Posted by stevemosby on October 25th, 2009
There are only a handful of popular debates you get within crime fiction – by which I mean subjects that keep coming up, and which you’ll usually find covered in at least one panel at every single crime festival, year after year, as well as getting occasionally covered by the media. The ‘crime versus literary fiction’ debate (“Why isn’t X on the Booker list? Whine, whine”) is an obvious example. Trumped – arguably – by only one other: ‘violence in crime fiction’. And, of course, its offspring: the ‘women write more violent fiction than men’ discussion, and the ‘lesbians write more violent fiction than straight women’ gambit, first deployed, to universal acclaim, by Ian Rankin here.
There was a new article, skimming this subject, in the Observer today (here). Crime novelist and reviewer Jessica Mann has announced (back in September, actually) that she won’t be reviewing certain crime titles anymore because:
… an increasing proportion of the crime fiction I am sent to review features male perpetrators and almost invariably female victims — series of them. Each psychopath is more sadistic than the last and his victims’ sufferings are described in detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated, stabbed, boiled or buried alive … So however many more outpourings of sadistic misogyny are crammed on to the bandwagon, no more of them will be reviewed by me.
The Observer begins by saying:
Crime fiction has become so violently and graphically anti-women that one of the country’s leading crime writers and critics is refusing to review new books.
Mann’s original article briefly touches on the sex issue, (“The trend cannot be attributed to an anti-feminist backlash because the most inventive fiction of this kind is written by women”), whereas the Observer piece delves a little deeper, accepting the premise that the most violent crime fiction is written by women and getting quotes from female authors to explain why that might be. Natasha Cooper says it might be “to establish their credibility and prove they are not girly” – a kind of ‘fitting in with the lads’ approach – while Val McDermid says “women grow up knowing that to be female is to be at risk of attack. We write about violence from the inside. Men, on the other hand, write about it from the outside”. (Which also harks back to this Julie Bindel piece, where similar explanations are presented. To the point I assumed the quotes had just been lifted, before I crossed myself, took a stuff drink and checked).
All of which ties in – at least slightly – to the recent article on feminist blog The F-Word about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I blogged about here, and which, if nothing else, goes to show that some people will see “sadistic misogyny” everywhere if they look hard enough – even in a mild-mannered and much-celebrated Euro-crime novel. As the old maxim goes: if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Anyway.
I despise myself for quoting myself – no, I really do – but I mentioned in that blog entry some of the reasons I think women are often the victims in crime novels, with special reference to the Larsson –
1) It appeals to women: the primary audience for crime fiction. Not the victimisation, but the vanquishing of the predator, often by an empowered female figure. They get to explore their fears and have them confirmed and, ultimately, set right. The monster is gone. Beaten. Dead. Life returns to normal.
2) It appeals to guys, for a mixture of reasons, some of which are implicitly sexist but not misogynist. Women are vulnerable. We like saving women. Aside from that, we like strong women who save other women. We like imagining a strong, righteous female character who might kick a bad guys’ arse and still want to know us. It’s a kind of macho competition, but with zero effort. Measuring up, in some ways, to what we’ve absorbed as a feminist ideal of what a woman and man should be.
3) A female victim has better narrative value than a male one. Guys are expected to defend themselves. Women are seen as more fragile, vulnerable and valuable.
4) All of the above because, despite the advances, we still live in an at least vaguely patriarchal culture. And possibly we always will.
– and, while I’m sure there are a multitude of other reasons, I still think that more-or-less covers it. And it’s not “misogyny” in the true sense of the word. I don’t believe that vast swathes of male or female authors are crafting these particular stories, and graphic scenes in particular, because they hate women. I imagine Jessica Mann doesn’t think so either, although you’d be forgiven for thinking so after reading the links. At worst (and, I think, realistically) the traditional format is somewhat sexist – but I don’t believe that reflects the writers either, so much as the culture we live in, from which those authors necessarily draw. When Mann finishes her anecdote with “brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t. Nor do dead children or geriatrics”, it’s intended as damning, whereas I see it more as a comment on the way dramatic fiction works in our current social situation. The books might be sexist, but they’re effective because our underlying attitudes are too.
Moving away from the victims, what about the escalation of violence? Okay. First off – do you want to know who writes the most graphic violence? Drum roll… Horror writers. There, I said it. Sorry, and all, but the violence in ‘crime fiction’ debate is pointless. You think Mo Hayder is shocking? Go read Edward Lee’s The Bighead. Chelsea Cain too full on? Have a look at Poppy Z Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. Because trust me: you’re arguing about who is the most violent in a nation crammed with relative pacifists. And I don’t believe the horror genre is a detour here. Thomas Harris, with The Silence of the Lambs, showed how a horror-style monster could function effectively in a crime narrative. Yes, the desensitisation of the audience is a key factor across the board, but I also think it’s relevant that the horror genre ‘busted’ slightly over the last decade or so (aside from a few authors, obviously), and that many of the books that would previously have been published as horror are now shelved under crime, often following Harris’s template, if not his talent.
Is it a good thing? Ah, who cares. You read what you want to, don’t you, and you write what you want to.
There are, however, a few things I’d note.
1) Saying something like “it’s far more horrible when it’s left to the imagination” in this kind of argument is at best disingenuous – if that was really true, violence wouldn’t be a problem for you. In fact, you’d feel let down. It’d be the subtle books that would freak you out.
2) These aren’t real people. They’re characters. Even less than that, they’re words on a page, stuck together in a line to create an effect in your head. It reminds me of something else crime writers often say. “My books are filled with violence but the reader objected to the word ‘fuck’!!!!”. Well, yes, that’s because the word ‘fuck’ is there on the page and is offensive to some people in itself. Whereas the violence isn’t really happening. Nobody was harmed in the making of this crime novel.
3) There’s nothing clever about violence. Show the effect of the violence on the family and friends by all means, and on society as a whole. Develop that sense of loss and anguish. But if you find yourself saying “I included explicit violence because real-life violence is horrible, and I felt a duty to present it realistically, and…” then you’re (probably) making excuses and underestimating your audience. I know violence hurts; I don’t need a crime writer to tell me. Especially if your book is, say, about a kid who gets abused at a funfair then grows up to murder people based on the different rides while dressed as a clown. You’re not Dostoyevsky, okay? I think we can all see that.
4) Last but not least – and I repeat myself again – I know violence hurts. And while I appreciate women, en masse, experience a different kind of fear than I do, I also think: a) male violence, as a whole, is something we all suffer from at some point, along with the fear of it; and b) there’s something inherently demeaning and disempowering about the whole “women know what it’s like to be prey” business. When an interviewer asks “why do women write more violent fiction than men?” I don’t think the correct answer is an explanation that ignores the complexities and nuances of individual life in favour of sweeping, sex-based generalisations. The correct answer is “why the fuck are you asking me that?”. Because the question itself is implicitly sexist. And, by accepting the premise, the answers are too.