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October 26, 2006

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Jenny Siler

When my first agent (male) initially took me (a straight woman, for the record) on as a client, he actually said, "now, I understand that you don't like men very much, but I hope we can have a good working relationship." This because my first novel included the violent deaths of several men. While it's unfortunate that lesbian crime writers have been somehow singled out for their propensity for violence, I believe these attitudes are part of a much larger problem. Namely, that as far as we've come in the world, readers (male and female) still find it difficult to believe that women can write fiction that's just as gritty, smart, and well-conceived as that of their male counterparts. To my mind, the whole lesbian thing is just another way of saying that these women couldn't possibly be "real" women to be doing the kind of quality writing they're doing. It's a justification that's supremely insulting, to ALL women, for so many reason I won't even begin to go into them here.
Contrary to Mr. Rankin's contention, my experience has been that some of the most mean-spirited and often overtly sexual violence in crime fiction in recent years has been perpetrated by male writers on their female characters. (Think the graphic rape scenes in James Lee Burke's fiction, or, slightly farther afield, the regular sexual brutality on popular television programs like Law and Order SVU or CSI.)

Sharon

Lesbian female writers more violent that Lee Child? I don't see it but maybe I'm not as well read in the "lesbian crime fiction sub-genre" as Mr. Rankin. I would love to see a list of the books he's referring to.

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite lesbian writers because she's a terrific story teller and does creepy like nobody else. I read most of the Tom Ripley books but don't find them particularly violent--even for that era. Disturbing, yes.

In a more contemporary vein, "Bones" by female crime fiction writer Jan Burke has one stomach-churning scene so graphic it almost borders on horror.

Jenny Siler

Interestingly, Dinitia Smith's article in today's New York Times about Booker Prize-winning author Kiran Desai also touches on the question of whether women are able to to write credibly about the dark side of human nature.

On the subject of having children, Ms. Desai is quoted as saying, “The isolation of writing settles in too deeply; it becomes part of your personality and your life. If I had a child, I’d have to break out of it and be sweet. But as a writer I am trying to understand hate and anger.”

While I respect her choice, I worry that this is exactly the kind of attitude that makes people think women are not capable of the same level of thought as men. That the only way for us to be quality thinkers and writers is to somehow sublimate the feminine aspects of our personality (including the desire to have children). What bullshit! My own experience as a mother and a writer is that having a child has enriched the way I experience the world and made me a far better writer. I've been a mother for three years now, and if anything, my writing is darker and angrier than ever. Thank God I have my daughter to pull me away from all that at the end of the day.

anne frasier

"I will tell you that they are mostly lesbians as well, which I find interesting."

i laughed out loud at that absurd statement! it's hilarious. i've certainly been condemned for the violence in my books. i used to write romance, and i was sometimes condemned for the graphic nature of the sex scenes. that's just the way i write. maybe female writers explore the intense scenes more thoroughly and hit those emotional notes harder. i don't believe in guttering candles in sex or death. :D

Victor Gischler

A few years ago I was on a hardboiled panel with all male authors at MAYHEM IN THE MIDLANDS. We were very accusingly (I thought) asked in a few different ways, "What's with you men and all the violence?"

If only I'd thought to say, "It's because I'm a lesbian."

Victor

anne frasier

victor: LOL! T-shirt material!

i think that's a reply we should all use from this moment on.

Ingrid (I.J.Parker)

Woohoo! I also burst out laughing at Rankin's thoughtless interview answer. (Possibly because that means I'm not the only one who puts her foot in her mouth on occasion.) The issue of violence in crime novels is far more complex and interesting than Mr. Rankin apparently thinks. It is more likely to divide the genre into disparate halves than the issue of whether a book is part of a series or a standalone. Readers tend fall into groups: those who will not read anything containing violence (i.e.the cozy fans) and those who prefer violence (i.e. the thriller fans). Gender does play a role here: many women prefer cozies, while men go for thrillers and hard-boiled, but my guess is that many people still read across the spectrum, provided the book is good. There is a place for a high degree of violence (as in McDermid's Sirens Singing) and a place where it becomes gratuitous (I'm tempted to put John Connolly in that category). In the end the book (and its author) has to be judged by criteria other than gender-related ones.

