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.

(Quick edit to add thanks to crimeficreader for the link to the original article, which Martin Edwards also talked about here)

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 25th, 2009 at 8:52 pm and is filed under General, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


20 Responses to “Nobody was harmed in the making of this crime novel”

  1. Tweets that mention the left room» Blog Archive » Nobody was harmed in the making of this crime novel -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rhian Davies, Steve Mosby. Steve Mosby said: Nobody was harmed in the making of this crime novel: […]

  2. Sandra Ruttan Says:

    Excellent post, Steve. When I started reading the article in The Guardian I was struck by a few thoughts, right off.

    One was that I’d never heard of Jessica Mann before. Considering my abiding love of British crime fiction, my attendance at a few Harrogate events not so terribly long ago, and the fact that I get regular review copies from the UK, I’m a bit surprised.

    My next thought was that it was irresponsible to tar the entire genre with the same brush. The Guardian article gives the impression she’s washed her hands of the whole genre. Your post makes it sound like there are only some authors on her naughty list. I certainly hope so – I imagine authors of cozies who might be quite offended at
    being lumped in with the violence Mann is addressing.

    I’m not sure what the truth is, but this smacks more of a publicity stunt than a legitimate concern with the direction of the genre.

    One of the problems we face is that someone has to be a victim. That’s pretty much standard with crime fiction. People get agitated when you write about violence against children. I know: I’ve written two books that deal with that. These are tough subjects, but I wanted to write about them because I wanted to address problems with social services, flaws in the system, and the sad reality that sometimes, children are capable of horrendous things too… but that doesn’t make people any more likely to buy them if they can’t stomach that.

    And when was the last time there was a front page news story about a man being raped? Perception issues in society aren’t the fault of authors – they’re ingrained, complex and far-reaching. I’m certain some would say they write strictly to entertain, but some of us do attempt to reflect society as we see it in our books, and that’s greatly influenced by the crime that’s reported, and the crime that’s talked about in newspapers.

    It’s harder to sell a male murder victim to readers, or to portray a man being stalked and get the reader to buy into the fear the same way they would with a woman. The simple reality is, as a woman, I’m aware of my vulnerability.

    Just this past week I had to get physically involved breaking up a fight at school. The fight was between two students I work with regularly. One is a gang member. One of the things said afterwards to the students involved was that I am a lady and shouldn’t have to deal with that. It’s an example of long-standing perception issues we have. Girls are supposed to be ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’ and protected. If your son gets into a scrap at school it’s ‘boys will be boys’. If you daughter does it’s ‘such shocking behavior from a young lady’.

    You deserve a lot of credit, Steve. With 50/50 Killer you really offered equal opportunities to both genders to be victims. 😉

  3. Donna Says:

    Excellent post as always Steve. There was a panel topic on this at the recent Bouchercon too :o) I promise I won’t programme a similar one for next year’s Crimefest…or if I do, I shall make sure you’re on it :o)

  4. barbara fister Says:

    Actually there were two panels on the topic – one on women writing about violence (and Chelsea Cain was on it) and one on politics and feminism and telling women’s stories which I pretended to moderate. Actually, chaos ensued as soon as I gave up the mike so it’s not accurate to say it was moderated at all.

    You’re right to say that “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 … The books might be sexist, but they’re effective because our underlying attitudes are too.” But that’s what I find so interesting – that society is far more entertained by serial women victims than the odd male one (though in reality men are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than women), that hurting children and animals is off-limits, but massacring dozens of adults is a-okay, that whatever gruesome I’d-write-horror-but-this-sells staging is forgiven because justice prevails. (In reality … oh, never mind.) Silence of the Lambs has been endlessly reinvented, which makes me think it’s a story that strikes some deep chord in our society. Which is an interesting thing, three decades after the women’s movement.

    By the way, it has pissed me off since I wasn’t allowed to go places my brothers did that I am supposed to be afraid, that I should always be imaging my potential victimhood. Screw that.

  5. Ricky Says:

    As a reader of crime fiction I like to be interested, repulsed, shocked, satisfied and ultimately entertained by a book.

    I don’t believe that the sex of the victims is a key factor in achieving this.

    Joe Public couldn’t care less about what this “critic” has to say and she could have made her point by simply saying that she wasn’t enjoying some of the books she was being asked to review so would be moving onto a different genre. Perhaps Mills & Boon would be more her cup of tea.

