I just got back from a lovely weekend in Bristol attending this year’s CrimeFest. It was blisteringly hot, and I had a lot of fun catching up with the usual batch of great people, along with a few new ones.
I also managed to attend a handful of panels for once, all of which were interesting. One of them was about the perennial subject of violence against women in crime fiction, and I found that one more of a mixed bag. It was successful in that the panellists were excellent and articulate in person, argued their corners well, and didn’t end up shouting at or physically attacking each other; it was less successful in that I think the subject matter rarely lends itself well to a panel discussion – it’s just a difficult topic to roundtable – and this instance was no exception. For one thing, it’s hard to argue when individual titles aren’t being named. We’re all too polite to do that, of course, but few authors admit to using gratuitous violence in their work, and without specific works to critique it can all seem a bit nebulous, untethered and theoretical.
But The Times have covered the subject today(£). I’ve blogged about it a few times in the past. And it’s been on my mind a lot lately anyway because The Nightmare Place is about rape. Throw the panel and the subsequent article into the mix, add a warm, sunny day with little to do, and I figured I’d set down some of my thoughts about the topic.
So. There are three questions I’d ask when presented with the purported rise of a particular phenomenon, which in this instance is an increased amount of graphic violence in crime fiction, particularly directed against women. The first question is is it actually happening? Because, you know, people claim things all the time, and we shouldn’t forget that a degree of confirmation bias can creep in – that just because you’re seeing more of something, it doesn’t mean the actual amount of it has increased. That said, and despite the burden of proof resting with the claimant, and the undoubted existence of a few historical outliers, I’d say it probably is true. Or at the very least, that it is in my own limited experience.
The second question is why is it happening? And I think there are a number of connected explanations for it.
Crime and horror fiction have always had their links (for example, and I might be a bit weird, but I see a lot of the existential horror and emptiness of Lovecraft in noir, just without the monsters), but for a couple of decades now crime fiction has been purloining more and more of the horror genre’s luggage, with the rise of the serial killer subgenre being an obvious example. Many serial killer novels could and perhaps would have been marketed as horror a few years ago, and of course some still are. But the clue’s in the name: serial killers have more than one victim, so a book about them probably will have too. In addition, their motives are usually sexual, and the things they subject their victims to are generally fairly unpleasant. Draw the curtain or don’t, but something bad is happening there.
In terms of the curtain, there is also the fact that society as a whole has become more explicit, by which I mean a number of things: that our access to all types of material has increased; that the material we can access – and indeed in some cases are exposed to whether we like it or not – has become more graphic; and that censorship has at least somewhat relaxed its grip on artistic output. And of course, artistic output often feeds on and reacts against its back catalogue. You could argue that ‘torture porn’ (a subgenre of horror) arrived as a result of all those things, especially the latter two. It’s an apt term for some films, where the point seems to be – forgive me – the money shot: an explicit amping up of stomach-testing violence, culminating in the final gross-out moment – the point of it all – mirroring the traditional porn narrative. And of course, once you’ve blowtorched one eye, in the next film you’re going to have to blowtorch two. I’d argue you’d be hard-pressed to find a true equivalent for torture porn in crime fiction, because however explicit the violence, it’s almost always supplementing a narrative rather than acting as an explicit substitute for one. But even so, for the above reasons, it doesn’t really surprise me that an increase in violence has occurred, in crime fiction as elsewhere.
Why women in particular? Well, I don’t believe the vast majority of readers and writers are getting off on this material, as such. I mean, I don’t think it’s the result of some emerging grotesque thigh-rubbing misogyny. For one thing, most of the readers and many of the writers are women. And while women can – of course – be either directly or indirectly misogynistic, there’s probably far more weight in the idea that it allows a vicarious exploration of personal fears – especially when, as opposed to all too often in the real world, the bad guy gets caught in the end. I also think there’s something in the idea that men as victims attract less sympathy. I might be wrong, but there remains a notion to some degree that men should be capable of sticking up for themselves, whereas women are more in need of protection and saving. This is misogynistic, of course, but it also points to the truth that patriarchy constrains and hurts us all. Narrative is hardly immune to the expectations of gender roles, however wrong-headed they may be. And look: I am guilty here. For example, when I watched The Silence of the Lambs, I remember having huge sympathy for the plucky girl in the pit, but considerably less for the innocuous security guard who gets beaten to death by Lecter. You may not remember him. He was a gruff, burly, professional man, visibly quite close to retirement, who inexplicably allowed himself to be overpowered by the elderly Anthony Hopkins, and who then had the skin of his face removed and his corpse dumped improbably on top of an elevator so everyone’s favourite antihero could contrive a fairly unrealistic escape. He is mourned by few. He should have got to his baton quicker.
Anyway, putting all that together, my answer to the second question would be: because it can happen, and because – like it or not – there’s very clearly a market for that kind of story. Shock horror: people appear to enjoy reading it. The monsters.
The third question is does it matter?
And seriously, why should anyone give a fuck? I genuinely don’t mean that in a dismissive way. I think it’s fine for Jessica Mann to say she doesn’t want to read or review that kind of book, or for Ruth Dudley Edwards to say she doesn’t want to write them. But that kind of subjective decision is a matter purely of personal taste, and it’s a world away from arguing that the rise of this particular phenomenon is some kind of objective problem and something the rest of us should be worried about.
I can think of three obvious ways to argue that violence against women in fiction is a bad thing. The first is that it reinforces the patriarchal attitudes I mentioned above. Which … well, okay. Yeah. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely a relatively minor contribution – reflective as much as causal – and more importantly it’s an argument that’s about narrative tradition rather than explicit violence, in that the argument would apply equally to a cosy crime novel with a female victim and a male detective and no explicit violence at all. I’m not saying the argument has no legs, but I’m really not convinced it’s running in the specific direction of the matter at hand.
The second is that the material corrupts. Here, I feel the burden of proof really does apply. It’s a charge that’s often levelled at violent material in many different genres and formats, and the evidence for influence remains distinctly flimsy. I’d raise objections to the likelihood of violent crime fiction in particular influencing an individual – but you know what? It’s really not necessary. This second argument is strong, and it would genuinely demand a counter, but it’s impossible to do so until the argument has actually been made.
The third argument is that many people don’t like this content, and that those readers and writers who enjoy less explicit fiction are being pushed to the sidelines. To which the answer is: if that’s the case then that’s just kind of tough. Of course, there’s truth in the idea that readers will see and buy the books that are promoted most heavily – but there’s also truth in the idea that those books are pushed because a market for them exists. Welcome to the industry; it can sometimes suck for lots of us, in many different and unique ways, but business is business. You remain able to read and write pretty much anything you want to, and if your publisher insists on including a dead woman on the cover when there isn’t one in the book, then either argue for them not to, or else accept that they’re trying to market your book the best they can and blame the readers – who may well be predominantly women, and who for some reason like that kind of thing.
“[Jessica Mann] recounted a story of a fellow female author who had quarrelled with her publishers after they insisted on putting a naked female on the cover, despite the book’s victim being male. “The notion that to sell a book that you have to have a tortured woman on the cover is very strange.””
Well, for what it’s worth, I actually can’t remember the last time I saw a bestselling crime fiction title with an image of a naked, tortured body of either sex on the cover, especially an explicit one. I don’t want to doubt Jessica Mann’s anecdote, and yet it sounds vaguely apocryphal to me. So on this, at least, we come full circle. As per my first question above, I’m happy to be corrected on the existence of such covers (and indeed, on any of the above; my thoughts remain a work in progress on this the same as they do on most things), and comments are open and welcomed.