A few days ago an extremely interesting discussion kicked off in the ‘about’ section of this blog on depictions of violence and women in crime fiction. I’m taking the slightly unusual step of reproducing the thread here (in a lightly edited form), as it would other-wise remain largely invisible. It closes with a fabulously affirmative list of ‘strong women in crime’, sourced via Twitter and the blog.
With thanks to the participants in the discussion – Susan, Cassandra, Maxine and Bernadette – and to everyone who put forward their favourites for the list!
The discussion began with a comment about Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna (1965).
Susan Wright: I recently discovered your blog thanks to Mark Lawson’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Radio 4. I’m enjoying your reviews and I agree with many of your opinions, especially about the cliched representations of women in some crime fiction. Like you I thought Varesi’s River of Shadows was wonderfully atmospheric but marred by the sex scenes. I’m now reading the first Martin Beck novel; having been told it was a Marxist critique and had a left-wing perspective, I was surprised by the prurient description of the victim, particularly the interview of her boyfriend by the US cop which goes into graphic detail about her sex life. I know this was written before 70s feminism, but I was disappointed all the same. It seems cliches about women and female sexuality are not limited to Italian male crime authors.
Mrs P: What you’ve said about Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel, has really got me thinking. It’s a little while since I read it, but I understood the role of those sexual details in a slightly different way. I saw them as providing the reader with a portrait of Roseanna as a very independent, sexually-liberated person, and instead of indulging in the stereotypes one might find in literature of the time (that her sexuality was what ‘got her into trouble’), the authors give her full victim status. Beck, for example, never wavers in his quest to bring her murderer to justice. So in that respect the novel is arguably groundbreaking.
But I take your point, and think I may need to read the novel again, so that I can see that interview with the American cop in the context of the whole narrative!
Susan Wright: I agree it is a groundbreaking novel and the authors wanted to show Roseanna (and themselves) as modern and sexually liberated, but I found some of their approach quite disturbing, almost voyeuristic, although I suppose all fiction is voyeurism to some extent! As well as the American cop scene, at one point Beck asks a colleague to write a detailed description of the corpse which I also found a little prurient. I cannot ever recall reading a crime novel which described a male victim in that way. I’m only half way through the book but it is striking how few women there are and how marginal they seem, though I suppose this reflects how different women’s roles were in the 60s – so far there are no female police. I like Beck’s compassion, not just for Roseanna but for the woman Karin who worked on the cruise boat and has fled a violent man.
Cassandra Clark (author): I am disturbed by what Susan Wright says as it resonates so closely with my own feelings about the kind of obsessively detailed descriptions of violence against women in some crime novels. I don’t think it’s good enough to say it takes place in the 1960s so it’s OK. The same prurience is rarely directed towards male murderees. Maybe we should ask ourselves why not? I suppose until it is (though heaven protect us against what that will mean for our humanity) there will be no equality between men and women. This is just a thought. I have to deal with this problem every time I write because my series is set in the fourteenth century when things were a bit rough – and women had even less say than now.
Mrs. P: Depictions of violence against women in crime fiction (especially sadistic sexual violence) have bothered me as long as I’ve been reading in the genre, and I would agree with you that this is a topic that should be acknowledged and properly discussed. Every now and then I consider writing a blog post on the subject and then get cold feet, because in many ways it’s such a minefield. In any case – a few thoughts in response to your comment:
Time of publication: I agree that misogyny should not be excused if it appears in a book written in the 1960s, but it does provide at least a partial explanation that helps us understand its presence.
Authorial intent: some authors like Val McDermid have been criticised for writing eye-watering depictions of violence against women (usually by serial killers). I’ve heard McDermid argue that her intent is to highlight the shocking realities of misogyny and violence against women in our society, which are often ignored. However, the risk that a reader might get some kind of perverse kick out of those depictions remains, as the author can never completely steer the interpretation of his or her writing. Her later books have apparently toned down this element.
The same problem could be said to exist in relation to David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet (1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983), which explore the Ripper killings in some detail, and which I greatly admire. (This is where things get complicated for me – why do I view some depictions of violence against women as justifiable and some not? I need to think about this in more detail, but think it has to do with the purpose of those depictions / what the inclusion of those depictions achieves in the larger context of the narrative.)