  6. claire seeber Says:

    er…..VAGUELY patriachal?!!!

    the rest is great. But also I think that there will be a day soon when nothing will shock anyone and that’s why some writers feel compelled to be as graphic as possible….

  7. Dana King Says:

    I’ve thought for years that using women too much as victims is a cheat, a cheap way out. The stronger the victim, the more formidable the villain. Anyone with the necessary attitude can kill a 120 pound woman; a better story can be woven around subduing a killer who’s not afraid to take on someone his own size and ability, or greater.

    Barbara, I attended your panel at Bouchercon. Your moderation was exemplary, though you were outnumbered once people started citing manifestos instead of questions and answers. I almost asked a question myself, but once I saw how the conversation was trending, I decided I’d rather fly home from Indianapolis in a seat instead of in a box in the cargo section. (I did run into Mary Saums later that evening and had a very pleasant conversation that answered my question.)

  8. Laura Lippman Says:

    [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.]

    I am beginning to think that only Steve Mosby and death (that is, the passing of a writer) can lure me into the Internet.

    I do believe that most authors who promise to SHOCK, usually manage only to DISGUST, which actually lets the reader off the hook a bit. There are several writers who manage to ook me out, but almost none can shock me. The ending of MILDRED PIERCE shocked me and it involved a garden-variety non-fatal throttling. The ending of ATONEMENT, a book I didn’t particularly like, was shocking to me. I have just finished a forthcoming novel by Joshilyn Jackson which manages the increasingly difficult trick of being surprising. But very few crime novels shock or surprise me.

    The issue isn’t whether victims in crime fiction are male or female. The issue is whether they are human. Jessica Mann is onto something, but the gender divide actually keeps us from talking about the larger issue of not throwing bodies around to pad out our pages.

  9. Paul D. Brazill Says:

    Schadenfreude is part of the attraction of crime fiction, surely?

  10. John R Says:

    Not throwing bodies around to pad out pages? Damn it, if I stop doing that I won’t have any book left…

  11. stevemosby Says:

    Hmmm. There are so many intelligent responses here – almost unprecedented on my ghost town of a blog – that I don’t know where to begin. That’s my fault for trying to cram so much into my unwieldy post in the first place, of course.

    First off, Sandra, I didn’t recognise Jessica Mann’s name either. But she reviews crime fiction for the Literary Review, so she’s not trying to make a name for herself with this.

    I think Laura’s comment is on the money: “The issue isn’t whether victims in crime fiction are male or female. The issue is whether they are human.”

    That’s certainly the way I feel about things … but the contrarian inside me (no obscene jokes, please, John) wants to argue the point. I’m actually massively critical of the formulaic, cliched, character-less serial killer novels I think Mann has in mind, yet I still want to defend them a little. Because all a writer has to do is justify the entrance fee. Personally, I prefer it if it’s the entrance fee to a smart, between-the-lines discussion – but other people are perfectly happy with a rollercoaster ride, and so long as they leave happy the book has done its job. A violent but artistically-vapid book might sell well, so who am I to say that’s wrong, even if I think it? It’s certainly happened before. It happens all the time.

    The “women as victims” thing. Sandra – I’m claiming one better with 50/50 Killer, in that (spoiler) no women at all die in the timeframe of the book. There are dead women in the case file, but every victim over the “live” course of the book is male. I digress.

    The women as victims thing interests me because it is true, and goes back a long way. It’s a familiar trope in literature, as far as I know: that for as long as we can go back, men can be found fighting either for or over women, while those women wait, submissively, to have their fates determined. Our legends are full of heroes who have to perform tasks or answer riddles to win the King’s daughter – and I see remnants of that in a lot of modern crime, especially the serial killer genre. And however much we might care about a man in jeopardy in real life, in fiction that doesn’t seem to carry the same weight, because: a) we kind of expect a man to defend himself; and b) a man’s sexuality isn’t seen as the same sort of “prize”. I do get a sense – both in fiction, and in newspapers – that a woman’s ‘purity’ is still seen as something that can be fought over, sullied or saved.

    And that is a sexist framework, both for society and fiction. Of course, I might be exaggerating or misreading things, and I’m always willing to be corrected. But we all know that guys are more likely to be assaulted than women – yet it doesn’t seem to make as compelling fiction. And sexual violence against men (“Don’t drop the soap!”; kicks to the balls in comedy films; Lorena Bobbitt etc) is normalised in a way it’s not against women. Sexual violence against women seems to flick a wire inside us and set something humming. I guess, whatever you’re aiming for with your fiction, that’s going to resonate.