Sandra Ruttan

I don't want to get anyone else into trouble... but I had a conversation with a well-known British male crime fiction author on an aspect of this topic, er, this fall.

It was very generalized, and what I said to him was that, despite the stereotype that men don't talk about their feelings, many men are exploring sensitive issues in their writing. Conversely, there are a lot of women writing very gritty stuff, including Val McDermid and Mo Hayder (and even me, for that matter). I'm not telling you what he said... because what I said is all that's relavent here.

I would be inclined to think, without being able to read Ian Rankin's mind, that his comments were meant generally. I came over to read this because of the 'woman, violence' part of the title - I didn't know who was involved or what it was based off of.

I'm not prepared to say that women are more violent than men in fiction. I certainly haven't done the study. But I have to admit to making a comment recently to another author that raised the question of whether or not that was true. I see this as questions... interesting questions to consider. Nothing more, nothing less.

Val herself said on a panel at Harrogate that when she wrote first her Lindsay Gordon book the publisher was mortified that the bad person was a woman and she made a big joke of it, about the fact that not all women are lovely. Thus ends what I'll attribute to Val - what it made me think was that there is a perception amongst people that feminists (or most feminists, I didn't take a poll) think the bad guys should be guys. Otherwise, why did everyone find that anecdote amusing?

We all have little things we think that might not be PC, or things we wonder about. Not because we're anti-lesbian or anti-feminist or ant-women or anti-men. Just because we're writers, and writers are an inherently curious bunch so we think about all manner of things. Sometimes, it's stuff and nonsense we're glad we never mentioned on our blog... sometimes it's stuff we actually start to develop ideas/convictions about.

Since this treads close to a topic I discussed myself with Ian a few months ago, of course, my assessment of this isn't based strictly on what's been stated here but having a broader perspective of Rankin and his views on such things in mind. A poor choice of words here, but that's all, and since I've put my foot in my mouth many times, I'm not going to throw stones. What I take from the "if you turn that off" portion of the remark is that, in all likelihood, Rankin didn't proceed to explain his thoughts in full, so it can come off like pulling out the "men don't talk about their feelings" portion of my comment here and looking at that without the context. The meaning would be skewed.

I do agree with Anne - Victor, that would make a great t-shirt.

Christa Faust

So obviously sex with women makes you want to write nasty, explicit violence, while sex with men makes you want to write about love and babies and cats.

Being bisexual myself, I guess I have no choice but to write about really violent cats.

Dan

I'm also interested in the distinctions of what people consider to be "graphic violence," which to me is quite different from simply lots of violence. Someone above mentioned Lee Child, who always runs up a big body count and leaves plenty of blood on the floor. Yet, I never come out his shooting scenes particularly disturbed. They're fairly cinematic in pacing, and they don't linger on descriptions of wounds, dangling entrails, etc. What DOES disturb me is any scene featuring a slow killing, torture, or sadism. The more luxiurious the description, the more it creeps me out. And I'm not arguing that such description is gratutitous -- it's just not my cup of tea. To use a cinematic example (or maybe i'm just too chicken to single out any more writers by name!) consider the film, "Saving Private Ryan." Although the supremely violent opening scene on the beach wore me out, and must have showed dozens of killings, the scene which bothered me for days was a drawn-out stabbing in a lonely room, in a fight between two soldiers which took place while another soldier (who could have saved his friend) cowered just outside the door, too paralyzed with fear to act. The violence was much more personal, which made it seem far more graphic and hair-raising. Writers (particularly in our genre)are often trying to shock, scare or bedazzle, so they end up trying a variety of techniques, and in doing so they cross the taste boundaries for some readers but not others. Whether or not gender fits into this probably has more to do with the reader's view of the world than the writer's.

Kevin Wignall

Cut to the chase here - this argument has been going on since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the implication by men that women are incapable of writing about certain subjects.

I don't know Ian Rankin but I find it hard to believe that he was endorsing that point of view.

David J. Montgomery

I always thought that the recent trend of women writing gross-out violence was a marketing thing...

Cornelia Read

No, David, we all just have really bad cramps. And bloating. Don't forget the bloating.