Misogyny sells? One really depressing thought for me is that publishers / film studios are actively on the lookout for explicit depictions of violence against women (whether in crime fiction or other genres such as horror), because they know that these will sell. What that says about us as a society is pretty bleak.
Equality: funnily enough, I happen to be reading An Uncertain Place by the French crime novelist Fred Vargas at the moment, which features an unbelievably brutal murder of a man, with some pretty prurient features! Still undoubtedly an exception to the rule, and I agree with you that this isn’t the kind of equality for which we should aim!
There was a bit of a media storm in 2009, when Jessica Mann, an author and critic, declared that she was no longer willing to review some books due to their misogynist content. (Her original statement can be accessed here). Val McDermid then wrote a response (she felt that female authors were being unfairly targeted for criticism).
I’d be very interested to hear in a little more detail how you deal with all of these complexities as a writer yourself…
Maxine (Petrona blog): I am allergic to crime novels depicting violence (torture, serial killer, mentally unstable kidnappers, etc.) against women, children and other victims and I am afraid that the genre seems to be increasingly popular. I have failed to finish several “raved about” books on these grounds, and failed even to start others, e.g. Stuart MacBride’s latest whose plot blurb is horribly off-putting.
That having been said, I do not think the criticism of Roseanna by Sjowall/Wahloo is fair. I think this is a serious book, not prurient, and I feel that Beck’s sympathy for the victim drives him on to solve a crime that others would long since have forgotten. I think the S/W novels are as far from some of the poorly written, sensationalist rubbish that is written these days as it is possible to be!
Mrs. P: I feel the same way about Roseanna, but to be fair this was an impression gained from a partial reading of the book (am keen to see what Susan thinks on completion!).
Thanks also for the link (via Friendfeed) to the blog-post you wrote on the Mann discussion. Some extra links there that might be of interest to others…
bernadetteinoz (Reactions to Reading blog): This is a perennial topic and one I suspect will be with us for several generations yet. I do my best to avoid books in which the violence against women feels particularly prurient but, like you Mrs P, I might not always appear consistent as I do tend to take intent into account and, of course, it is usual that I have to infer intent from things outside the book in question (e.g. the author’s previous work). Somewhat perversely I absolutely do not think that we should be censoring our publications based on the fact that some perverted sicko somewhere might get some enjoyment or, heaven forbid, some ideas, from what he (and it will almost definitely be a he) reads. That way madness (and totalitarian dictatorships lie).
I think I do disagree with one point made earlier in this discussion, well half-disagree anyway. I think the reason we don’t see nearly as many graphic descriptions of torture and sexually motivated violence occurring to men in crime fiction is that the genre is after all in some ways a reflection of real life and that kind of violence does not happen as much to men in real life as it does to women. However, the kind of violence that men are often subject to – being shot or dying in violent person-to-person fighting – is depicted quite a lot. George Pelecanos’ books are full of it as are the books of many other authors I’m sure – but I can’t name heaps of them because I tend to avoid them just as I do the books in which violence against women for the sake of it appears to be a central point to the book’s existence.
Mrs P: I absolutely agree with you about the censorship issue, although one thing I’m interested in is the ‘self-censorship’ angle, by which I mean authors who may change their approach to depicting violence in a series, due to audience reactions or because they feel that they went a step too far in their early work. I’ve heard David Peace say (at a reading in Belfast a couple of years ago) that he would have written parts of his ‘Red Riding’ quartet differently today, particularly the detailed depictions of what was done to the female child victims in the novel. He saw this shift as being partly due to his own development as a writer; he now felt elements of those depictions were gratuitous. I’d be very interested to hear if other authors have modified their depictions of violence as their writing careers progressed (in either direction, in relation to either gender, and if so why).
‘Gendered’ types of violence as a reflection of real life: this is a really good point, and I think what Val McDermid was arguing when defending depictions of violence against women in her own books (as I heard her do at a Harrogate panel in 2006). I was barely able to read portions of The Last Temptation , but I could at least see what she was trying to achieve. It did put me off reading her works for a while though. George Pelecanos: another author I greatly admire, whose novel The Big Blowdown is on my list of all-time crime greats. His depictions of violence seem to me to be carefully contextualised in larger narratives of ethnic and class tensions, and work for that reason in my view.
