

I’m amazed, and grateful, to join the company of Grand Masters whose work I have long admired, but it is unsettling to realize how quickly 29 years have passed.

Many people helped me reach this point. Stuart Kaminsky, whom we mourn, mentored me as I wrote my first book. My agent, Dominick Abel, agreed to represent me all those years ago; he has never faltered in his support.

Thanks to my editor, Chris Pepe, and my publishers, Putnam, for their hard work, and their presence at the banquet. (Although the company is known as GP Putnam’s Sons, it was George Putnam’s daughter, Mary, who was a leading 19th century writer and feminist. It seems fitting that my novels bear the name of the woman who forced England to accept women as doctors.)
I have been fortunate in the friendship of Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Her advice as a writer, and her guidance in the business of living, have been my lodestar for many years.

Above all, I thank my husband, the distinguished physicist Courtenay Wright, who has listened to 29 years of fears and self-doubts; his steadfast support has kept the wind beneath my sails. To him and to Dorothy, this award and these remarks are equally dedicated.

The world of books has seen major changes since my first Edgar dinner. It had been hard for me to find a publisher for a woman PI in America’s heartland; now, as a result of the revolution I helped start, detectives of all stripes and locations are commonplace.

I was lucky: in 1982, there were many more publishers to approach than exist today.

We live in a world of conglomerated publishers and distributors; we writers are often told that we are not creating stories or characters, but brands, as if the chief difference between our stories and toilet paper is that you can’t upload Charmin to your iPad. At least, not yet. In such a world it is hard to remember that we are storytellers, not accountants, marketers or vending machines.

This is not a new problem. When Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, the reception by both public and critics was hostile: he had left his brand, his travelogue novels. During Melville’s life, this astonishing masterpiece sold 500 copies. In a bitter weariness, Melville wrote Hawthorne:
The silent grass-growing mood in which a [person] ought to compose – that can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me.

Melville lived through times as turbulent as ours—slavery, the Civil War, the changes wrought by industrialization. But ours is also a time that thrives on slick one-liners, and on lies, made easier to swallow because we devalue literacy.

Today, close to one in four American adults can’t read or write well enough to handle a job application, let alone read a novel.

It took a 12th-grade vocabulary for Melville to follow the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but our most recent presidential debates use the language of sixth graders. Some candidates have devolved to the pre-school level.

We writers owe a duty to our gifts. We’ve been given the gift of language, and we need to dig deep into words. We need to relish wordplay, not rely on clich├ęs as we stumble toward the marketplace, or settle for the slick, repackaged street-talk we pick up from rap and TV.

And we owe a duty to our other gift, our stories. In the cacophony of sound that fills our broadband waves, amid the lies and shrill self-promotions, it is essential that we writers return to Melville’s silent grass-growing place and find the truths that fiction can lay bare.

Our fictions are myths, of course, not histories: they show heroes vanquishing monsters. Theseus versus the wicked Minotaur, Marlowe versus the wicked temptress, V. I. Warshawski versus the wicked corporation, they’re all the same story.

But these fictions tell essential truths, about our emotional lives, what we fear, what we want, what we need. Writing is a form of auto-surgery: the closer we cut to our own bones, force ourselves to emotional truth, the more authentic will our voices become.

As the poet Sappho wrote, more than 2600 years ago,

'Although they are only breath
Words, which I command
Are immortal.'

What we remember from Sappho’s time, and from Melville’s, are not brand names or spreadsheets, but poets. For in the end, it is that word which is only breath which endures."

Sara Paretsky, the 2011 MWA Grand Master, is the award-winning author of the 14-book mystery series featuring female detective V.I. Warshawski. The newest title in the series is Body Work. Sara is the founding sister of Sisters in Crime.

Cathy Pickens, the national president of Sisters in Crime, is the author of the award-winning Southern Fried mystery series featuring South Carolina attorney Avery Andrews. The most recent title in the series is Cant Never Tell.


Barbara said...

Wonderful! applause for both of you!!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

What a wonderful speech! I sent the eloquent passage about the dumbing down of our language off to my agent as part of an ongoing conversation as to whether my current ms is for a YA to adult audience because it uses adult language (and I mean rich vocabulary, not "F" words!) and themes, rather than for middle grade simply because one of the protagonists is under 13 at the beginning of the story.

Roberta Isleib said...

What a splendid moment! You women do us proud!

Msmstry said...

More reasons I'm proud to be a SinC member!

NancyM said...

I'm a proud member who applauds Sara Paretsky!

Laura Alden said...

Sara, thank you so much for bringing us V.I., for Sisters in Crime, and for the Melville quote. May you find that silent grass-growing mood whenever you need it.

Sara Paretsky said...

My language skills don't seem up to expressing how much the sisterhood of sisters means to me, but thank you all for it. said...

Ms. Paretsky, As a transplanted southerner living near Chicago, thank you for V. I. and the mental maps I have been able to draw on to find my way here in the big city. Cathy, God bless ya, Hon. Great speech. Now get moving and get me some more Avery!