Well, thank you for asking. (No, we’ll come to that). But the longlist for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2011 was released last Friday, and I’m really pleased to see that Still Bleeding made the cut. Voting is open from 13 May until 5 June. It’s to determine the shortlist, from which the winning book will be announced at the festival in July. It’s a really fine list, and an honour to be included, even if the book ends up going no further.
With this earlier diatribe in mind, I’ll simply say “Vote Early! Vote Once!”
Okay, so. With the announcement of the longlist, we’re also back to talking about the gender of crime writers.
“This is a much healthier list [says Dreda Say Mitchell]. It reflects what people are reading – the type of fiction I read myself. In the past Stef Penney and Val McDermid have both won the prize, but in terms of the long and shortlists, it hasn’t showcased the female side of the genre. What female crime writers do particularly well is create interesting and developed female characters, rather than having the woman just end up as the victim.”
It’s certainly an issue, because female writers have often been under-represented in the long and shortlists for the Theakston (and other lists in other genres and even, tacitly, awards granted for non-genres). It’s a totally legitimate concern; on average, you’d expect women to make up around 50% of a longlist, wouldn’t you. (It’s also, of course, a rocky road to start off down – what percentage should be Black people? what percentage Black women? etc – but if we limit statistical expectations to one category, and make it sex, then it does seem a bit troublesome when the ratios aren’t closer to equal). Undeniably, it’s pleasing that, this year, a whole bloody third of the nominees on the Theakston longlist are women. Here’s to two thirds next year.
While I’m interested in that, I’m not half as interested as I am in the second half of Dreda’s statement, which I’ll just repeat for emphasis:
“What female crime writers do particularly well is create interesting and developed female characters, rather than having the woman just end up as the victim.”
We’ve been here before, of course, and will probably be here again. For example, in this article, Julie Bindel explores female writers who deal with gruesome subject matter, and quotes several at length:
“Reading violent fiction affirms absolutely what I do as a feminist to challenge sexual violence … Good female writers provide us with the opportunity to feel the awful effects of such abuse, and to empathise with the victims.” [Denise Marshall]
“(women) are made aware of the constant threat of violence in a way that men are not … every time you walk home alone at night, every time a stranger asks you for directions on a deserted street, every time you’re home on your own and there’s a strange breeze moving through the curtains” [Tana French]
“Women are far more in tune with violence than men … I draw a particular distinction between violence that is gratuitous, and violence that is meaningful. In some crime novels (by men), the victims are one-dimensional characters who merely exist to be slayed.” [Val McDermid]
With the caveat that individual experience varies, there’s surely some truth in the notion that women fear and suffer from violence to a different extent and in different ways from men. (Which is not to say that men don’t; it is actually quite dangerous to be a young man out at night). But, obviously, women are far more likely to suffer from sexual violence and domestic violence, and that’s without even going into the overall cultural framework in which women are routinely objectified sexually and under-represented in positions of power.
All of which might seem to support the notion that female writers are in a better position to understand and empathise with victims of male violence in general. (Although it’s worth noting that men are usually the victim of male violence as well). There is a slight contradiction there, though, as – contrary to Dreda’s comment – it seems to imply female writers are going to be best at writing fiction in which women actually are the victims, which might end up tying the whole argument into an impenetrable ball.
But actually, I do wonder about the whole conversation. In another interview, Val says this:
“Have you ever heard a male crime writer being asked, ‘As a man, how do you feel about writing about violence?’ There’s a profound disassociation, it seems to me, as if somehow it’s wrong for us to be writing about violence against women, as though somehow we need permission to write about violence against women.”
And also, here, this:
“There is still a funny notion that women should not write violent fiction, and yet women more often than not are the victims of sexual violence. So what are we saying – that the ones most likely to experience it should not write about it?”
And this seems more to the point to me – dead on, in fact. Because while male crime writers get the question too – “what draws you to such dark material?” – it’s true that female writers receive it in a slightly different envelope. It reaches its nadir in interviews with people like Mo Hayder and Alex Barclay, who seem to have to deal all too frequently with some window-licking journalist who can barely post his article for the dribble on the copy. The question in the blog heading is usually there, albeit couched in different language. And it’s there in many interviews with many female crime writers – the notion that there is something odd or unusual about women wanting to write about violence.
Leaving aside the fact that violence is an important, concerning and perfectly sensible choice of subject matter in and of itself, Val’s indignation seems spot on to me. As Jo-Ann Goodwin points out in one of the articles above:
“women have historically done the dirty jobs, wiping the blood, snot and mucus of the wounded, sick and dying. Caring for the old, and coping with the physical and very visceral agonies of childbirth … we simply have stronger stomachs out of necessity, and far closer contact with the secrets of the body. Women can’t faint at the sight of blood. They would spend several days a month on the carpet.”
Well, quite. Taking into account Val’s comments above regarding sexual violence, the point is: it’s a fucking stupid question to ask a female writer. It’s a question that arises from a sexist framework, in which women, traditionally made of sugar and spice, need to justify an interest in violence. My problem is with some of the responses. Because it seems to me that to accept the question and attempt to answer it on its own terms is to capitulate with that framework. To be clear, I think the answer should be “don’t be so fucking stupid”, “you wouldn’t ask a man that, so why me?”, or something equally blunt. But when you start saying “women do this better, women do that better” you are engaging with that sexist framework: you are accepting that women as a group do need a reason to write about violence – and here is that reason. To defend yourself is to acknowledge the validity of the attack. The attack isn’t valid. We can all see that. No permission is needed, so why seek it?
Although it’s entirely possible I’m just smarting.
Anyhoo. Just a reminder: I’m doing this event on Thursday, with John Connolly and Charlie Williams. It promises to be a good time, and if you’re in Liverpool and fancy popping in, it would be lovely to see you. In advance – assuming you’re not sick of the sight of my text – I’ve also done an interview with the site, which you can read here.
There’s also this interview, with the wonderful Keith B Walters, that came too late for the previous post.
The Irish Independent gave Black Flowers a nice mention here. Try to spot the sentence that will be used for quoting purposes.
Finally – CrimeFest this week. It’ll be an early morning on the Friday to get from Liverpool to Bristol, but I’m hoping to catch loads of people down there. Two panels that day. Chilling on the Saturday. Looking forward to it.