Cornelia Read

Sorry, I forgot the smiley for that-- :^).

JDRhoades

"The people writing the most graphic violence today are women.."

Sorry, Ian., Simply not true.

I will say that there almost seems to be a sense of "can you top this" in crime fiction in the past few years. But both male and female writers, gay, straight and damfino, seem to be involved in the gross-out contest. Lord knows, I've been guilty of it myself.
Maybe I'm a lesbian too!

David J. Montgomery

I think one can at least make a case that, of the high profile crime fiction in recent years, a lot of the most graphic stuff has been written by women. Just to name one example, Karin Slaughter has topped most of the fellas when it comes to content. Thinking of male authors of roughly her stature in publishing, the only man who writes similar content that comes to mind is Thomas Harris. So it might be an interesting topic of discussion (why women are writing such violent books), but it's not a new one. And what any of that has to do with sexual orientation, I have no idea.

Otis

Always thought Guthrie a bit butch.

Elaine Flinn

I agree with David - it's a marketing thing. In fact, that was my immediate impression when I read Mo Hayder's first book -'The Birdman'.

And could Ian's remark have been taken out of context? Could he have had that mischevious smile of his on his face when he said it? I don't know Ian well, but I rather doubt he would have said that considering he and Val are close friends.

Kat Richardson

Yeah, I'm inclined to the "we're so shocked" argument. I don't think the women writing violence are any more graphic or icky about it than the men, but rather, they stand out because of preconceived and stubbornly continuing ideas about what women are "like" and what we think and what's acceptable for us to express in public. Why pick on lesbians, though? I can be quite disgustingly graphic when I please and I'm boringly vanilla-hetrosexual.
Violence is shocking--it should shock you, it should be as foreign as a fish juggling axes on a street corner. Alas, it's not. Perhaps part of the motivation of these writers is not the glorification of violence--especially against women--but an urge to make it as horrible and shocking in fiction as it ought to be in life.
And yes, Victor ought to be marketing that shirt--I hope to see him in it next chance I get.

Dan

One example of how some of these impressions probably take root.
I was at a CWA dinner in London a few years back, and an editor (female) asked if I'd met Mo Hayder, who was seated across the table. The editor then said -- paraphrasing here -- "She's so pretty and sweet, yet writes these incredibly violent books. It's really quite a shock to some people."
Not to mention that she's a mommy. Never mind all the daddys who had been turning out the gore over the years.
But it did make me take notice in a way that I wouldn't have for yet another male writer. So I suppose that part of the phenomenon is that it's simply more striking to many people when a woman not only writes against the muffins-'n-cats stereotype, but travels to the extreme edges of the genre. This, in turn, make's it a bit too-sexy-to-resist for certain marketing folks, who play up the contrast even if in subtle ways. If you run a knockout author photo next to a blurb citing all the hard-boiled blood and guts, it has a certain impact you wouldn't achieve with the same quotes next to a male Marine in face paint.
After a while more of these contrasts turn up in ads and/or stories. It becomes a hot little corner of the crime publishing world. Then the next time some author who has been noting all the buzz is asked, "Who's writing the really hard-nosed stuff these days?" he just might be inclined to pop out with, "Well, one interesting thing I've noticed is..." Especially if it's his umpteenth interview of the week, or of the day. Just about any author who has given more than two interviews begins to dread recycling the same old answers, and one can only imagine how many comments Ian Rankin has been asked for from the Edinburgh press alone. Therein lies the danger of coming out with something like the above.

David Terrenoire

I can think of only one lesbian writer who does graphic violence and that's JD Rhoades.

What? He is?

Oh. Never mind.

Helen

I do feel that the level of onscreen violence has increased dramatically over the past, say, fifteen years. I believe this is because of the rise of the serial-killer novel. There are many amazing writers doing serial killer books, but in my opinion there are far too many writers taking advantage of the 'when you run out of plot, drop another innocent victim!' serial-killer construct. And because there are lots and lots of these books out there, the author has to come up with a way to distinguish his/her serial killer from all the other serial killers. Hence the escalating descriptions of extreme violence. Generally directed against women.

I don't see this as a gender issue, but as a marketplace issue. New authors male and female go to greater and greater lengths in order to make an impact. And are relying on their old pal, the sociopath, to carry the mayhem forward.