Maxine: Agree with you both on the censorship aspects, and Bernadette makes a good point about the “macho” violence which is more commonly the way it is done to males in crime fiction, than the type of nastiness done to the weak (women, children). Reminds me of the way some comedians on TV are said to target the disabled.
Val McDermid seems to have toned down her torture-style books over the past few years, so she herself may be an example. Probably to do with appealing to a wider, non-crime-reading audience.
It is nice to me that some of the very best-selling and top (my view!) crime authors don’t depict unnecessary violence while still being hard-hitting, e.g. M. Connelly, D. Meyer, I. Rankin, R. Rendell, L. Marklund. I also like authors like Peter Temple who address tough issues such as abuse of children (in care homes), young women, etc. – making the topics harrowing and not airbrushing, but still not dwelling on them in unnecessarily “revelling in it” ways. Connelly, Marklund etc. do quite a bit of this, too.
Mrs P: I very much agree with your last paragraph, Maxine: a huge amount depends on the quality of the writer, and the skill with which he or she situates depictions of violence in the context of larger issues. That’s when the crime novel reaches its full potential as a vehicle for critiquing society, and highlighting crimes and injustices perpetrated within it.
Cassandra Clark: I do agree that context is important, but when people say it’s ok if well written this is to put aesthetics above ethics. Something to discuss there, I feel. I also question one of the contributors’ remarks about violence being mostly done to women and therefore it’s a true picture of society. (Novelists are not journalists.) I haven’t checked the statistics but I would imagine most murders are a result of street violence between young men. It’s the criticism of unbalance, also levelled at crime novels set in Iceland or Sweden – more corpses than inhabitants! – leading one to imagine the crime rate in these places is ten times higher than that in Chicago, tipping the balance towards blatant untruth and undermining the argument that they provide a true picture of society. What gets me down is the constant dwelling on women as victims. Yes, we know about misogyny but what do we know about how to fight back? If detailed descriptions of the nasty things people can do to other people is considered necessary to tell a good story then I want to see a few winning women in this literary-engendered battle. In fact, come to think of it, that’s how I deal with it in my own writing. Hildegard fights back. I hope she always will.
bernadetteinoz: I’ll respond to this as I was the one who made the original claim and I do think it stands up. If women are going to be subject to violence it is most likely to be domestic violence or sexual assault by someone she knows (and by knows I mean everything from is ‘married to’ to ‘has met briefly’) – that’s what the health stats say anyway (which I know about from my day job) – I think crime fiction reflects this, though of course it takes things to extremes (often for no good reason, sometimes to make a perfectly valid point) – of course there is also a whole load of serial killer fiction in which mostly women are tortured and whatnot, but most of these are cashing in on a trope that I think had its origins in something far less flashy and probably a lot more realistic (e.g. the guy meets girl and when she says no he decides she meant yes and rapes her scenario). That certainly appears to be what the early books depicting quite graphic violence from authors like Patricia Cornwell were doing (I think Cornwell lost track of this early theme, but that’s another story).
That said I think there is a whole load of crime fiction that does not treat women as victims – there are loads of strong female characters who fight the good fight either due to some trauma in their own past or their viewing of the realities of what has happened to other people they know. Certainly most of the crime fiction I read these days does not cast women as the perennial victim. But I rarely read any of the mainstream crime/thriller/ slasher stuff in which people are making things out of human skin or collecting women’s body parts or any of that kind of nonsense.
Cassandra Clark: Yes, I think I was generalising about mainstream i.e. best-seller paperbacks. What about a list of strong women novels then?
Mrs. P: Great idea – and a lovely way to wrap up this discussion.
Update, 5 December: Margot Kinberg has written a very thoughtful blog post over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist about some of the more difficult questions raised in this discussion (such as why graphic depictions of violence sell). It’s well worth a read.
Update, 9 February: Thanks to author J.J. Marsh for alerting me to her excellent discussion with author Frances di Plino entitled ‘Feminists and crime fiction – an odd couple?’.
STRONG WOMEN IN CRIME