  12. stevemosby Says:

    Oh, by the way, welcome to everyone who came here as a result of the New Yorker article here:

    You’ll already be familiar with all the links I mention in my post, but I hope you like the other stuff, stick around and have fun.

  13. tess gerritsen Says:

    this is the most reasoned, well-written analysis I’ve ever seen on this topic.

    You mention that “female as victim” is a powerful, enduring theme. That’s true not just among misogynists, but also among women themselves. I mentioned over on Sarah Weinman’s blog that my female readers told me they only want to read books in which women are the potential victims. And children love books in which children are threatened. We all seem to identify with the victims, and that’s what makes these books scary and exciting for us.

    I invite any crime author who’s outraged about the misogynism of fictional female victims to disavow any plans to write such novels. I challenge you to write books with only male victims.

    I suspect you’ll have a hard time rounding up female readers.

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  15. Brian Lindenmuth Says:

    Earlier this year I read hundreds of crime short stories over a couple of weeks and the conclusion I came to was that fucked up people doing something fucked up to a character that I didn’t care about became the norm. There was a cheap nihilism at play that may have appealed to me in my younger, teenage days but not any longer except in small, every once in a while doses. Even further still it seems that no one is ever troubled or surprised or inconvenienced by anything anyone else does.

    Characters that randomly turn on each other simply because the created world is so hostile that any act becomes the source for action is at best a cheaply manufactured confrontation. If all women are reduced to shrews, bitches, femme-fatales, conquests, molls and dames, and all men are reduced to Neanderthals, protectors, assholes and bruised romantics then the author barely has to do anything to create a conflict. The dramatic bar is set so low at times that one can step over it by barely lifting a foot.

    God forbid the emotional third rail get grabbed.

    But stories that create a sense of internal opposition and can handle more then one idea and facet are the ones working at the highest possible level, the ones that we remember and the ones that we love.

    Imagine how different the genre would be if readers told writers that every time they were going to kill a character, they should have a dramatically and intellectually convincing reason to do so.

    And by now I’m all rambly and not making any sense so I’ll shut up.

    Except to say that, Steve, I think we both know that I dispute the validity of the following statement that you made:

    The “women as victims” thing. Sandra – I’m claiming one better with 50/50 Killer, in that (spoiler) no women at all die in the timeframe of the book. There are dead women in the case file, but every victim over the “live” course of the book is male. I digress.

  16. tess gerritsen Says:

    you mentioned EXQUISITE CORPSE by Poppy Z. Brite — the perfect example of how ooky the horror genre can get. That book made me squirm, but damn, was it good writing. (cue the standard comment: “And the author looks so sweet!”)

    Interesting how, in this discussion of violence against women in fiction, no one’s thought to bring up Chelsea Cain’s books, where utterly horrifying violence is done to men. By a woman.

  17. stevemosby Says:

    Tess – hi there, and thanks for stopping by. Agree with everything you say, and also over at Sarah Weinman’s blog. Exquisite Corpse – such a good book! Haven’t read it for years, but feel the urge to go back to it now. And of course it ends horrifically. The thing I remember most from it is actually the epigraph at the beginning: that Jeffery Dahmer’s corpse was handcuffed during his autopsy “such was the fear of this man”. No idea whether that’s true – I’m guessing not – but such a horribly believable and evocative detail.

    “And the author looks so sweet!” Exactly. I hate that, and it’s what I was getting at in my original post. So many interviews with female crime writers include a variation on that, and it’s so sexist. It’s why it annoys me a little when they don’t say “Hey – fuck you!” and instead tacitly endorse the premise by talking about why women might want to write such dreadful things.

    Brian – ha ha! I had to think about that for a moment. But you are, of course, quite right. The fate of one woman in 50/50 Killer, at least below the surface, is debatable…

  18. stevemosby Says:

    Just to wrap this up with a few links for anyone who wants to read more … sorry, who am I kidding? But here we go anyway.

    Val McDermid has her say in The Guardian here:

    The F-Word grabs hold of it and runs into predictable territory:

    There’s a huuuge discussion over at CrimeSpace:

    But best of all is this essay, which isn’t connected to the Jessica Mann thing, but has lots and lots of intelligent things to say about monsters and their roles and uses in fiction:

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