Sandra Scoppettone

Who are all these lesbian crime writers, anyway? No. I'm not looking for a date.

S. W. Vaughn

Er... I write extremely violent fiction. I'm not a lesbian. I am a woman.

I don't think the gender/ sexual orientation/ shoe size of the writer really matters. The story matters, yes, and the way the writer chooses to convey the story.

Regarding authors themselves, shouldn't we be concerned only with whether they are decent people or utter wankers?

Also, I didn't see anyone picking on lesbians or women in the interview excerpt or in this post. What it may have been on Rankin's part is embarassment over having to comment at all on the gender issue. It shouldn't be an issue. Why do we make it one?

Sandra Ruttan

SW, I feel there's validity to what David said, "I think one can at least make a case that, of the high profile crime fiction in recent years, a lot of the most graphic stuff has been written by women." I find it interesting, but I'm not going to write a thesis on it. Just another thing I'm curious about.

I was at Harrogate Crime Festival this year and there was a panel called The Great Gender Debate. Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and Natasha Cooper moderating. One of the things discussed was whether there were things men or women couldn't write about as freely. One thing that was mentioned was that men didn't feel they could write about a pedophile.

Without listening to the session again, all I can say is that I found the topic fascinating and funny and if anyone dropped by and, er, watched the video of it I smuggled out of Harrogate, they'd roll their eyes at this comment, because not only gender but sexual orientation was discussed on the panel by the participants and it was all interesting, none of it offensive IMHO.

Sandra Ruttan

I should have clarified the pedophile comment - it was not feeling as free to write about that, not wanting to delve into a character like that in the same way, having discomfort with it.

I remember discussion about whether the women found it tougher to write about certain things, but it's been too long for me to start pulling up snippits that are hazy. I just wanted to clarify that because it wasn't that the men didn't/wouldn't, but at least one admitted they had reservations about certain things, that they felt as a guy it was harder for them to write about.

Tribe

Well, you learn something every day...I always thought Victor Gischler WAS a lesbian. Who woulda thought...

Robert Gregory Browne

Someone, please, give me an example of "graphic" violence in current crime fiction. Someone mentioned Tess Gerritsen, but to my memory none of the violence in her books is particularly graphic. She tends to hint at rather than directly show the graphic stuff.

I just want to understand what normal minds (unlike my own) consider graphic.

Michael

I have no idea their sexuality but I have found certain passages in books by Alex Kava and Karin Slaughter and Linda Fairstein off the top of my head to be very difficult to read.

It really doesn't matter to me that the authors are women, I could read Alex Kava blind (OK... bad turn of phrase) next to some Thomas Harris perhaps and I would cringe more at the violent details in the former.

Not to say anything bad about these books or their authors, just that they go past my comfort zone.

Is there general agreement that female authors have more license to be brutal to female characters?

Steve Allan

To me, what a person writes is determined by who they are as an individual, regardless of what statistical category they find themselves in. I think the idea that one will write according to sexual orientation is a little off. How many lesbians write non-violent books? How many gay men write a lot of violence?

I have to say that gender or sexaul orientation is never a factor when I pick up a book, however, a quick look around my office and I'd say that maybe a third of my books are by female authors, and I read across the spectrum (I'll even admit to some chick lit). Reading fewer female authors is not a conscious effort on my part, so I wonder why it has turned out to be so. And as for if they are gay, straight or bi, I have no idea - other than Jenny who courageously came out as a straight woman above. I'm sure Keith will be glad to hear it. :)

As for t-shirts, one of my favorite read: "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian" I wore it until the letters started to fade.

Stuart MacBride

So... does this mean I'm a lesbian then?

Actually, now I come to think about it: I do find women attractive, and I've got a cat.

Daniel Hatadi

Women have just as much understanding of violence as men. I learned this at an early age when I saw my mother using a meat tenderizer.

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Virgilio

Hey. Nothing inspires forgiveness quite like revenge.
I am from Latvia and , too, and now am writing in English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "Unique, unusual, goofy and just plain wacky gift ideas like this stuff, from a complete waste of perfectly good technology."

Best regards 8), Virgilio.

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